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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Culture shock

And then, one day, reality comes crashing! Just like that! The honeymoon is over, and what was experienced as charming, quirky or quaint idiosyncrasies, now appears tedious, annoying and even depressing. In fact, many expats develop signs of depression or expat blues at this stage; and as such, it becomes extremely challenging to remain positive, explorative and open to meeting new people and ammodating to local standards and ways of living which are all crucial at this stage of settling in.

Whereas moving abroad may have seemed like an opportunity to start afresh; in this phase, most realise that everyday life isn’t much better in another country. If anything, it may be more challenging. As one client put it:

It feels like my gremlins have unpacked themselves.

They have come to haunt me with increased force

now, that I’m away from my usual environment.

And I no longer know how to keep them a bay.

If you feel blue about your move and are interested in getting my free guide on overcoming expat blues, you can sign up for my newsletter here to receive the guide in your inbox.

Many people living away from home feel that their usual strategies and defence mechanisms no longer serve them as well as they used to and as such, they start to feel lost at sea. At this stage, one’s personal values can seem of significant importance as well as seem relentlessly tested; and many expats speak of an identity crisis feeling perplexed of their role, their sense of self and agency in the world.

In my personal as well as therapeutic experience, I find that how we deal with this phase tends to be related to our style of attachment. Attachment theorist John Bowlby proposed that for survival, infants have an innate ability to form attachment, a deep emotional bond, to their primary carer, most often the mother/mother figure.

If the mother or other primary carer is sensitive and responsive to the needs of their infant, the child will grow up with a strong sense of a secure base from which they will be able to explore the world as well as return to when needed, if upset or anxious. People with secure attachments tend to be able to better regulate their emotions, are more emphatic towards themselves and others, as well as benefit from fundamental trust in other people’s intentions. As such, they tend to adjust well to new circumstances, including life in another country. They may experience loneliness and homesickness, but rest in knowing that life is good and trustworthy, that relationships back home are intact, and that new attachments can be formed to positively enhance the experience of living in a foreign country.

If, however, an infant, toddler or child and teen has not had their needs met sufficiently, but has experienced largely mis-tuned, dismissive, distant or intrusive carers, they might develop what is called an insecure attachment style - of which there are three: avoidant, ambivalent and disorganised; the first two to be superficially mentioned below.

Some have fearful-avoidant attachment styles and though craving intimacy and close relationships, the overwhelming sense of risk in relation to being dismissed or even abandoned makes it seem dangerous to truly connect with (new) people. Expats with this attachment style often find relief in living far away from loved ones as contact is less anxiety inducing; however, it may also mean that lots of energy is spent worrying if relationships back home will survive the distance. Adding to that, making new friends can be difficult and in protecting oneself from disappointment, one can feel isolated.

Others may be ambivalent attached suffering from separation anxiety; and for such expats, the settling in phase can prove extremely difficult as one may experience a strong and persistent yearning for life back home making it difficult to create a meaningful new life. Also, some people find the ambivalent attached person's persistent attempts to quickly become close friends and to constantly seek validation of the blooming friendship exhausting - therefore, it can be difficult to make new friendships; obviously also dependent on the attachment style of the person the ambivalent attached expat is trying to befriend.

Securely attached people tend to attract each other just as well as insecurely attached often attract others with an insecure attachment style - in fact, it's quite common to see ambivalent and avoidant people being drawn to each other as they feed off the other's way of conducting themselves emotionally. This is what is at stake for many romantic couples, but it also appears in friendships. Over time, it can be a great source of grief and frustration.

For both of these insecure attachement styles, there's a more or less constant heightened stress respons to meeting new people, worrying about connections and depleting one's energy ressources working on making friends and settling into one's new life. It can be utterly exhausting and rather than being the exciting adventure one had hope for, it can be rightout depressing.

Most of us display elements of all attachments styles; however, many people are not aware of their attachment style and as such, they don't necessarily understand the dynamics between themselves and the people around them which can be a significant factor in not being able to make friends abroad.

Gaining awareness alone is not necessarily helpful, but is definitely an important first step towards bettering one's chances of creating and maintaining solid, emotionally non-volatile, but regulated and meaningful relationships with ourselves and the people around us. Therefore, working with one's attachment style can be hugely beneficial in relation to overcoming the culture shock phase, but also in setting up a rich life with partner, children, friends and family - at home or abroad.

