Top strategies to identify and deal with “expat fatigue”

Camel fatigue

Expat fatigue isn’t one of those things like the stomach flu, where you know it when you’ve got it. If it were, it would be fairly obvious how to identify and deal with it. Instead expat fatigue has this sneaky habit of flying under the radar.

If your excitement for being in a new place has ever taken a nose dive into intense frustration or listless exasperation, you may be experiencing expat fatigue.

Sure, expat fatigue is expected and natural outcome of adapting to a new place. Left unchecked, however, this may be a form of self-sabotage. When you allow yourself or your loved ones to get consumed by expat fatigue, you hijack the very sense of adventure that inspired your expatriate life in the first place. What is really at risk? The expatriate assignment, important relationships and one´s own happiness. These are high stakes.

I don´t want this to happen to you. That is why I am going to share with you the ins and outs of expat fatigue so you can know what it is, be able to spot when it starts creeping in and have a handful of strategies at your fingertips to be able to deal with it successfully.

Name the Beast

Road rage on the way home from work. Refusal to learn the local language. Religiously stirring up evening cocktails. Gut-wrenching homesickness. On their own, none seem to point in an obvious direction, but when you recognize the name of the beast you are facing, you are better able to cope with it. Dr. Dan Siegel of Mindsight calls this strategy, “Name it to tame it.” By knowing the signs of expat fatigue, you are better positioned to get out of it.

Let me share with you my “name” for expat fatigue so you can get on with taming the beast.

Expat fatigue is intimately woven with the process of adapting to a new culture. It may begin with culture shock, that initial discomfort or disorientation when you are in unfamiliar waters. This initial blow to the system is just one of the many steps along the winding and bumpy road of adaptation. After the jolt of the unfamiliar fades, cultural fatigue may set in. You can think of it as the long-term impact of being in a culturally different environment. David L. Szanton’s often quoted definition gets at the heart of this:

Cultural Fatigue is the physical and emotional exhaustion that almost invariably results from the infinite series of minute adjustments required for long-term survival in an alien culture. (1)

David Szanton goes on to name the demanding nature of suspending our default responses, including how we evaluate something, and the tiring effort required to constantly adapt our approach. Szanton is straightforward, “conscious or unconscious, successful, or unsuccessful [this process] consumes an enormous amount of energy leaving the individual decidedly fatigued.”

Throw this hefty extension of energy upon a layer of fatigue from the cyclical nature of expat life (i.e. prepare to leave, say painful good byes, pack, leave, arrive, unpack, meet new people, adjust, find a routine – rinse and repeat), and voilà! You´ve got expat fatigue.

Tame the Beast

If you want to deal with expat fatigue effectively, you will want to have laser-like focus. Cross-cultural psychologists Ward, Bochner, and Furnham (2) help us simplify the complex process of adapting to a new or unfamiliar cultural environment by breaking it down to the ABCs (Affect, Behaviour, and Cognition).

A is for Affect: Pay attention to your feelings.

What to look out for: Take note when you feel confused, anxious or feel isolated. You might experience the overwhelming desire to simply be somewhere else or catch yourself flipping out at relatively minor incidents. Be careful if you notice these red flags appearing at an increasing frequency. Pay attention if your body is screaming at you in the form of sleep or digestive problems, or a dramatic loss of appetite. Letting any of these tendencies go may lead down a dangerous path to depression.

Try this: I hate to state the obvious but taking care of your health and well-being should be your top priority. This means enough rest, exercise and excellent nutrition. Seems simple enough, right? It’s not. Think of how many people struggle with eating well and sleeping enough in a non-expat context!

• Focus on your health so you can regain strength and clarity. It is imperative.
• Try slowing down how quickly or intensely you dive into the unfamiliar.
• Be creative in building “safe havens” of familiarity once a week.

Who knows! Adding in time to eat comfort foods on the sofa with a feel-good movie may be just what you need.

B is for Behaviour: Pay attention to your actions.

What to look out for: When we are in a new cultural context our “natural” behaviour may not always fit in. You know this when you come across as awkward or even inappropriate. (Arg…I hate it when that happens!). This can be draining on so many levels. What is simple for the locals (say, driving in erratic traffic and waiting in line at the bank or even greeting people) ends up requiring a huge extension of your patience or effort. Going through your days feeling like you are always “messing up” or that everything you do is a momentous challenge takes a toll.

It is time to take note when you notice a dramatic change in your self-confidence or assertiveness. Maybe your leadership style suddenly includes “giving up” or “giving in.” You may even find yourself privately making insulting comments about the locals (especially in the car!). A downslide in work performance, refusal to speak the local language or a gradual yet increasing dependency on alcohol are all signs to watch out for.

Try this:

  • Seek to understand the “whys” behind local practices
  • Seek out credible resources to increase your cultural understanding.
  • Identify low-risk opportunities for you to try out new behaviours and get feedback.
  • Take detailed notes of what you are learning (such as new words in the local language or the best way to negotiate at the market). Refer to these often to celebrate your progress.

C is for Cognition: Pay attention to your thoughts.

This is hands down the most complex and least straightforward aspect. You may start feeling worn down and not be able to identify exactly why. Keep in mind that when you are in the middle of adapting to a place that is significantly different from your familiar stomping grounds, you may discover that the way you see the world, how you see yourself or the groups that you belong is being challenged.

What to look out for: You suddenly notice that how you have typically seen yourself is not how others see you – and it troubles you. Maybe you go from thinking of yourself as middle-class to being seen as rich, from being an American to called a “foreigner”, from a colleague on equal footing to someone of lower (or higher) status.

Shifts like these can spur emotions like guilt, shock, confusion or even frustration.

Try this: Know that when you start grappling with big topics like identity, nationality, poverty, injustice, equality, and generally “what is right and wrong”, it is a sign that you are developing.

• When something new is being presented to you, find out how you can learn from it.
• Take the opportunity to learn more about your own culture. What are my main values? My core assumptions? What did I see as “normal” that isn’t shared by my new community?

Expat fatigue is a mirror of resilience

If you are feeling the effects of expat fatigue, it is time to seriously think about your current level of resiliency. Don´t get close to the breaking point.

Instead, ask yourself these 3 important questions:

• What isn’t working anymore that needs to change?
• What strategies am I using right now that are unhealthy in the long run?
• What is one small thing I can do this week to make things a bit better?

Now it is your turn. What is the number one thing that brings you down the most about expat life? Share it in the comments section of my blog.

Sundae Schneider-Bean is an intercultural specialist, coach and trainer based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (West Africa) who helps individuals and organizations meet their toughest intercultural challenges with clarity, strength and wisdom.

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