As immigrants and expats, many of us are familiar with the phrase "culture shock," and the various phases to which it refers: the honeymoon phase, when everything is wonderful; the rejection phase, when everything is terrible; the regression phase, when the grass is oh-so-much greener back home; the recovery phase, when the new life begins to feel normal; and, finally, reverse culture shock, when you feel like a fish out of water when visiting home.
But, what determines whether or not one will be successful in navigating these phases, or why one person may linger in them longer than another?
From the moment life begins we are faced with one adjustment to make after another. Each new task challenges our state of being as well as provides an opportunity for continued growth, new skills, and enhanced self-esteem. When the crisis is mastered, we reach a plateau, or a relatively calm state of being where the new competencies are utilized and enjoyed. Of course, some challenges are met with more success than others.
Some of us are simply born with irritable personalities that make life's challenges feel especially overwhelming. Sometimes there are environmental inadequacies early in life that make it more difficult for an individual to develop a foundation of competencies required to master future challenges.
The same basic principles apply to the navigation of culture shock. The better your history of meeting challenges in life, the easier it is to adapt to new situations. Conversely, if you have been burdened with too many psychic traumas earlier in life, you may struggle more with the phases of culture shock.
For some, the stresses of life are more than challenging tasks; they are destructive attacks on one's very self. What humans naturally do when attacked is defend. We all have our own favorite defensive tactics that we employ under times of stress, whether consciously or not. Some fight back, some run for cover, some pretend it isn't happening, some blame themselves, and, so on.
Defenses, when used properly, are necessary and healthy aspects of personality. However, if your need to protect yourself from stress takes precedence over your drive to meet the demands of real life, coping begins to break down.
Culture shock reactions are forms of psychological defense mechanisms. Becoming more aware of stress and stress reactions can help to ease the experience of culture shock. By consciously recalling successful coping experiences from the past, you can call upon the confidence that you do in fact carry around a bag of coping tools to meet this challenge.
At the same time be open to the possibility that even if some of the necessary tools are lacking, you have enough of a foundation to enable you to tolerate this crisis while you continue to build up your supply of coping skills on your way to the next plateau.