Let’s face it. We’d all rather stay in our comfort zone. Expats are no different in that regard. Picking up our bags and starting a new life somewhere else is of course bold. But it does not necessarily mean that we’re ready to let go of everything we know and instantly become a new version of ourselves. Hello, culture shock!
It’s normal that adapting to a new culture can bring up feelings of resistance and frustration, and increasingly more so as time goes on and we learn more and more about our new country of residence.
Going through the stages of culture shock, we find ourselves comparing what we are used to from before to our new surroundings. But these constant comparisons can get us deeply stuck, not being able to move backwards or forwards.
If you find yourself making comparisons a lot, read on to learn why making comparisons can actually help you deal with culture shock better.
But first, let’s talk about why we make comparisons at all.
Why it’s your baggage that makes it difficult to adapt to a new culture
Moving to live in a foreign country means disconnecting from everything we’re used to and having to start over from a blank canvas. The disorientation experienced from this is precisely what is called culture shock.
The problem is, of course, that people don’t work like memory cards (although wouldn’t that be a nice feature). So we can’t Delete All the files from our memory card and plot in a new culture.
Instead, when we move to a new country we arrive with literal and metaphorical baggage that is very specific to each and every individual.
Now, when I say baggage, I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I mean baggage in the sense that as we move through life, there are different things, skills, ideas, values, routines, ways of behaving and thinking as well as coping mechanisms that we pick up or develop and decide to store in our ‘Personal Baggage’. This happens completely subconsciously.
All of these things together make up who we are. And it plays a huge role in how we respond to what life throws at us. For instance whether we like something or hate something, whether we give up at the first sign of trouble or keep going, and so forth.
Some of the things in our Personal Baggage may be more open to adapting due to external factors, while other things can be such a core part of our identity that not even a category 5 hurricane can uproot that part of us.
Culture shock forces us to become hyper aware of ourselves
Expats also have a Personal Baggage and it’s no different from the Personal Baggage of those who never move abroad. It’s still made up of bits and pieces that we have grown used to, adopted, and experienced over the years.
It’s just that some of those bits and pieces may have come from our experiences in places where we didn’t grow up, but from other countries where we have lived, loved, worked or had our dreams crushed.
What moving abroad and adapting to a new culture does, especially when it’s the first time, is that it forces us to become extra aware of what’s in our Personal Baggage.
For instance, living in Portugal made me realize how much I appreciate people being on time. Living in the UK, New Zealand and Australia made me realize that I prefer people to be straightforward with me. These are things I discovered about myself by living in countries where things were done differently.
Did I struggle because of the differences? Hell yes.
Do I still struggle after several years in the same country? Yes, absolutely.
I felt the absence of these things acutely, although I had no real awareness of their importance to me straight off the bat.
Instead, I found myself reacting negatively to one or another situation, and giving an angry rundown of this or that rude person to anyone I was able to corner into listening to me rant.
You see, our Personal Baggage is a kind of benchmark and standard against which we compare everything else that’s new. The more core something is to how we see ourselves and how we want to live our lives, the stronger our reaction to when something doesn’t match our subconscious expectations.
Living in a foreign country forces us to become aware of everything we like and don’t like, and what this means about who we are as people. Whereas before we may have been able to go through life taking things largely for granted.
Adapting to a new culture is like going through your closet and seeing what clothes still fit you
Adapting to a new culture and going through culture shock is a very personal process. As personal as going through our closet of old t-shirts, jumpers, some tops, and comfortable-as-hell jeans (do those actually exist though?).
Only we can decide what we want to keep, update, exchange or give away. And only we can decide what new items that were never in our closet before we’d like to introduce to it.
Adapting to life in a new country is precisely the same. Culture shock forces us to take stock of everything that we have and whether it serves us well in the country where we’ve decided to live.
Culture shock invites us to ask whether there is space for something new, how that fits with what we already have, or whether the new is something that really doesn’t fit.
It’s important that we go through culture shock consciously and with curiosity – always trying to become aware of all the things we like and dislike about our new country of residence – and in the process also learn more about ourselves and what’s important to us in life.
It’s precisely this process that makes people say that living abroad changes them. Although, often enough we simply move closer to knowing ourselves better and living accordingly.
So, whenever we start comparing where we live to what we used to take for granted in our lives, we should be paying extra attention to what we’re reacting to and why.
Comparisons give us clues about who we are, and what matters to us as individuals. Maybe these just turn out to be fun facts about ourselves and there really isn’t anything we need to do about it.
But maybe the comparisons that we get stuck in actually give us huge clues about what is missing from our lives and potentially making us unhappy.
3 things to remember to stop making comparisons and start adapting to a new culture
1. The fit between our Personal Baggage and where we live makes us go through culture shock to different degrees. This baggage is made up of personality traits, abilities, preferences, values, experiences, habits. We take this baggage everywhere we go and it determines how we react to what life throws at us, and how debilitating the culture shock stages become. Some of the baggage is more open to change and adaptation, while other parts are rock solid. Trying to change or adapt those core parts of us are a surefire path to a life of misery.
2. Pay attention to what you’re making comparisons about. When we start comparing our new surroundings with what we’re used to from before, we should be paying attention to what these say about ourselves and sort through our baggage asking yourself – is this just a fun difference or is this something important to me? Is this potentially something that I’m (not) open to adapting/adopting for a meaningful life?
3. Comparisons are not a bad thing, but it can be detrimental to living a meaningful life in a foreign country. Comparing everything and anything when you move to a foreign country is a normal culture shock stage. It’s a way of making sense of the new surroundings. My point is that it’s also a way of making sense what is important to us as individuals. However, getting stuck in making comparisons means that we are failing to heed the messages our comparisons are trying to send us about who we are and what would make us (more) happy. Ignoring those messages means that we can get stuck in culture shock for much longer than we need to.
Let me know in the comments – what are some of the comparisons you often find yourself making?