Dealing with reverse culture shock

One thing you can be sure: just as culture shock is a thing, reverse culture shock is just as real. When we move to a new country, everything is new, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and we end up feeling lost, left out, insecure, and oftentimes missing our home country. Over there, we know exactly how things work, we are comfortable with the system, and we are confident on how to handle it all. Well, that can be the case once you leave your country of origin, but not true any more once you return after a while abroad.

This is because you can’t live abroad and expect to return as the same person. The lenses through which you view your “home” has been polished or scratched, upgraded or downgraded. In either way, these lenses have forever changed. But why does it happen?

Because we expect a “home” that has not changed. We hold into the image of the country and the life that we left behind. But the place that you thought you were returning to doesn’t exist anymore, except in your memories. You’ve changed and the people there also changed. This gap of life that happened in between your departure and your return can leave you confused, expecting things to be exactly the same. But it’s a new life, a new you, and a new place. The question is: how will you manage this feeling?

Well, first things first: what the hell is culture or reverse culture shock?

Culture shock is the feeling that we have when we move to a new country and everything is new. We don’t understand the language, the way people behave, the way they interact with each other. The sense of humour is different, the food is different, the way people show affection might also be quite divergent from what you are used to. This makes us uncomfortable, confused, insecure, and often makes us miss home. Adapting to this new culture might take time, as much as understanding how you can position yourself in this new place, take up bits of this new way of being and mix up with your own culture, personality and identity.

Right. Got it! What about reverse culture shock?

Quite simply, it’s the same difficulty to integrate but this time in your own country, your own culture, after spending a long time abroad.

Whether you are going back to visit your loved ones on a vacation or you are repatriating, meaning, deciding to live in your country of origin again, the reverse culture shock is real. Even though I haven’t moved back permanently to my country of origin, I do experience reverse culture shock when visiting it. And that’s why today I will share a few tips on how to manage this new situation.

How does reverse culture shock feel?

Based on my own experiences and many of my clients, it feels weird. But wait, that’s not all I have to say about it. In fact, I’ve prepared a list of the most overwhelming feelings when being back to your country of origin:

  1. Being able to understand the people around you. This doesn't sound like a really extraordinary thing, but when you’ve been living abroad for so long, in a country where you still don’t master the language, going back home and being able to understand everything that people say around you can be quite interesting. It’s like you've been given back one of your senses. Although definitely not the same, it feels like a child who's able to hear for the first time (have you ever seen one of these cute videos?). It’s amazing. To me, it always felt a bit funny actually to be able to hear other people’s conversations. But that can be also quite overwhelming, especially if you come from a super extroverted culture (like mine) but you are in fact a more introverted person.

  2. Not being able to express yourself in your own language. That’s a tough one. Sometimes the words don’t come to mind, you stumble to find the right expressions, and people around you might think you are a show-off by using words in other languages, feeling superior because you live abroad. But the struggle is real! As much as not understanding the new expressions in your country anymore.

  3. Realizing how much your daily habits have changed. When visiting home, I realize how much I am used to walking and moving my body in my daily life. Not having a car where I live in Germany is also a good excuse to explore the city on foot and just exercise. But when I go back to Brazil, everything has to be done by car and that makes me feel unhealthy and out of shape.

  4. Talking about unhealthy: food. When you live abroad you dream about being reunited with all of your favourite foods. Finally, when you are back to your native country, you might feel the impulse to eat them all at once. But more than the feeling of being unhealthy with your eating habits, you might also realize that those foods are not your favourite anymore.

  5. Seeing how the environment can influence you. This is a quite strong one. Once we are back to the country we were born, raised, or lived most of our life, we might quite fast fall back into old behaviours, feelings and thought patterns. Depending on your life experiences there, as well as the country’s culture, your old challenges might return. Being in the presence of people who used to know you back then might also influence you to fall into these old patterns of comparing yourself to others. In my case, this was about body image. Being from a country that values external beauty so much and has a specific "ideal body" and physical appearance standards, being back used to stir up some feelings of insecurity. With time, I’ve managed to catch these thoughts when they happen and to position myself with confidence, but that only happened after much self-work and practice, going hand in hand with developing confidence in myself, no matter where I am living now.

  6. Connected to that: realizing how much your style has changed. Every time I am back home, I realize how the way I dress and show up in the world has changed. The experience of living abroad helped me to identify my real style, the clothes and accessories that I like to use and that make me feel like myself. Rather than falling into the trap of fashion or "other people are using it, so must I" (which is quite strong in Brazil, where some people change their wardrobe every year to match with the new season's colour, patterns, etc), I am much more confident to just use what I like and feel comfortable with. If I want to use sneakers where everyone is wearing high heels, I will. If I don't want to use makeup, I won't. If I want to have my messy natural hair, I will. AND THAT FEELS GREAT!

I am sure you might have many other items to add to this list. But you might also be thinking: “right, so how do I deal with reverse culture shock?”. Well, here are a few tips:

1. Practice self-care also when travelling.

Well, not so literally like this GIF... But do make sure to take time to yourself too instead of dedicating every single minute of your time to others. Avoid the impulse to schedule every minute of your day with other people. Remember that you deserve to rest and recharge otherwise you won’t be able to enjoy your time with your loved ones as much, especially considering how emotional draining reverse culture shock can be. If you need, schedule the time for self-care in your agenda.

2. Avoid the arrogant position of "I’ve changed, they stayed the same".

I see this statement SO MUCH on blogs, Instagram posts, and even from clients: the idea that while we are living and learning abroad, the people back home are just stuck in time. Always remember that everyone is changing all the time! This is not exclusive to you, to your life. People living in your country of origin also had loads of experiences that impacted who they are and how they live life, whether they show it or not. The people you will meet when you go back are not the same people you’ve known, as you are not the same person. Although I strongly believe that cultural exchange (therefore, living abroad) is one of the biggest forms of self-development, it’s a trap to think that you are the only one who’s changed. By cultivating this thought, you are putting people in a box just as it happens to you when you move to a new country. And that certainly doesn’t feel good, does it?

3. Acknowledge that there are things you can’t control.

Whereas there are many things that might be different, there are some that might feel the same. But remember you are not responsible to change them and that your way is not better (or worse). We cannot assume that what we believe is good now is also good for them and honestly, there is nothing you need to fix. As much as you, the people back there are also whole and complete beings. Accept people as they are and respect their way of being, living, thinking. Take these moments when it feels difficult to be back as a reality check because many times when living abroad we fantasize about how things are back in our country of origin and end up creating fake memories about how they really are. This is a great opportunity to generate gratitude and happiness which you can bring to your new country, to your new life.

Finally, remember that coping with reverse culture shock takes time and practice. Eventually, as you grow stronger and more confident, you will find a sense of self in your old place. You’ll feel more confident and assure about how your "new you" look, act and live. And because you are confident, your friends and family will also recognize, accept and love this new you. As you grow in your journey abroad, you will realize that the best version of yourself is not attached to your country of origin, neither to your life in a new country. It depends only on you. And with that, culture or reverse culture shock will be easier to manage.

If you need help to discover who you are in a new country and dealing with culture and reverse culture shock, book here a FREE first session with me!

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