The most of us who call themselves expatriate women, decide to live abroad do so not because life abroad is easy, but because we typically love the stimulation of a challenge.
Expat life is an adventure. We learn to overcome the worst of the tough times, so that we can better appreciate the best of the good times.
Some of us quit their job and followed their heart to join their Greek husband (like me), some of us follow their own carrier and the others are following their husband on his work assignment abroad. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of women living overseas are neither pampered by housekeepers, nor shielded from the stresses of adapting to life in a foreign culture. Daily tasks abroad can feel one hundred times more difficult to accomplish than back home, and life feels anything but easy and carefree.
Regardless to which category they belong, these women are grappling with the loss of their career, identity and support network back home. They are losing their ability to maintain their Wonder Woman façade – a persona they have likely worked hard to cultivate for years – and that can hurt.
How to turn the alienation of foreign living into a personal growth.
It doesn't make any difference how many times we’ve traveled or moved to a new or familiar location, culture shock is usually following close behind. Once it hits, we can become very confused, leading us to believe that things are spiraling out of control. If we have an understanding of the process, however, and realize that it’s a normal and healthy process, our awareness and acceptance of our struggles increases; we are able to make sense out of the mountain of symptoms. It also gives us a light at the end of the tunnel, encouraging us to persevere to the next stage and ultimately become more integrated with our new environment.
Adler, an American psychologist explains that culture shock has two sides: alienation and personal-growth.
Alienation comes from not fitting in and brings with it feelings of isolation, confusion and awkwardness. It’s like showing up to a party where all the social rules have changed. Simple things like introducing yourself or asking for another drink can become surprisingly confusing and frustrating. You feel like you stick out and begin to feel a lot of eyes on you everywhere you go, or perhaps the exact opposite, you feel invisible.
Personal-growth is the other side. It’s the inner reward we harvest from all the pain that comes with foreign living. It goes far beyond simply gaining a deeper understanding of another culture or learning how to survive in a foreign land. It’s about gaining new insights about your-self. It’s about being exposed to our hidden values and assumptions, which often go unnoticed in our home culture.
Take my example; 15 years ago I quit my job as a shipping executive in order to follow my heart and join my Greek husband in his home country. Having lost my independence, my previous identity has been shattered and the new roles of a mother and a wife, although made me very happy, had been difficult to adopt. Without the support of my family and friends, language difficulties and cultural differences were wearing me down. These put me on a path of a personal growth which gradually led me to become a professional counsellor and psychotherapist. The personal challenges that I was experiencing driven me to a personal and professional growth; despite the struggle or I would say because of it! Just like anything worth doing, it didn’t come easy.
The personal growth process is slow and steady. Adler explains the five stages of culture shock that we go through in the process of adaptation to a life abroad:
Stage 1: Contact
Fresh off the plane and still very much connected to our own culture, we start to only recognize very surface level differences (e.g., cars driving on the opposite side). These differences are very exciting but they do not reach a deeper level: our values, identity, and status. We concentrate mostly on similarities, causing us minimal frustrations, and navigating things like language barriers or public transportation become exciting adventures.
Stage 2: Disintegration
The high starts to wear off. We slowly start to notice more differences than similarities, and the differences hit us at deeper levels. Even if we speak the same language as our host country, we start to realize we aren’t able to predict social interactions like our home culture. We’re not sure how our actions will be interpreted and we aren’t sure what to make of other people’s actions. Our entire identity and value system is being challenged. As a result, our high is replaced with frustration and feelings of isolation.
Stage 3: Reintegration
In this stage, we start to negatively judge and reject our host culture. We seek shelter by connecting only with others from our home culture and engage in blaming the host culture for our struggles. We put up defenses by over generalizing, stereotyping, and viewing things in black and white. We become very rigid with our thinking, and in some ways adopt an “us” versus “them” mentality.
Stage 4: Autonomy
We start to loosen up, becoming more flexible in our thinking. We start to accept that we can have our feet in a couple of cultures at the same time, begin to let down our defenses and develop successful coping skills. Though we don’t have a complete understanding of the host culture (but who really even understand their own culture fully?), we understand it well enough to begin to successfully interact with others and our predictions become more accurate.
Stage 5: Independence
We have finally found our balance, letting go of stereotypes and generalizations for coping. Instead, we are able to trust our host culture and ourselves more, recognizing we are all individuals being influenced and shaped by culture. Our identity is no longer dependent on the rejection of our host culture and the clinging to our home culture, but rather open to the world and its influences on our “self”. We have a deeper understanding of our own values and a better ability to recognize and challenge our assumptions. As Adler says, “Where an individual is independent, he or she is capable of experiential learning that is holistically incorporated into identity, while at the same time capable of again having preconceptions, assumptions, values, and attitudes challenged.”
We can sometimes try to convince ourselves and others that we are invincible, immune to struggles and negative emotions. There are a number of women among us who are afraid to appear anything less than perfectly well-adjusted. This is dangerous and a great way to not get the most out of our time abroad. It’s important not to look at these stages as something to race through, ignore, or even worse: pretend that we have arrived at the last stage when in fact we are far from it. Instead, sit with each stage and be aware of what you’re feeling. Accept the things you don’t understand, find outlets that work for you and get help if you need it.
Of course, not all expatriate women struggle and not all who struggle do so all of the time. Expatriate life, for women and for men, is a balance of both good times and bad times. The more openly we discuss both aspects; we become better adjusted and integrated not only into the society but as human beings as well. Integrated personality is a characteristic of psychologically healthy individuals.
Based on my personal experience and professional training I am now facilitating encounter groups of foreign women were we share and learn from each other in an open, friendly and safe environment