Mastering your Expat Life by Enhancing your Intercultural Resilience

Self-coaching is possible for everybody. Conquer your stress and culture shock by enhancing your intercultural resilience. Easy strategies will help you manage challenging times in your life abroad.

Have you ever thought about the key factors contributing to your happiness during your expat journey and life abroad?

Do you contemplate how to navigate through culture shock or enhance your cross-cultural success after being relocated to a foreign country?

Have you ever feared returning home earlier than planned or felt apprehensive about “failing” in your life abroad?

If any of these thoughts resonate with you, rest assured that you are not alone. Most expatriates, commonly referred to as expats, share similar concerns and anxieties. In this article, you will discover how to

  • transform stress and culture shock into greater resilience
  • improve your self-care in a life abroad
  • coach yourself to prevent expat burnout
  • train your interculture adaption abilities and resilience
  • make the most of your expat experience

The Inevitable Challenges of Expat Life

Living abroad is not always a walk in the park. Experiencing culture shock and facing difficulties in adapting to a new environment are part of the typical journey. A culture shock is the normal and necessary process as one becomes aware of the differences in customs and initially loses familiar social habits. Succeeding in your job abroad, establishing a structured daily routine, and having trustworthy friends, will support the adaptation process. However, even then, one is unfortunately not immune to experiencing culture shock.

In challenging times, negative thoughts and stress may keep you awake at night. Occasionally, the fear of failure can lead to regretting your decision to relocate. You may question whether you can really cope with all the struggles, such as making new friends or achieving professional success, as you had envisioned. Perhaps you contemplate whether returning home and being in a familiar surround, sooner rather than later, would be a better choice.

What is Intercultural Resilience

Resilience refers to the ability to cope with crises, utilizing psychological, personal, and social resources to grow amidst challenges. The term originates from the Latin word ‘resalire,’ meaning to bounce back. Resilience can be thought of as the mental immune system, so to speak. Intercultural resilience, therefore, pertains to the dynamic ability to overcome cultural challenges, adapt to cultural changes, and learn and grow from them.

An example: You can surely recall a time, a day, a moment when you were filled with optimism. In optimistic times, people excel at creating long lists of small and big successes, being aware of challenges already mastered, and assessing their (intercultural) competencies positively. Optimism is one facet of resilience. An optimistic mindset contributes to your resilience and, among other things, helps you deal with culture shock.

Resilience has many facets

The elaborated models of resilience consider psychosocial characteristics, physiological and neurobiological processes, as well as gene-environment interactions as influencing factors. Resilience is thus a rather complex concept. Some components are inherent in our personality. Many facets can be nurtured, trained, and strengthened.

Research findings indicate that individuals with a higher level of resilience are better able to handle unforeseen challenging situations, adapt to environmental changes, and recover more quickly from adverse events. Resilience is both content- and context-specific, meaning that one may have developed resilience for one type of challenge but possibly not yet for another. 

Resilience means more than just strength

It’s important not to confuse resilience with constant strength and unwavering toughness. Even individuals who have faced difficulties can build high resilience. After all, the wind doesn’t immediately topple a tree; it strengthens its roots. So, even if you feel depressed because everything in your life as an expatriate and in your foreign environment seems overwhelmingly complicated, even if you’re contemplating giving up your expat experience to return to a familiar and comfortable setting, and even if tears and suffering have become part of your daily routine, it doesn’t mean you lack resilience overall. Fears, homesickness, depression, confusion, and anger can all be normal components of culture shock and necessary adaptation.

Resilience is trainable

Thus, resilience is dynamic and can change over time. For example, significant life events can impact our resilience and temporarily reduce our ability to cope with stress. And what is a move abroad if not a significant event? At the same time, this understanding of the malleability of resilience also means that our protective factors can be built or enhanced. There are entire prevention programs based on stress theory models that address this.

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything
Vincent van Gogh

How to improve cross-cultural resilience and agility

By now, you understand that stress, emotional hurdles, and experiences of failure are part of the expatlife and the process of relocating to a foreign country. There will be times when you feel fully capable of handling these challenges and other times when you feel overwhelmed and drained of energy. Sometimes, the strategies you relied on in the past may no longer be effective. The interaction of people with different cultural backgrounds often triggers significant uncertainty, but one can learn to embrace more uncertainty, ambiguity, and contradiction instead of seeking security. Have you considered seeking psychological- or expat coaching to cope with these challenges? It’s understandable why some individuals initially attempt to manage their adaptation on their own before seeking external assistance.

What self-coaching strategies can you implement to enhance your cross-cultural success?

How can you strengthen your resilience and thrive in your new cultural environment?

Remember, regardless of where you currently stand, you have the ability to improve your resilience and regain inner strength, self-confidence, and a sense of belonging in this new culture.

To assist you in this process, I have categorized the strategies into three groups of skills that you are capable of integrating into your days. Strategies for Self-reflection, Mindfulness, and Mentoring

A. Self-reflection

  • Be self-supportive:

Write down 5 reminders about why you embarked on this expat experience. Recall the reasons that motivated you in the first place and remind yourself of the potential benefits and personal growth awaiting you.

  • Be future focused:

Write down 5 things you want to achieve during your time abroad. Categorize these goals into different time perspectives, such as the next six months or the coming year.

