Adjusting to Mexico: Transitional anxiety and interpersonal effects – Part 2
Dr. Marc J. Ehrlich
Business in Mexico
Part 1 provides an Introduction and Interpersonal effects.
Part 3 – Overview
Moving to a foreign country makes enormous demands upon our psyche. Not only do we have to deal with the stress of leaving home, we also have to struggle to find the way to live within a country whose culture, society, and language are so different from our own. For some, this double challenge can become overwhelming and lead to a variety of psychological and emotional reactions.
Depression. Depression is a reaction to loss. When under the throes of transitional anxiety, it is more likely that the individual will focus on what s/he no longer has available. While the losses of transition are quite personal, some of the more common losses include: the loss of freedom (“What happens if I get lost in the car? I wouldn’t even know how to ask for help!”), the loss of contact with friends and relatives, the loss of a predictable life (the uninterrupted flow of electricity is never guaranteed), the loss of feeling self-sufficient and independent, the loss of knowing what is being said between the lines, and the “simple” losses of one’s everyday routines. Once depression sets in, it is possible that the person will experience insomnia, fatigue, lethargy, and a need to avoid contact with others.
Annoyance and Irritation. Have you ever sat in a room with people who all seem to know what is going on and your ears are so clogged that you cannot hear a thing? There is a sense of being in a fish-bowl, out-of-touch with everyone and everything. Coming to Mexico confronts the foreigner with a barrage of unfamiliar social, professional, and interpersonal rules (for example, how to relate to servants, how to determine what is being expected from you within social and professional situations, and how to get your point across to others without being aggressive or appearing insecure). For some, not knowing what to do keeps them on the defensive and hypersensitive to others’ behavior. At times, this state of irritation becomes chronic and overflows into relationships that otherwise would be quite tranquil.
Confusion and Withdrawal. One of the more common reactions to persistent anxiety is that of confusion and withdrawal from the perceived source of the problem. Some seek refuge from the demands of adapting to Mexico by isolating themselves from Nationals or from those who do not share their negative perceptions of Mexico and Mexicans. In some cases, the anxiety related to being in Mexico forces certain foreigners to withdraw emotionally from their family members which only creates greater family instability. For some, separating from some of the routines considered untouchable (the lunch hour, favorite holidays, family ceremonies) and realizing just how relative everything is leads them towards a certain existential confusion. In the face of such angst, some find refuge in solitude and silence.
Loneliness and Boredom. Being unable to meet the challenge of adapting to Mexico, some individuals become overwhelmed with loneliness. The loneliness results from the defensive reactions described above, as well as from being cut-off from the tried and true. These people often bemoan the fact that they are not with their “best” friends or can no longer go to their “favorite” places. The farther away they are from home, the more these people and places take on a bigger-than-life aura. In comparison to the old routines and familiar activities, Mexico has nothing to offer! This reaction occurs frequently with adolescents who struggle with the additional burden of having less freedom of movement and less opportunity to explore their environment. The experience of boredom at times is a camouflage for fear or depression.
Behavioral Excesses. Both here and back home, eating too much, sleeping too much, cleaning too much, taking too much medication, and drinking excessively are ways of calming the anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and depression. Without proper support and friendly advice (which is unlikely given their isolation and the need to maintain a mask within their new social group), these individuals run the risk of falling so deep into an emotional hole that climbing out often requires professional help. Some executives find that they get caught-up in the long lunches so typical within the Mexican business environment. Their professional insecurity or the need to “get along” with their Mexican colleagues may make it difficult for them to set appropriate limits, and, as a result, eat and drink much more than they prefer or enjoy.
Psychosomatic Illness. Despite our best attempts to repress the painful emotions of an unsuccessful adaptation to Mexico, our bodies will absorb the emotional stress and develop physical symptoms. Not only does the physical symptom provide a symbolic expression of the emotional trauma, it enables the person to get the help and attention that is so desperately needed (without having to risk being emotionally vulnerable). The more common psychosomatic problems experienced by the executive and his/her family are: lower back aches, indigestion, high blood pressure, dizziness, chronic colds and other respiratory disturbances, as well as headaches, insomnia, and fatigue.
Loss of Self-esteem. The loss of self-esteem for the executive frequently stems from his unexpected difficulties on the job. Despite doing everything “by the book,” being as respectful as he can, even struggling to speak in Spanish, he is not getting results. Furthermore, the home office seems unsympathetic to his explanations that “things are just not done the same way down here.” The less effective he feels, the more he pushes, and the more ineffective he becomes. The non-working spouse often suffers from what is referred to as “ego-deflation.” She begins to feel useless and unproductive. It is extremely difficult to feel motivated to explore, go out and meet new friends, or provide the emotional support needed by other family members when feeling worthless.
In some families making the adjustment to Mexico, problems develop as a result of a disparity between the self-esteem of the executive and his spouse. Some executives are provided a privileged position: an important role in the Mexican subsidiary, bi-lingual assistants who are eager to satisfy his every beck and call, an attentive chauffeur, housing and tuition allowances, and a chance to finally save some real money. His wife, on the other hand, is feeling more and more deflated. She may begin to resent her husband’s successes and feels a need to shoot down his rising star. The contrast between his feeling powerful and admired on the job (oftentimes for the first time in his career) and struggling with his wife’s disdain forces an emotional wedge between them. The greater the distance, the worse they both feel.
In other cases, the executive feels guilty about how his wife is suffering and feels painfully inept and useless to help her. Rather than lend a loving and attentive hand, he slowly withdraws or falls into a defensive stance in which he is critical or minimizes the wife’s pain. It is at this point that she begins to feel betrayed, abused, and abandoned–the ingredients for a debilitating crisis. The loss of self-esteem runs deep within many of the symptoms described above. Learning new behaviors, while at first uncomfortable, awkward, and distressing, will eventually expand one’s behavioral repertoire. Developing new ways of relating to others, understanding just how relative everything is (Independence Day, for instance, can be July 4 or September 16 and be equally as valid), and realizing that no one has a monopoly on truth will eventually lead to a healthier self-esteem. But, it takes work.