Learning from immigrants to fight stresses caused by a change

If we consider the most stressful learning experience, the coping techniques that apply to it may apply to everything else. In many ways, immigration is such an experience and I have first-hand lessons to share. More reading here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Immigrants need to learn EVERYTHING

I came to Israel from Ukraine in 1989. I was 15 years old. Not quite a child, but not a grown-up, settled enough to appreciate the differences, flexible enough to embrace the changes. As an immigrant, I needed to learn everything: culture, language, regular school subjects, new ways to deal with economic stress and poor living conditions, and everything a teenager needs to learn about life. I think that it was one of the hardest experiences in my life: worse than wars, disease, natural and man-made disasters that happened since.

For immigrants, the experience of parents in the old country is meaningless. There are no old friends to rely upon, as new friends need to appear. The cultural authorities of both the old and the new countries are meaningless. It is a state of temporary anarchy, with minimal structure or resilience, but with maximal susceptibility to change. There is simply no other way to survive, but embrace the change and try to leverage it.

No resilience means no resistance

We usually view resilience as strength. In many ways this is correct, but resilience also means resistance to changes. When we rely on social support, the entire social group we belong to is quite likely to oppose a change, say with a probability of 50%. Another part of resilience is identity and personal values. However, in a different cultural context, the underlying meaning of the identity changes, and if values do not go well with local culture they serve as a reactionary force.

During immigration, my personal resilience was very low, so I did not even try to resist the change. Resilience is an elastic property: a spring being hit deforms for a moment, but then regains its original shape. True change is plastic, like bending, and resilience might resist the change.

Clear registry

We have a sunken cost fallacy. Once we invest heavily in something we continue to invest more to “protect” the initial investment. We tend to compare our current positioning with the previous positioning, resisting possible degradation of the perceived positioning.

Immigration cleans up the registry. We do not have proper bank history both for the worse and for the better. We are free to pursue the activities that are frankly below us, simply to survive. And as we constantly step out of the comfort zone we learn new things. Doing things differently immediately makes us creative. This creativity is a huge long-term asset.

Building new habits

People are creatures of habit. Usually, we create habits when they serve us, but do not let go once the habits stop serving our needs. These remnants fill our free time as parasites, sipping the life energy. Yet we rarely have the motivation to change something. When we immigrate, the change is huge and abrupt. We acquire a totally new set of habits as a set – synergetically built by a mature person over a reasonably short period.

For example, immigration habits often eliminate luxuries we do not really need, freeing up disposable income. Immigrants do not really need status symbols. Their status is “immigrant”, not rich or poor, but in the process of adaptation.

New positive habits are also introduced. For example, immigrants often need to spend a couple of hours per day learning new language and culture. When the culture becomes familiar, the same time and effort can be repurposed to learn other useful things like professional skills.

Seeing people differently

Immigrants get to see the best and the worst people can offer. Some people are negative, overly protective, xenophobic, and occasionally violent. Others are positive, supportive, open to teaching and learning new things, asking helpful questions and providing useful information. And then there are also indifferent, who smile politely but could not care less.

The status of a foreigner not familiar with the local customs has a polarizing effect. People are different, good and bad. Usually, they react according to social status and established norms. We barely notice normal behavior. For immigrants many regular behaviors are new and they notice things, typically with humor. Suddenly, humor becomes one of the biggest personal strengths for the immigrant. Humor deals with embarrassment and builds bridges. Storytelling is also a valuable skill in an immigrant’s arsenal, as he suddenly has great stories to tell and an audience that has not yet heard all the good stories.

Nueroplasticity is overrated

We highly praise neuroplasticity, as an ability to dedicate neural processing to new tasks and build new neural paths. This is an extremely valuable quality in case of physical traumas, like strokes and car accidents. However, we forget to notice how limited neuroplasticity is. The brain does not usually reorganize to deal with psychological traumas. If we acquire new skills, the brain might build new paths, but it is more likely to fine-tune existing mechanisms.

When there is a change below some sensory threshold, it feels like there is no big change. Regular decision-making mechanisms are activated. Only they do not work properly due to the new environment, causing unexpected embarrassing failures. At some point, one of my friends told me “All of your instincts are wrong. Do just the opposite of your instinctive behavior and you will be fine.” We do not understand how we rely on our automatic processes, until the automatic processes become invalid and yet we tend to apply them hoping for a different result.

Identity as an illusion

I said this in several different ways, but now I will say it directly. Our identity itself is one of the biggest limitations to big changes. People do not really change, unless they start using a different language and apply a new set of cultural norms.

When I was a kid it hit me hard. In Ukraine, I was a Jew, but in Israel, I was a Russian, because at home we spoke Russian We celebrated New Year and valued education above money –  as a part of the new identity created by immigrants. In Ukraine everybody was athletic, and despite my efforts, I was not properly fit. After immigration, I found out that I was very strong and physically fit when compared to the locals. My entire identity, strengths, and weaknesses changed. Identity is an illusion, and immigration is a funny way to discover it.

Once we make this discovery, it becomes easier to assume new identities. I never ever thought that I might teach people memory and speedreading until this became a reality. For three decades it was as far from my identity as it gets, and for the next two decades, it was a part of who I was when I was working at home.

Accepting sufficiently large changes feels like assuming a new identity. Once we decide that this new identity defines us and that we want this to happen, everything else follows almost naturally.



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