Cultural Burnout

Most of us are probably familiar with the idea of burnout in the mental health sense of the word. The idea that you’ve reached a point of mental, physical, emotional (or all of the above) exhaustion so much so that you can’t seem to function properly. It happens when we are forced to be “on” all the time (always working, always caring for someone, always stressing out, etc.). It’s like an overload of information and eventually we can’t seem to take anymore.

Some common signs of burnout are apathy, exhaustion, frustration, feeling like what you do is meaningless or won’t have an impact, depression, and sleep disorders, to name a few. Normally, what we need to do when we’re experiencing burnout is take a break from whatever it is that has pushed us over the edge and set some healthy, firm boundaries to make sure we don’t reach that point again.

Just like we can experience burnout from our jobs, our personal lives, our responsibilities, in my experience, we can also experience “cultural burnout.” I am certain that I didn’t coin this term, but I’ve definitely experienced it myself. If you live cross-culturally, in a different country or culture than your “home” country or culture, you may have experienced it, too. How I would define “cultural burnout” is: the feeling of burnout as caused by the constant need to adapt to and live within a culture that is not completely familiar to you.

I use this phrase of “being on” to refer to experience of having to constantly be on alert, prepared, and thinking about and planning for future interactions and situations. A prime example of this would be the act of preparing a dialogue in your head or practicing what you might say if you’re going to run an errand or have an appointment in a different language. In your home country/culture/language, you’d probably have to prepare less for this sort of thing. You’d walk into the doctor’s office without giving much thought as to how you’d explain your symptoms. You’d go to the post office to mail a letter and you’d know exactly what to say to get the errand done quickly. When functioning in a language that’s not your native language, everything takes a little bit more thought, effort and planning. No wonder you’re exhausted just from doing simple tasks! It’s not a normal or typical experience to put so much mental work into our daily tasks and outings.

Even if you’ve reached a level of being comfortable with the language, anyone who’s learned another language knows that there’s so much more to a language than just the words. It’s the cultural elements of the language that can be so challenging to communicate or understand. After four years of living in Spain and learning and speaking Spanish, I still find myself in situations where the context goes completely over my head and I have no clue what people are talking about. This can be especially challenging for social interactions and relationship building. Foreigners might feel frustrated or hopeless about communicating and expressing themselves; I’ve heard many people say “I feel like I can’t be myself in x language.” Struggling to build community and find friendship in a foreign place can leave us feeling lonely and isolated.

Regardless of how much you love the place you’re living, and despite having no regrets moving to and starting life in this place, there will likely always be aspects of the culture that are hard for you to accept. It’s human nature and it’s normal, because we’ve grown accustomed to and comfortable with how things are done in our “home” country and culture. Moving to a new place, you may struggle to understand the “why” behind systems in place, behaviors, and things that locals find acceptable. This also ends up highlighting the gap between your home and host cultures, furthering the feeling that life is just that much more challenging abroad. If you struggle to understand the “why,” (even though the local people might not understand it either) and you spend a lot of mental and emotional energy trying to, or fighting against it, you’re likely going to end up feeling burned out.

All of these factors, and more – because the list could go on and on—are part of what leads up to the feeling of cultural burnout. You reach a point where you just want to throw your hands up in the air and say “Forget it! I’ll never understand it and I’ll never make this work.” Or you might say to yourself “Well, it doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t even care anymore.” Apathy, hopelessness, frustration, exhaustion.

So what can you do, apart from packing up and moving back home? (Sometimes, that might be the solution, but not always.) Just like when you’re experiencing burnout from other aspects of life, it’s important to find ways to set limits, get rest and respite, and take care of yourself. I believe it’s important to try and connect with people who understand you and who you understand, interactions that feel like they take less effort. Maybe that’s seeking out people in your city that are from a similar or the same home culture as you; or perhaps reaching out and connecting with friends and family from back home. Another idea is to schedule more challenging or taxing appointments strategically. Can you avoid seeing all of your different doctors in one week, and rather spread out the appointments a bit more? Is it possible to do some of the appointments or errands online, rather than in-person? How can lighten your load a bit and make this more manageable? Self-care is going to be a tool that you need to have ready to use, too. It’s important to find ways to take care of yourself and recharge your battery, especially when daily life seems to be so much more draining than it should be. Find outlets to take care of your physical body via exercise, good nutrition, hygiene, sleep, etc., as well as ways to take care of your soul (mental and emotional health) through practices like mindfulness, relaxation, connection and intimacy with others, hobbies or activities that you delight in, etc. Your ability to care for yourself is a crucial element to make cross-cultural living work well.

Many people also find it helpful to see a coach, therapist, or counselor who lives cross-culturally and understands the very unique experience. Look for mental health care providers who have also lived in a host culture and can relate to what you’re going through. Cross-cultural living can be an amazing, enriching experience, but it doesn’t come without its challenges. If you feel that you’re experiencing cultural burnout, start making a plan for how you can care for yourself, and reach out to a counselor like myself if you’d like some extra support with managing the challenges.

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