I don’t like who I have become. I didn’t used to be like this. I don’t recognize myself.
In my clinical practice, I hear phrases like these repeatedly from international clients, and particularly from men. Attempting to make a new life in Sweden seems to be especially harsh on a man’s sense of self. This may occur, in part, because men have traditionally defined themselves based on feedback they receive from the environment in response to their actions. In the simplest terms, you put yourself out there, others respond positively to what you have done, and you feel competent and secure in who you are.
When your efforts do not lead to positive responses from the outside world, which is too often the case in an effort to build a new life in Sweden, you begin to lose that at-home feeling within yourself. For many, the very same competencies that were sources of pride and success in the past go over like lead balloons in Sweden. Over time, the repeated negative feedback can lead you to re-evaluate your very self.
To understand this struggle better it may be helpful to describe how the self-concept develops early in life. A sense of knowing oneself grows gradually out of a loving relationship with a reliable caregiver. Parenting functions as a mirror, providing essential feedback to the infant about his or her inner urges and desires. Babies simply feel and want, unable to make sense of it until mother or father responds with some action, words, facial expression, etc.
This consistent interchange of the baby’s raw emotion and the caregiver’s sensitive responding is the foundation of what will become the baby’s sense of knowing him or herself. If the care-giving is positive and supportive other abilities develop such as trust, patience and confidence.
Caregivers can also be insensitive or too harsh or critical in their responses to a child’s needs. Under these circumstances the self-image becomes a reflection of those negative messages, resulting in a negative self-image. When this has been the case, we are vulnerable to psychological difficulties later in life.
In childhood, external feedback was critical to your developing sense of self. In adulthood, this feedback should be in the category of wants (it would be nice) rather than needs (but I can survive and prosper without it). If you have come to believe that you cannot survive without this feedback, you may be dealing with deficits from the critical periods of infancy and childhood that are influencing your here-and-now adult life.
Surviving the wear and tear that your self-concept endures in Sweden may be the true test of your self-image. Be careful not to internalize the feedback you are receiving from the environment, because in many respects Sweden can be like the “bad” parent, with too many rejecting messages. You may have to be your own good parent. Work more consciously to access positive thoughts about yourself if you are not receiving this feedback in your surroundings. Define and differentiate your inner experience of yourself from the self that you have become, that is to say, Sweden’s idea of you that is mirrored back to you in your daily attempts to build a satisfying life for yourself here.