The Four Stages of Culture Shock - And Where I Currently Stand
Updated: Feb 3
Well, the honeymoon phase is officially starting to wear off -- and it's Official with a capital O. If I hadn't already done my own reading on the four stages of culture shock, I'd probably think something was wrong with me. It turns out: I'm just in the middle of a huge transition. I've mentioned my way around this process before, and I've provided strategies to handle moving from the highs into the lows. But, nothing so pointed as the road map I now hold in front of me.
I want to use this opportunity of Where I'm At to provide support for others who may also be experiencing any one of the stages of culture shock. I'm here with you and I understand, I promise. Without further ado:
The Honeymoon Stage. In this stage, you may be enamored with life and cultural traditions in your new home. Everything may be bright and shiny, similar to being in a new romantic relationship. From my reading, I've gathered that this is actually an adrenaline-imposed survival mechanism to get you through massive change. This has been true in my experience - the hot air balloons, new products at the grocery store (in multiple languages!), the castles. All of these have softened the blow of leaving a country of people I love, and given me a lens to view this new country in.
The Frustration Stage. In this stage, you may experience frustration, anxiety, depression, or a general feeling of malaise. All of the shiny new things begin to lose their luster - although in my case, I'm still enamored with Vilnius's hot air balloons. The soft edges may give way to some dominating sharp edges, and you may find yourself second-guessing your new home. Other potential feelings: fatigue, crash, loneliness, not feeling understood, and irritation. Being in this phase right now (spoiler alert, y'all!), I've observed I have shrinking patience for the new. All this really means is that I have to display more grace with myself and others on a day-to-day basis. A language barrier can encourage feelings of loneliness and impatience, so give yourself grace during this stage. Locals will do their best to meet you halfway. In my case, I've already created new friendships and have other local and virtual expats who understand my current stage. If you find yourself alone without this resource, I recommend reaching out to an online expat community, as well as a therapist. Because I'm a musician, I also highly recommend music therapy as a medium, whatever that means for you -- creating new playlists, singing loudly in the shower, playing guitar, or listening to your favorite radio station from back home. Music and art may help you immensely through this stage.
The Adjustment Stage. Eventually, you may stop feeling the compounding frustration of signing up for a new life. You may even begin to feel excited again about castles, hot air balloons, and strong pagan undertones in a mildly Christian culture - ha, is that just me!? If I'm honest, I fleetingly tiptoe into this Adjustment Stage, even with my current stronghold in the storm of the Unknown. Because I understand everything is temporary, I welcome this adjustment, but I also don't have impressions of ease or misguided optimism - just a small amount of relief. Very little about moving to a new country is easy. But, at this stage, you may begin to create even more meaningful connections, get into an internal groove, or take an active role in the world around you. I feel it is really important to iterate that the Frustration Stage isn't bad, and this stage isn't better in any way. The less you attach values, the freer you will feel in the next stage of your process.
The Acceptance Stage. And, this leaves us with the stage of acceptance. I personally don't expect to be here for a long time, although I welcome higher timelines on this. This may look like a feeling of home or belonging, rather than an outsider looking into a new culture. The word that comes to mind here is integration. However, if you're currently in this stage, I'd recommend keeping a flexible mind, because my internal nudge says that things may not automatically ease up for you. You are still a human being going through a huge transition, and the other side may look completely different from what you expected. Be open to the changes that await you on the other side.
While these are the main stages of culture shock, my intuitive impression is that you may die a thousand tiny deaths on your way to integration. And to that point, are we not always integrating and growing? Use these stages as guidelines, but not concrete rules. I really hope learning more about the four stages of culture shock - and their current relationship to my journey - gives you a better understanding of what to expect.
Sending love on your journey, wherever you are on it! You've got this!
Photo of the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius, one of the beautiful pieces of architecture and history supporting me during my time in the Frustration Stage: