Tips for adapting to another culture and increasing your self-awareness

By Carla Camargo in partnernship with Differänce Intercultural Consultants

Living abroad is an experience that can bring a lot of learning, not only about another culture in itself; but mainly about yourself and your own beliefs.

When we moved from Brazil to The Netherlands, it was difficult for me to adapt to my new reality. I couldn't disconnect from my past and kept thinking about the things that no longer existed in my life, for example:

• I didn’t have a cleaning lady to help me take care of the house. Before moving, I didn’t give value to this kind of work, I didn’t even know how to cook decent food! My line of thinking was, “Why did I study so much to be here cleaning the house?”

• I no longer had a successful job that challenged me and made me feel useful. I remember thinking, “Who am I now without my job? How can I occupy myself and do something that brings me purpose and a sense of value?”

• I stopped earning my own income; I was terrified to ask for money for my husband to buy the things I liked. I thought, “What if he keeps controlling everything I want to buy? Where is the freedom and autonomy I had before?

• I felt alone. It was difficult to make new friends, especially the ones that were fluent in English. I would tell myself, “My English isn’t good enough. They can’t understand what I say.” I missed my friends and family terribly.

• I had difficulties with my kids, especially my daughter. She was very emotional and aggressive. I used to think, “Now that I have all this time for them, they don’t talk to me anymore.”

There are so many topics about cultural transition that are worth exploring; self-esteem, self-worth, belonging, money, kids, and so on. For me, I realized I was not accepting the new situation. I was focused on all the negative aspects, and I saw how attached I was to my former job, my friends and family, my home, and my old lifestyle.

When I was thinking about what I no longer had, I couldn't let it go... Even worse, I wasn’t able to see the new opportunities that were awaiting me, and I wasn’t living my new life fully—in the present moment. Once I recognized that these negative thought patterns weren’t helping me, I was able to see how many beautiful new things were available to me. There were so many new opportunities to explore and experience if I just opened myself up to them.

Adapting to another culture is a process, it is not something that happens from one day to the next. People react differently depending on their own life experiences. For example, the first international move is more challenging because it is the first time you leave your comfort zone and experience that first “shock”. The following experiences may be easier because you already have an idea about what challenges lie ahead and have learned a lot from the first experience.

Regardless of where a person is born, their culture – the ideas, customs, and social behavior – will inevitably affect the way he or she acts and thinks along with his or her life. The way we see the world is significantly influenced by our culture and the language we speak.

Different cultures have different ways of communicating and each has its pros and cons. No culture is any better or worse than another. As we see the world through the lens of our culture and our own perceptions, this can cause a lot of misunderstandings and judgments about others.

Because we see the world through our unique cultural lenses, we expect other people to act and think the way we do. It’s no surprise then that cultural misunderstandings significantly impact someone’s adaptation in another country. Since culture is so deeply ingrained, it can be hard to realize that your way of viewing things isn’t the only way.

Therefore, a good way to understand another culture is to better understand your own beliefs, especially the ones that you might not have ever questioned. If you are moving to another country, it can be an amazing opportunity to boost your self-awareness and open yourself up to new perspectives. 

Here are some tips for dealing with the cultural adaptation process:

1.    Work on acceptance and recognize your thoughts patterns

People will react differently in a transition process. Some love change and thrive on it. Others do their very best just to cope with and survive. And others will do everything possible to avoid change. It depends on each person’s particular moment in life and their past experiences. A great deal of resistance to change comes from the perspective in which we see the situation.

 For those who have gone through a transition to another culture, you know how stressful and difficult the adaptation process can be. Acceptance is directly linked to your level of consciousness and clearly seeing what it is in the moment; utilizing non-judgment and simply recognizing the situation, the person, yourself, whatever is happening, as it is. Unfortunately, most of us don't deal well with pain, and we often react in non-constructive ways. 

Our thoughts can lead us to very unpleasant feelings that do not help us move forward. Often, the more we think about a situation we do not agree with, the more negative emotions we feel and with that, we fall into a "trap." It is a vicious cycle that only increases the size of the pain or problem.