  • Find meaning:

Ask yourself how you can learn and grow from this experience. Consider the valuable lessons and personal development opportunities.

  • Equalize:

Whenever you find yourself being overly critical of yourself or feeling down, counterbalance those negative thoughts with equalizing thoughts. Recall moments when somebody smiled at you, times when you felt satisfied with your accomplishment, or instances when others complimented you.

B. Mindfulness

  • Cultivate awareness:

Take 2-3 minutes each day to consciously engage your senses. For example, pay attention to the physical sensations, tastes, smells, appearances, and sounds while brushing your teeth. This mindful practice can help you stay present, grounded, and connected to the present moment.

  • Foster curiosity:

Embrace a curious mindset when encountering unfamiliar situations. Ask yourself different w-questions to gain insight into cultural dynamics. For example, describe for yourself, what a person Specifically said or did. Explore why a person reacted in a certain way based on their cultural background. Observe how others react to specific behaviors.

  • Be kind to yourself:

Everybody hurts sometimes. Acknowledge that strong emotions are normal and do not equate failing. In moments of distress, choose a self-soothing gesture and offer yourself the same compassionate words of comfort you would extend to a friend in need. Self-soothing gestures can be the following: Give yourself a hug, place both hands on your heart, place one hand on your heart and one on your gut, or place one hand on your forehead and one on your heart.

  • Practice familiar traditions:

Cultivate a sense of familiarity and comfort by regularly practicing familiar traditions such as cooking your favorite recipes from home, indulging in your hobbies, or enjoying movie nights with films from your childhood.

C. Mentoring

  • Never stop learning:

Expand your knowledge about the cultural history and cultural norms of your host country by reading, watching videos, visiting museums.

  • Enhance language skills:

Even if you already possess strong language skills, it’s crucial to continuously improve to evade intercultural misunderstandings. Consider enrolling in language classes tailored to your skill level, watching movies or listening to radio programs. Ask native speakers about idioms and sayings.

  • Story sharing:

Talk to natives of your host country who have lived in or traveled to your home country to explore similarities and differences in experiences.

  • Mentoring:

See a mentor through your company or supporting agency. Ideally, mentoring should start in your home country with a mentor who has cultural experience in the host country, and who has been an expat, digital nomad, or exchange student themselves.

  • Role modeling:

Identify and learn from individuals whose expat life experiences you admire, whether they are friends, your bosses, or other expats.

Unleashing your Intercultural Resilience: A Pathway to Expat Success

You can do it! Get it on! Now is an awesome time to start coaching yourself!

Coaching yourself in developing intercultural resilience for your expat life is beneficial for navigating the challenges, coping with culture shock, and maximizing the benefits of living abroad. By understanding the nature of expatriate experiences, acknowledging the ups and downs, and recognizing that resilience is not about always staying strong but rising again after difficult times, you can better equip yourself for success. The strategies discussed, such as self-reflection, mindfulness, and mentoring, provide practical ways to improve your cross-cultural resilience and agility. Remember, no matter where you currently stand, you have the power to strengthen your resilience, boost self-confidence, and find a sense of belonging in your expat journey or life abroad. With determination and a willingness to learn and grow, you can transform your expat experience into a fulfilling and enriching chapter of your life. 

 Last updated on 17JAN2024 

    If you’re in need of guidance and support as you navigate the challenges of expatriation, don’t hesitate to reach out. As a coach specialized in this area, I’m here to offer assistance and support, helping you thrive with resilience, emotional balance, and self-confidence in your new cultural environment. Feel free to contact me to explore how I can support you on your expatriation journey.

    Hi, I am Sarah. It is my passion to learn and teach about human thinking, emotions, and behavior.

    Sarah Eisenacher

    Expat Coach and Psychologist (PhD)

    References

    –  American Psychological Association (2022, May): Resilience. https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience (retrieved: 06-08-2023).

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    – Fleming J, Ledogar RJ. Resilience, an Evolving Concept: A Review of Literature Relevant to Aboriginal Research. Pimatisiwin, 2008;6(2):7-23.

    – France, T., Booysen, L., & Baron, C. (2019). Cross-cultural professional experiences of female expatriates: Finding success through agility, resilience, and essential relationships. Cross Cultural & Strategic Management, 26(4), 522–545. https://doi.org/10.1108/CCSM-05-2018-0062

    – Simonsen, S. H. (2007). Turning Strain into Strength: Developing Intercultural

    Resilience in times of Cultural Adversity. Unpublished manuscript. Downloaded from stockhomresilience.org

    – Steven, R., Southwick, M. Bonanno, G. A., Masten, A. S., Panter-Brick, C., Yehuda, R. Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives. Eur J Psychotraumatol., 2014; 5: 10. doi:3402/ejpt.v5.25338.

    – Wu, G., Feder, A., Cohen, H., Kim, J., Calderon, S., Charney, D., Mathé, A., Understanding resilience. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 2013. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00010.

    – Van Der Zee KI, Ali AJ, Haaksma I. Determinants of effective coping with cultural transition among expatriate children and adolescents. Anxiety Stress Coping. 2007 Mar;20(1):25-45. doi: 10.1080/10615800601032781.

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