When we as foreigners come to a new country, there are many things that can go wrong. Even worse, there are many ways in which we can end up in a circle of self-defeating thoughts. We end up directing negative emotions towards the locals, or sometimes ourselves. It is totally fine if this happens now and then, but there is a serious problem if this negativity becomes our default mode. When I say this, I am talking about behaviour such as these:
- withdrawal from people
- resentment towards local people
- being overly judgmental
- and so on
Obviously in circumstances such as these, the expat is in no way able to enjoy the experience of living abroad, learn from it, and make the best out of it. However, there are good chances that these behaviours are not really a result purely of living abroad, they are more likely a reflection of the person’s general way of acting, maybe pushed to the extreme because of the “shocking” experience of living abroad.
We all have a tendency towards a certain emotional mode, or schema
Yes, emotion is situation dependent, but we also all have a certain emotional state in which we happen to be more often than not. Some people are more likely to be in a attached mood, in which they are yearning for love or clinging to another person. Others are more avoidant; they withdraw from people and avoid building an emotional connection with people. These tendencies are called schemas, or, how Tara Bennett-Goleman prefers to call them, modes. In her book “Mind Whispering“, she describes 8 of these modes, which she adapted from schema therapy. Not all of these are necessarily relevant for the experience of expatriates, so I will focus on those that are.
- Aversive: the mode that operates in those expats that are overly judgmental. People in an aversive mode reject the thoughts and beliefs of others, feel negative towards them and resent the experiences they have.
- Bewildered: people who are in this mode are confused by the new environment. They feel agitated by the turbulent change of their lives, which can often lead to an almost apathetic behaviour. The more they get drawn into the bewildered mode, the less motivated they are to learn anything new about the culture they find themselves in.
- Avoidant: when an expat is in this mode, he or she doesn’t want to have anything to do with other people, especially locals. He then avoids building an emotional connection with anyone and soon begins to feel lonely and disconnected.
- Predator-like: this is best described in Tara’s own words. People in this mode act with “extreme confidence or grandiosity. Arrogance, condescension, or a lack of empathy”. When a foreigner is in such a state, he or she will feel superior towards people from his host culture.
Emotional modes can be thought of as habits of thinking
…and luckily habits can be changed. And hey, that’s awesome! It tells us that only because we have the tendency towards a certain emotional state, we are not doomed to be this way our whole lives.Source: Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit“
According to Tara we can change our emotional states just like any other habit by using the cue, routine, reward model that was developed by Charles Duhigg. So, just like with smoking, where nervousness would be the cue, the act of smoking itself the routine, and a feeling of calmness the reward, emotional modes also perfectly fit into the model.
For me personally it used to be difficult to accept conservative religious thinking. I have always seen myself as an advocate of freedom in any way, which makes conservative religious beliefs unsympathetic to me. Now, in this case it would be easy to fall into an aversive mode: simply rejecting other people’s beliefs and not listening to them. While I was lucky not to fall into that trap, let’s have a look of how we could apply the cue, routine, reward model in such a case.
Whenever someone were to express his or her beliefs (the cue), I would fall into aversive emotional mode (the routine), which would then make me feel better, because I could ignore the thoughts that are in conflict with my own values (reward). However, if I can identify the cues which put me into aversive mode, I can change the routine with another one that leads to the same reward. In this case, for example, I could put myself into a curious/interested mode, where I listen to the thoughts of my conversation partner, but in the knowledge that I do not need to be convinced to him or her, nor start arguing. I simply listen to new ideas, that’s all. There is no threat to my own values.
A good way to become more self-aware, and thus become better at identifying cues and emotional modes, is to practice mindfulness meditation