The expat adjustment life cycle…..

7 Mar

An explanation of why you feel fantastic at times, and downright crap at others!

Now I’m no psychologist but the cycle of highs and lows you experience as an expat is common to expats the world over. I’ve have done quite a bit of research in this because I did feel like I was going slightly crazy at times, I thankfully wasn’t and was grateful that I was not the only one going through great and hard times.

I like to break the cycle down to five main stages (I’ve amalgamated a few different articles and stages that I’ve read about) – preparation, honeymoon, hostility, adaptation and integration. Now not everyone will go through these stages the same way, you may repeat stages, but you are unlikely to skip one altogether. There is no timescale for this cycle as it is very personal to you and dependent on your personality type, coping strategies, life situation and available support.

Preparation – Remember the feeling of excitement when you knew you’d be coming to live in Germany, followed by the overwhelming list of things that have to be done before you leave. Most anxieties are tucked away whilst you focus on packing, finishing work, planning your new life, only to surface at the goodbyes to family and friends, when your move becomes ‘real’. The second guessing may surprise you, watching your worldy belongings start their trip to Germany, leaving you in an empty house ‘am I doing the right thing?’. Excitement takes over as your leaving becomes imminent and by the time your plane lands, your next phase begins.

Honeymoon – Wow your new home is wonderful, full of new shiny toys and a first time for everything. This excitement makes even unpacking and going back to work things to look forward to and enjoy, everyday is full of achievement. You also start making your initial adjustments to living in Germany, ‘how quaint that the shops are closed on Sunday, more time for bike rides in the sun’, everyday is an adventure and you love to share this new life with your family and friends back home.

Hostility/Culture shock – The first times have now become routine. The realization that you are now living a regular life, just in Germany, and the things that you once found adorable are now merely annoying. Cultural differences become more apparent, waiting for the green man, queuing and staring to name a few of my favourites. Feeling overwhelmed and annoyed that everyone around you seems to know exactly what to do, and you don’t. This is not a feeling that most adults will be familiar with and this frustration can manifest itself in many ways, anger, resentment and a general feeling of wanting to get back on a plane to the homeland.

The ‘I hate Germanys’ as I like to call them are common to all German expats, and whilst there is no known cure, acknowledging the symptoms and developing a coping strategy will assist your survival. A cup of tea and some English telly, skyping with your best mate, gin, bitching with another expat and getting some exercise are all great ways, I find, to help me get back to a happier place.

Homesickness is hard, but the first time you realize that you are now out of the loop is harder, your family and friends don’t want to trouble you with their problems, but all you want is to feel normal and, less like they’ve forgotten about you and less isolated. It is hard for non expats to understand that your life may not always be peachy, to them you are on one long adventurous holiday, so make some expat friends and let the whining commence.

Adaptation/Acceptance – Small changes happen almost without you noticing, you take your bottles back to the shop for the deposit, you always have enough milk (even on a long weekend) etc You begin to understand the ‘German way’ and accept that this is just the way things are here, for better or worse ‘When in Erlangen…’

You will be building a social network, settling into your work and picking up the language. You will be less phased by surprises and more able to laugh at the moments that in the previous phase would have made you cry and hide under the duvet with chocolate.

Integration/home – Integration is very personal to you, some people place the emphasis on learning the language, others on excelling at work or having a large social circle. Personally I felt integrated when I considered Erlangen my home, England will always be my ‘home, home’ but I love where I live (welcome to the ‘I love Germanys’) and feel a connection to this place that I didn’t expect to ever feel towards a temporary home.

Most articles on this subject show a nice U shaped curve from honeymoon, down to hostility, travelling back up through adaptation to integration which ends at the same or higher level than honeymoon. It’s a good guide but I have yet to find anyone who went through the cycle so smoothly, mine was probably more corkscrew in shape, and it’s still ongoing.

As I said there is no hard and fast rule for how and when you will experience these stages. It can feel like the boundaries are constantly shifting like sand, and they are, but you’re an expat, and expats are flexible, adaptable, knowledgable people. We know that somedays we will check what the price of the next flight home too many times and devour way too much Cadburys chocolate and the next spend an age looking at houses for sale in our new home city and contemplating spending half a wage packet on a new bike. There will always be something about Germany that I have yet to learn and a something new to find amazing or annoying, that’s life, and not everyone gets the opportunity to try this life out, be an adventurer and make the most of it.


4 Responses to “The expat adjustment life cycle…..”


  1. Why it should be called ‘attitude adjustment’ and NOT ‘culture shock’ | The Erlangen Expat - May 6, 2014

    […] would a little run differently than it had done in the UK. At this point I hadn’t heard of the expat adjustment life cycle which was a good and a bad thing, I’m all for being prepared, but a little information can […]

  2. The expat adjustment lifecycle…. | Starting Over In Stuttgart - July 18, 2014

    […] published on The Erlangen Expat March 7th […]

  3. The Expat Adjustment Cycle | Young Germany - April 14, 2015

    […] post was originally published on The Erlangen Expat and was used here with permission of the […]

  4. Expat Life: Culture Shock or Attitude Adjustment? | Young Germany - June 16, 2015

    […] would a little run differently than it had done in the UK. At this point I hadn’t heard of the expat adjustment life cycle which was a good and a bad thing, I’m all for being prepared, but a little information can […]

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