Faith, Travel Stories

Navigating reverse culture shock

I’m sitting in a diner booth, third cup of coffee in front of me, my sister across the table, my Dad beside me. I’m shivering. It’s 80 degrees outside but inside the air-conditioning is cranked to a chilly 65. It’s my second day home and I’m feeling a little off-kilter.

A few days ago I was sitting outside at a bustling Brasserie in Paris, ordering my favorite salade chevre and feeling the vibration of one of my favorite cities. I was sitting in the grass overlooking Montmartre and using my limited French to barter for a cold beer (Three euros for one? I don’t think so). A few days ago I was untethered, free, alone. And I was loving every second.
Montmartre, Paris 2014

To be honest, being home doesn’t feel comfortable or easy. When I look at the size of the plates filled with fried food and the people holding them, it’s a little bit disorienting. Everything in Middle America seems larger than life and excessive. Why do our highways have so many lanes? Why is everyone driving a 4×4 pick-up truck? Why is my family so smothering and over eager to spend every single second with me?

This train of thought and its negative slant could go on forever if I fail to give myself and others the grace to make this transition.

The first time I experienced reverse culture shock, I was a fresh faced 19 year old, returning home after four months of living in Mexico. I felt alive with adventure and new love; I had no idea what was waiting for me when I returned. When it was time to go home, the grief and loss I felt in saying goodbye hit me like an avalanche.
TheBarefootBeatMy favorite city in Mexico, Guanajuato 2007

Naively, I plunged myself into a multitude of transitions headlong. I signed up for summer classes at my University, started two new jobs, and isolated myself from friends and family while trying to maintain a long-distance and cross-cultural relationship. I created the perfect storm for myself by not paying attention to my own emotional needs or allowing time to process.

It’s no surprise I fell flat on my face and laid there for awhile, with no tools or resources to pick myself up off the ground.

Now, I’m coming home after being away for 14 months. I’ve traveled through five countries and three continents. I’ve lost, and loved, and danced with joy. I’ve cried, and missed, and given from a place I didn’t even know I had. My heart has been split open in the best way possible. I’m not entirely sure how to communicate or explain this to the people sitting across from me in the corner booth.

Knowing my past history, and the intense depression navigating reverse culture shock triggered the first time, I did not want to repeat this brutal re-entry a second time.

I’ve been home for two weeks now and it has been rocky. It’s been full of tears, and frustration, and lots of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. It’s been immensely challenging, but there’s a difference this time around: I’m embracing the difficult instead of avoiding it. I’m allowing myself to absorb the shock instead of ignoring it.

If you’re navigating a similar life transition or struggling with reverse culture shock, here are some things I’ve learned that might help:

1) Don’t make any plans.

The first week I was home, I tried to stay on the dl. Only my immediate family knew I was home, taking away the pressure of seeing friends and being inundated with phone calls the second I was home. (Not having a phone helps, too). Practice being incognito and evading those pesky questions you don’t have the answers to yet.

Blame jet lag, or malaria, or whatever. The point is, give yourself time to process your experiences and grieve the loss of your journey, all the while knowing you’re really only beginning a new chapter.

Focusing on unpacking and organizing my stuff took all of my attention for the first few days. It makes me miss living out of a backpack!

2) Demonstrate self-compassion.

When dealing with any kind of loss, whether it’s the loss of a job, autonomy, a relationship, or a dream, it’s normal to revert to unhealthy habits and behaviors. While I’d love to be the type to channel all of my energy and time into healthy activities like rejuvenating my yoga practice or writing a novel, the truth is I’m more likely to be found still in bed in my pajamas at 3pm in the afternoon watching another episode of “How I Met Your Mother.”

Over the last two weeks I’ve consumed a lot of alcohol. I’ve eaten an entire bag of peanut butter M&M’s in one sitting (with help!), and I haven’t quit smoking yet. I realize these are not the best coping mechanisms, but I also know they are only temporary. I’m not advocating self-destruction, but I am saying it’s okay to let yourself go a little bit while your emotions catch up to reality. Transition is hard and judging yourself for how you deal with it is only going to prolong the process.
Ice cream is never a bad idea, right?
Chicago, USA 2011

