On finding a sense of belonging… (Part 2)

“The cure for pain is in the pain.” (Rumi)

Adjusting to a new cultural environment is full of challenges. It could be described as a journey through the joy of discovery and its polarity – heartbreaking loss.  It has also been defined in terms of emotional stages.

The first stage or “honeymoon period” is filled with our initial excitement, motivation, curiosity and eagerness to learn. Once the novelty has worn off, though, reality catches up and our focus shifts to the differences in our new culture.

As the period of “culture shock” hits us, we experience feelings of hostility and irritation triggered by homesickness, stress, a sense of helplessness and frustration. However, if we have the appropriate support we will get over the initial shock and gradually feel more comfortable and less isolated as we become more familiar with our surroundings and language. As our acceptance grows we can re-introduce some light-heartedness into our lives and gradually move on to the final stage of integration feeling “at home”.

Although the feelings described here are natural and normal, it is a broad, simplified description of a person’s experience. Many factors can make our experience more or less difficult. The reasons we moved, where we move to, our age and our status can all have an impact. As described in last week’s blog, not having had help and/or sufficient self-support as children or adolescents with the integration and adjustment may leave us emotionally stuck in adulthood.

The leaving process is one of separation, sadness and confusion. Friends and family members may feel angry with us. They may start to exclude us from future events leaving us feeling rejected and resentful towards them. We may experience a sense of powerlessness. Perhaps we didn’t have anyone to share our feelings with because our family “didn’t do feelings”. Perhaps we felt guilty about having the feelings in the first place, not wanting to disappoint our parents or seem ungrateful. Perhaps we were told to “be strong”. Whatever the reason we learned to cope by avoiding the pain and focusing on the anticipated new life, and denying our feelings of sadness, rejection and resentment. But grief does not go away and resentment often turns into anger.

The actual transitional stage of setting up in a new country or culture is marked by further chaos as we try and understand what is happening to us and around us. The insecurities of each family member impacts on everyone involved. Inevitable disappointments can create a sense of panic and feelings of frustration and helplessness. All our energy is focused on learning a new language and relearning basic life lessons again – and this affects our self-esteem. We may start to question our achievements, feel invisible and insignificant. People who left their home culture as babies may have never actively learned their mother tongue making meaningful communication with the extended family and deeper bonding impossible.

Rather than fully participating in what our new life has to offer we may feel a bit like an observer or outsider, more like “playing the part”, always checking how we are doing and whether we are “acceptable”. We feel ashamed when we get it “wrong” and never quite seem to fit in socially. We don’t seem to “get it”, whatever “it” is. Relationships and friendships are already established within the new community and we may feel there is no space for us. We begin to withdraw and as both isolation and alienation grow we feel increasingly lonely and angry. The past seems gone and the present is not what we had hoped for. We feel like foreigners in what used to be our home country. Connections with family and friends across countries slowly deteriorate.

A client of mine described his life like “being stuck in a constant catching up with education and building of meaningful relationships”, like he was still a teenager. He had moved countries three times in the first 23 years of his life, every time at a crucial developmental stage as a 18 months old baby, a teenager and young adult. His parents who struggled with their own cultural and language adjustment were unable to provide him with the necessary support. Moving countries later in adulthood was his way of denying his depressive feelings but once settled he would find himself once again in a dark and lonely place. It is only by identifying the immense losses in his young life that he was able to connect with the deep sadness within him. As he allowed himself to grieve he learned to manage the sadness without getting overwhelmed, finding greater appreciation and acceptance of his present life in return.