Acceptance means you allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling at the moment. You don’t "fight" or "resist" what is going on or try to change what has already happened. You won't stay lost in your own sorrowful thoughts, wishing it had gone differently, and you won't try to change someone to be the way you think this person should be. Accepting means you won't negate something you don't like in yourself, and you won’t beat yourself up for not having done something in a better way.

 When your mind is occupied with all these thoughts, your energy is not fully available for the present moment, impairing your current performance. Once you accept what it is or what you’ve already been through, you can develop your improvement strategies.

As Wayne Dyer says: “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Acceptance doesn’t come immediately. This is a long and complex process and once you understand it, the easier it will be to manage your thoughts patterns along the journey. It is normal for people to resist in the beginning; they need some time to release and detach from the past; they need time to reflect until they are open to evaluating new possibilities.

Some examples of a typical thought pattern that people go through until accepting a new culture or place:

• I'm feeling miserable in this place, there's nothing I can do to change things. People don’t understand me. I feel so lonely.

• I hate and feel angry about what's going on, I hate this situation, I hate my new life.

• I tolerate this new life; I can cope with this new activity/home/place even though I don’t like it much.

• I'm going to find a way to make this change work for me and for my family. My family needs me, and I will do everything to support them.

• What new opportunities are there in this change for me? 

2.    Let it Go / Work with your attachments

It is really difficult to make a change or to settle into a new place or situation when we are still so attached to our old lives; things, ideas, and the people that we used to spend time with.

For example, you may have been raised in a traditional family with strong religious beliefs and due to this “domestication” process, you may believe that only what you learned is the “correct” way to live and see the world. The process of accepting yourself and others can be affected by this. If someone has a different habit or point of view from you and you are so attached to your own belief, you may automatically judge the other person unable to listen or accept a different point of view. If we are so attached to our own beliefs, we may not see other possible opportunities available for us.

 Our ideas and beliefs are part of who we are, and if we chose to identify ourselves totally with them, it can impact our sense of self-importance and self-worth. Therefore, in a transition process, it is really important to identify our strongest attachments. We can start with materials ones which can be easier, and move to the beliefs that can be holding us back from moving our lives forward.

A possible exercise to support you in this process and increase awareness is: Make a list of the material things that would be maddening to lose and choose one.

• Does it relate to your personality?

• Your sense of value?

• What sense of security does this item give you?

• How does the item boast your “ego” and why is that so important? Explore youremotions.

• How would your life be without it?

• Who would you be without it?

Now, think about some strong beliefs you have about life or yourself.

• Is this idea causing you to “play it safe”?

• Did you alter your behavior because of this idea?

• How much do you judge others when they don’t think in the same way as you do about this idea?

• Are you attached to a particular role you play?

Again, ask yourself:

• Who would you be if you didn’t hold on to the idea or role?

• How does this affect your personal freedom?

 Most people will discover that there are different levels of attachments according to the situation and that most people, including myself, feel fear or pain when imagining losing the things with which we have strong ties. This is normal. There is no right or wrong answer.

The question is, can you let go of some of these “attachments”?

Simply being aware of our own attachments releases the power they have over us and allows us to be more open to seeing things from a different perspective.

3.    Question your values and beliefs

Values are the principles by which you live – which are a product of your past experiences. Values are the deepest desires of your heart for how you want to behave like a human being. The values are not about what you want to get or achieve; they are about how you want to behave or act continuously.

When you move to another country and start living new experiences and observe the way people behave; you can also start to reflect on your own values and beliefs. Do they still make sense? Do the values of this new culture make sense for you? 

Having the experience of living abroad makes us change our perspective. What was really important before may not have the same level of importance anymore. You may start to value things differently and with a different priority.

What can you learn and do differently from what you did in your country?

4.    Practice Empathy and reflect before judging others

Next time you are in a situation with someone from another cultural background and are confused by something the person did, resist the temptation to judge the behavior by your own cultural viewpoint. Instead, consider how this behavior might make sense within the context of the person’s culture.

Also, why not ask the person why he did what he did? This will help you handle the situation better in the future, and you might learn something new.

 In summary, when meeting and interacting with people from other cultures, you can start recognizing differences in points of view and identify new perspectives on your own beliefs and behaviors that you never questioned before. This can really boost your self-awareness and be a rewarding experience!

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