3) Surround yourself with a good support system

It’s important not to isolate yourself during this time of ice-cream eating reminiscence. You may not feel ready to face the entire world, but reach out to a few close friends or family who can accept you just as you are. Let them know you’re struggling and let them be a shoulder to cry on. Keep in touch with the friends you made during your travels and relive some of the memories. They’ll know better than anyone what you’re going through and they can help validate the experiences you had while you work on shifting your attention to a new reality.
TheBarefootBeatStay in touch with your travel buddies and let them know how you’re doing.
Workaway pals in Lorient, France 2013

4) Reflect

Moving through a state of shock and into Wholeness requires reflection. If you’ve kept journals and taken photos of your journey, spend some time going through them. Allow yourself to pay homage to the memories. Laugh, cry, create, write. Take your favorite bits and pieces from the places you’ve been and find a way to incorporate them into the Present. Buy a nice bottle of French wine, wear a favorite piece of jewelry you bought at a market in Morocco, listen to the song that used to drive you crazy when it was played every single day in Ghana (I’m talking about you, Tonga).TheBarefootBeat
A Workaway in France, this was one of my favorite places to quietly reflect on my travels during the last month before I came home.
Luzy, France 2014

5) Move beyond the moping

You’ll know when it’s time to get off the couch. It might be after a few weeks, but it shouldn’t be before a few days. Start small. Take yourself for a picnic in the park, put on your favorite outfit, cook a nice meal. Do one thing every day that gets you out of the house and engaged with others. Call a few close friends and let them know you’re back in town and would like to catch up. Ease back into a routine that feels comfortable instead of chaotic.

6) Honor your new self

Travel changes who you are. Whether you studied abroad for a semester, volunteered for a few weeks in a developing country, or just returned from an around the world trip like I did, you are not the same person you were when you left. I think this is one of the hardest things to reconcile when coming home. One of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver puts it like this, “There’s such a gulf between yourself and who you were then, but people speak to that other person and it answers; it’s like having a stranger as a house guest in your own skin.”

You’ve shed an old skin and are now living in a newer, more vulnerable skin. Since this transformation has taken place out of sight and in your heart, a lot of people simply won’t get it. It’s easier to relate to the life transformations we can see on the outside: having a new baby, getting married, starting a new career. When transformation happens beyond the physical, it’s hard for many people to relate. It’s not something tangible that they can see. It can feel uncomfortable, even for you.
Take a moment to stand still amid the busyness of every day life.
Momentary reflections in The Bean, Chicago USA 2011

Be patient and hold fast to the new person you’ve become. Don’t blame others if it takes them awhile to recognize and accept the new you. Give honor to the person you had to be before you could move forward in your journey, and then let her go. This might mean establishing new boundaries in your personal and professional life. It might mean re-ordering your priorities based on the new person you’ve become. Whatever lessons you’ve learned during your journey, internalize them and allow them to become a part of your daily life.

Fear tells us we are not fluid, but rigid beings. Love tells us we are limitless and filled with Light. Don’t try to live in your old skin. Be protective of the new skin you’ve developed. It might feel naked and unfamiliar at first, but give yourself and others the grace to learn to love it, too.

7) Embrace the Now

Transition can feel like a prison cell. It can feel like nothing is happening while you’re locked in this place of waiting for freedom. The four walls of your mind can seem bare and cold and hopeless. Trust the in-betweens of life. Trust that you are already free from the constraints of time and loss. Embrace the now. Embrace the Present, just as you learned to do during your travels. Ask yourself what is to be learned from this period of transition, and lean into the impatience and pain of the bud waiting to bloom. You are not alone. You will bloom.
Embracing the arrival of Spring in Barbiers, France 2014

Have you experienced reverse culture shock? What was your experience like? Drop a comment below, I’d love to hear from you! 

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  • Reply Rick May 26, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    It’s tough, isn’t it? But sometimes even travelling can present us with hard challenges. This to say that it’s ok to give it ago, but also that nobody forces you there if you don’t want to.
    I’ve tried to go back home after 4 years away but I didn’t resist long, I simply no longer belong there. Each story is different but I think that awkwardness of being “home” and not feeling home is quite the fil rouge…
    Rick recently posted…Liebster Award NominationMy Profile

    • Reply Mariah May 28, 2014 at 12:14 am

      Thanks for stopping by Rick! Wow, four years of traveling, that’s quite a lot! Yeah, I guess that feeling of “belonging” hasn’t really caught up to me yet. I catch glimpses of it in different places, but it never quite lasts. Oh well, on to the next adventure! 🙂

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