Living the Dream

Contributed by Jennifer Patterson, MA, LMFT

You’ve up and done it! You’ve moved away from your home country to shake things up, follow your dream job, pursue a romance, have a great adventure, and see the world. It’s an awesome, awe-inspiring, bold move, and quite unfathomable to some people. As you settle into your new home and start nesting, it’s exciting to realize that you aren’t on vacation, and you don’t have to leave. You meet the days’ challenges of buying groceries and finding your favorite treats with enthusiasm. You start language classes with loads of energy and come up with a study schedule. Everything is new, and exciting, and this is exactly how you wanted it to be!

And then after the month or two, you might find yourself a little cranky. Maybe you feel a little more frustrated, you’re annoyed with yourself because you aren’t picking up the language as quickly as you think you should (more on that later). Going to the butcher shop and the market down the street feels hard and exhausting so you just order a pizza – online, so you don’t have to talk to anyone. You’re tired of not understanding how things work… you finally figured out that you have to take a ticket when you go somewhere that involves a line and waiting, but how do you know if it’s the right ticket?!?!?!

This is the culture shock phase of adjusting to life in a new place. There is a specific cycle of ups and downs that people experience as they adjust to their new home country. Even if you think, “I can handle it, I’m adaptable, I know what to expect”, there is a pretty high chance you will still in some way feel like a fish out of water. Communication issues and feelings of isolation are the most common challenges that people experience, and because we aren’t always good at paying attention to our emotional well-being, these stressors can show up as anxiety and depression. Physical symptoms of these potentially overwhelming feelings include headaches, insomnia, upset stomach, muscle pain, and exhaustion.

So you’ve figured out that you’re stressed out from being exactly where you want to be. Now what? Self-care is the most important thing you can do to help yourself feel more grounded in a place where you are most definitely not grounded. What are the things that you like to do? How can you adapt them to your new home? Find the neighborhood yarn store, and ask if they have a knitting group. Join the local gym and connect with locals there. Use the internet for good, and find the English bookstore in your city and see if they have a book group or other events. It’s important to find out what’s happening in your neighborhood, so you can create opportunities to click with the local culture. It’s hard and scary to put yourself out there, especially when you don’t have a lot of conversational skills in the native tongue. But the more you show up at the local watering hole, café, or restaurant, the more you will be seen by those around you.

Most people who work in the local shops, once they’ve connected that you are living here too, are very kind and patient with your attempts to speak their language. Honing your charades and pantomime skills go a long way and can be a great icebreaker. Don’t be afraid to feel silly! Have a sense of humor about your attempts! And that idea mentioned earlier, that you should be further along in your language skills? Put that to rest. Meet yourself where you are at. Understand that every day is different. Yesterday you may have been really proud of yourself for how well you managed with the language, and today is really hard. That’s okay.

Learning to meet your frustrations with a sense of humor is like accepting the grammar rules in a different language… sometimes it doesn’t make sense, but you agree to remember it and move on to the next lesson. Embrace the quirks, the charm, the quaintness, and the things that are different from what you are used to. And if you need help, ask for it. Every other expat is in some stage of their adaptation and is a great potential resource. And if you need a little more, there are English-speaking therapists and counselors in most major cities around the world.

 Author: Jennifer Patterson, MA, LMFT

Jennifer Patterson is an American trained and licensed psychotherapist and board-certified art therapist living in Lisbon, Portugal. Information about her practice can be found at