What may be helpful is seeing a therapist with experience of attachment style in connection with expat life. Exploring how early experiences and the lessons learnt from these still influence one’s way of viewing the world and beginning to challenge these beliefs can be useful to living a more authentic and meaningful life.

In my experience, working towards changing one’s attachment blueprint is possible. How your narrative is constructed and/or deconstructed will prove important as will the opportunities for personal growth and change that occur throughout life.

Some of my personal experiences

My personal experience was one of profound homesickness and loneliness; the latter on a much deeper level than I had ever experienced before. Like many others, I started comparing everything with life back home, and where the host country was viewed through rose tinted glasses in the honeymoon phase, everything in my home country now seemed better. I experienced a painful yearning for my old life; and found myself longing for aspects of my life that I had used to feel completely indifferent about or had looked forward to leaving behind. Sometimes, I would look at the clock and imagine what I would be doing if I had still been living my old life.

Picking up my children from the local school, I felt like the odd one out and I was somewhat apprehensive about making contact to the local mums as I was approaching people at the gym, sports events etc. All my insecurities were causing internal havoc.

In hindsight, I realise that I was shifting between the poles of insecure attachment: At times, I’d be in my avoidant self, at other times, in my ambivalent self. This was a very confusing time indeed, but also an opportunity to find new inner strength to grow and develop towards a more secure attachment style.

As time went by, I found that those tendencies declined, but whenever life became challenging, like in the case of my divorce and, some years later, my repatriation case, my homesickness and existential loneliness seemed fueled.

Whilst I was happy to leave some aspects of my life behind me, I soon realised that I needed to confront others. In fact, I found that having moved far away enabled me to look at difficult issues which I hadn’t had the courage to confront at home. Over several years, I experienced depression and anxiety, and only after having had extensive psychological help, including training to become a therapist, did I find a way to make peace with myself and my past to fully embrace my present life. I went from feeling stuck and without any agency to gradually feeling more alive, more present, authentic and true to myself as well as being fully able to enjoy satisfactory relationships be it with colleagues, friends, family, my children and my partner; abroad and back home.

I’m not sure I would ever have embarked on such a powerful, affirmative and life changing journey, had I not moved abroad. For having had the courage to doing just that and to looking deeply into myself, I’ll be eternal grateful.

Tips for dealing with culture shock

Given that each experience of life, and living in a foreign country, is different - and very much depends on one's individual attachment style - it is difficult to make general recommendations as how to deal with this potentially difficult phase of settling in. However, I will say that:

  • Keeping a routine and trying to create a life around your interests and hobbies, preferably meeting new people and remaining open to new experiences are key in successful integration.

  • As is being mindful that when things don't go your way in relation to making new friends or understanding the locals, it may just as well be on yourself and your way of viewing life and relationships through your attachment lense as it may be exactly that of the people you meet. Working on yourself will benefit you in widening your tolerance towards others as well as becoming better at regulating yourself emotionally. Both will enhance your relationships.

  • It’s tempting to seek out friends from one’s home country or from the local expat/immigrant community; and as much as these serve a purpose, can relate to the struggles in this phase of settling in and can turn into lifelong fulfilling friendships, I’d like to encourage everyone to approaching the locals too. Not only does this offer one a sense of belonging in the host country, it offers a unique opportunity to learn more about the cultural values and life in the chosen country, and perhaps most importantly, locals don’t have the same tendency to move on after a couple of years in one place like expats.

  • It's important to acknowledge that it's okay to feel confused, lonely and homesick. These are all normal aspects of the process of living in a foreign country. Your feelings and emotions are trying to teach you something about yourself and your current life situation; be gentle with yourself and try to embrace the positive the best you can as well as look for the changes necessary to start enjoying the adventure of life in a new country.

  • Finally, if you are prepared to work on yourself, you can rest in knowing this is a phase; like grief, you have experienced a loss and need to adapt to a new way of living.

If you are interested in having these tips elaborated alongside receiving many, many more tips on expat life and how to support with your mental health during the other phases, you may be interested in purchasing my comprehensive guide on taking care of your mental health as an expat. You can find the guide here

If you would like to work on your attachment style or are interested in other forms of therapy, please visit my website. Feel free to book in for a free 30 minutes consulation to hear how I can help you.

Game changer


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