Moving Your Life Abroad: The Five Stages of Adjustment and How You Can Smooth Your Transition

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As in any big life change – be it the loss of a loved one or moving to a different continent – you will go through an adjustment period before settling into your new life. When you make the choice to move to a different country with a different culture and way of life, you will go through this cycle of adjustment regardless of how well you thought out your decision and planned for your big life change. You are a person, and when the things in your life that make you feel at home – people, places, activities, to name a few – are suddenly gone, you will grieve. And then life will go on.

The first few months are always the hardest. Just because you are four months into your life in a new place and you feel depressed does not mean you made a mistake. It’s not a personal failing on your part either. It just means you are a human going through a period of adjustment. Knowing what this adjustment progression looks like and how it is likely to play out in your life will help you transition smoothly, knowing that acceptance and integration into your new life is on its way.

  1. Honeymoon Period

When you first arrive in your new life, you will likely find yourself ecstatic. Everything will be fresh and new. Your new job, your new home, your new life will all be exciting and interesting. Adrenaline will guide you through the hardest period of this initial burst of change. Much like the shock that accompanies the first stage of grief, the honeymoon period acts as a survival mechanism as you interface with the massive changes in your life.

  1. Stage of Culture Shock

When the haze of the honeymoon phase wears off, you are likely to find yourself facing culture shock. You are in a new place, with a new language and culture. Many people describe this stage as feeling like a child again, and it is exhausting. In every interaction, you will have to work harder to understand and be understood. Even if you arrived knowing the language, you will have to learn a new accent. Not being able to express yourself as your used to causes feelings of frustration and loneliness. Getting lost in your new location is common. If you have come over as a student or to work with an advanced degree or license, you will likely have to go back to school, make up classes to fill in the gaps between educational systems, or get relicensed for something you have been doing for many years. Your standard of living is likely to take a dive, recovering from the expenses of your transition and having to repeat education and get relicensed or certified. In many ways, you will find yourself back at square one. You will be beginning your adulthood all over again.

By the time you reach the second stage, you are likely to feel you have made a big mistake. At first, it was great to be in a new place, now you are having profound second thoughts. Don’t panic! This stage will pass. Moving from being in a constant state of wonder and excitement to experiencing the reality of a massive life change is a step in the right direction even if it feels like a step backwards.

  1. Actual Adjustment

While the honeymoon stage was pleasant and exciting, it was not an adjustment. Once you move through culture shock, you begin to adjust to the new culture and your new place in your new life. In this stage, you begin connecting with local people in meaningful ways. You have officially landed in your new life and are ready to tap in to your place in it. This stage comes along more quickly if you are in school or in a workplace. As you make meaningful professional and social connections, you gain a sense of belonging and being needed in your new life. Rather than being new, or a spectator, you take on an active role in the world around you. By now, you will be able to communicate better with those around you and engage in a deeper way.

This is just your first stage of adjustment, and things are about to get hard one more time. Remember, even if the next step feels like a step backwards, you are actually moving towards acceptance and integration, which is the end goal in your transition into your new life.

  1. Isolation Period

As you make your adjustment into your new life in a new place, bewilderment and isolation will set in. This is the period when you start comparing your new life to your life back home. You compare the new culture of your host country to the culture back in your country of origin. You may begin to resent your host culture and feel trapped by it. You may fear that friends and family back in your home country are starting to forget about you as they adjust to your absence. Feeling stuck and out of place are natural aspects of this period of isolation.

This is a stage where it is easy to feel that you’ve made the wrong choice in moving, or that your unhappiness is a personal failing on your part. This is not the case. You are a human being going through a natural progression of adjustment. Depression and isolation are possible aspects of the isolation period.

Reaching out to friends and family is a helpful step in dealing with this stage of adjustment. Sending emails or talking on Skype with old friends and family deeply know you is a great way to stay grounded. Reaching out to friends and coworkers in your new home is also a great way keep things in perspective. It’s always a good idea to seek the advice of people who were where you are now and have progressed to where you want to be. Maybe a friend from your apartment building, or a coworker immigrated to this new country a year before you did. Talk to him or her about it if you can. They will assure you that what you are feeling is normal and you are almost through the woods. Don’t give up on your new life because it is different from your old one. Keep trying.

  1. Stage of Acceptance and Integration

Yes, this stage does exist. This is when you accept your new home for what it is – the good and the bad. You recognize that you have stopped comparing your new country and culture to your country and culture of origin and accept it for what it is. You have built meaningful relationships with friends and coworkers, and you have integrated into your new life. Yes, you will still have bad days and get homesick every once in a while, but for the most part, you will feel content.

The interesting thing about the fifth stage is that many of the most meaningful connections your will have built by this point were the direct result of the harder times. When you reach out for support in times of isolation, you make authentic connections in your time of vulnerability. You and the people who took the time to understand you when you were having trouble communicating earlier on will have deep and complex connections. Your notions of who you are and what concepts like home, culture, and belonging are will be forever changed. One of the most valuable lessons of moving to a new country and building yourself a new life there is humility. This change forces you to completely redefine your notions of who you are.

Of course, this progression is not a precise roadmap or structure for anyone’s personal adjustment. Depending on your motivations and goals in your move, you may experience some but not all of these stages. They may cycle through several times before settling into acceptance. Sometimes, you honestly did make the wrong choice and you honestly are doing something that is blocking you from adjusting. But don’t just jump to these conclusions.   These stages are natural, and it’s important to remember to not make a value judgment of your life, your decision, and yourself as you go through this adaptation.

If you are planning to move to a different country for the long-term or indefinitely, here are some things you can do to ease your transition:

  1. Go to school. Whether it’s a language school, university, a graduate program, or a school to learn a skill like weaving, being in school provides you with purpose and with peers.
  1. Get a job. Oftentimes, travelers can get jobs working in hostels, bars, and restaurants. Be sure to learn about work visa requirements as they vary from country to country, and also vary depending on the skills and knowledge required for your job. You may need to have your educational credentials evaluated to determine the value of your education in terms of your host country’s educational standards. In getting an evaluation, you may be able to avoid having to repeat years of school in your new country to make up the difference between the academic structures of your new country and your country of origin.
  1. Learn the language. If you know you will be moving to a country with a different language than you know, take classes before you get there. Once you arrive, you will have to adjust to a new language and to a new way of hearing it spoken. Take language classes when you get there. This will help you communicate and develop friendships that will help you when you hit periods of isolation. One of the biggest aspects of integration into your new life is the relationships you forge with the people around you. Learn the language and you will be able to express yourself and make connections.

About the Author

Sheila Danzig

Sheila Danzig is the Executive Director of CCI TheDegreePeople.com a Foreign Credentials Evaluation Agency.

For a no charge analysis of any difficult case, RFEs, Denials, or NOIDs, please go to http://www.ccifree.com/?CodeLWA/ or call 800.771.4723. Mention that you saw this in the ILW article and get 72 hour rush service at no charge.

This article was written by Rebecca Little

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