I primarily see expats in our practice in Copenhagen and I’ve noticed some links between clients’ concerns and their expat-related experiences in Denmark.
In addition to the stressors often involved in relocating, such as finding child care or a new job, figuring out banks, traffic, taxes and health services, expats also struggle with a set of challenges related to social and language differences.
We may laugh at the term “dead-eyed Dane” or an apparent lack of queuing etiquette. However, a problem with these and similar situations is that over time they can become something that – at least for some -- is not easily laughed off. They become insults, or “micro-aggressions”, and can eventually be experienced as personal attacks.
Expats may also struggle with social isolation. We often hear that Danes are kind enough, but primarily in their own friend groups, perhaps established in childhood. And that breaking into such groups can be quite difficult. Similarly, our Danish hosts, though quite capable of speaking English, may revert back to Danish when in company with other Danes, even when an expat who does not speak the local language is present.
Such difficulties may lead a person to become more sensitive to the opinions of others. Sensitivity to others’ thoughts about us can lead to further isolation, as we begin to interpret these differing customs as unfriendly or critical.
The experience of exclusion leads to feelings of isolation. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy where we start to behave according to how we anticipate people will think. Rather than integrating into the new culture, we become isolated and start to overthink things.
Very often the isolation and overthinking leads to feelings of loneliness and not belonging. This is when we start to notice our mood going down. Many expats struggle at this time and start to question their move to Denmark.
The unique set of stressors that expats often are faced with worsen a vicious circle. The expat is around a lot of strangers, and is perhaps seen as even more difficult to communicate with because of language difficulties or culturally bound norms that are misunderstood; the person picks up on these misunderstandings and feels even worse.
These interactions are felt more deeply, exactly because the unspoken expectation is something different. We may expect that others recognize our existence by a nod, a smile, a moment’s eye-contact. You may expect that common courtesy demands that you say “hi”, and give you eye-contact at the check-out counter. When this is missing, it feels off, and we feel off; as if things are not quite right.
Some react with confusion, some with anger, and others with wondering what they themselves may have done to cause this. For some, these interactions become confirmations that something is wrong.
The assortment of stressors related to the move, the adjustment to a new language and culture, cause some to think “there must be something wrong with me”. This self-criticism can consist of recriminations around not being able to find a job, not being able to communicate properly, and are often vague ideas of not being good enough.
If you see yourself in any of this, or know someone struggling, please consider doing something about it.
There are things you can do to begin to change how you feel and think. Try to find other expats to talk to. Seek out the meet-ups and other social opportunities such as volunteering. Consider starting an exercise routine, try meditation or attend yoga classes. But most of all, exercise how you think about what is going on.
Consider the idea that it is not you, but instead the differing expectations of how people normally behave. Writing a daily diary of the situations that tend to trigger you can be really helpful, and something we often suggest to our clients. Such a diary could include: 1. A short paragraph about what happened; 2. How it made you feel; 3. How it made you think. This last one might have a focus on how it caused you to think negatively about yourself.
Finally, should none of this work, or you feel things have gotten much more serious, and you can’t handle it on your own, then please do get in contact with a professional such as your medical doctor or a psychologist.
Peter McFarlane is a native of both the US and Denmark and has been an expat for most of his life. After 25 years in the United States, including completing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Ohio University, Peter returned to Copenhagen, where he is a partner at the MacFarlane Psychology Group, a practice offering psychotherapy in English.