Painting Pictures: A Whole Self

*If you are raising/have raised TCKs or are living overseas and are close to or beyond retirement age, here is a chance to contribute to a unique anthology of essays about the experience of being on the other side of TCKs. At Zuzu’s Petals check out her call for submissions to Third Culture Generations. I’ve got a few years to go but I would guess that there are a number of readers who have stories to share.

painting pictures1Today’s Painting Pictures post is brought to you by Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg. True story: I met Susannah when she wrote a blog post rebuking me for my ‘Mom Voice’ in my post 20 Things Expats Need To Stop Doing. Honestly, it was a tough read. Aren’t all critiques? And I hadn’t had very many yet in my writing life, though they are beginning to come faster and harder. But also it was a tough read because she was right. Seeing my words through her eyes challenged and changed me. I wrote to thank her for the perspective she brought to the piece and to thank her for reminding me of grace. And then, because of more grace, Susannah and I started corresponding on Twitter and I discovered she is filled with wisdom in all kinds of areas, and encouragements. I am thankful for iron sharpening iron, for new friends who refuse to let me settle with lazy writing, and for how Susannah motivates me to think deeper and to write clearer. I’m thankful for her way of seeing the expat world and especially the TCK world through the eyes of a trained psychologist, writing from Kuwait about the psychological processing of being a TCK and offers practical steps and comforting words of the normalcy of the emotions, ups and downs, of being one whole, healed person.

A Whole Self

The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. ~Ruth van Reken

heart2“I don’t really know how to answer that,” said my friend, also a psychologist, in response to my question, “Where’s home?” To be fair, I knew it was a loaded question for him because I am familiar with his background. His father is English, his mother Lebanese/French and he was born in Qatar. He has lived in several different countries in his life, eventually settling in Beirut with his wife. He went on to say that he feels there is a fundamental difference between himself and his wife. “She has her place. Beirut is ‘home’ for her, and I know she has a settledness that I lack. I don’t know where ‘my place’ is, and that internal restlessness is always with me. It feels like a sore spot that I can’t help but keep poking to see if it still hurts. It always does.

Knowing I was going to write on TCKs for Djibouti Jones from a psychology perspective, I’ve been asking my colleagues about their experiences personally and professionally with this issue. As with my friend, the theme that came up repeatedly was no fixed sense of ‘home.’ Even though one of the women I spoke to has lived in the same country for over 20 years, she described herself as “…parked, not planted.” When I explored what that meant to her, she felt that she had no real roots. Even though she acknowledged that her life in her chosen country is “probably” permanent, she felt herself fundamentally disconnected from that reality in ways she could hardly articulate, even to herself. Another person I asked described his living arrangements as “…sort of like trying on different jackets. So far, I haven’t found one that truly fits me, and I’m beginning to think I’m not going to.” This particular man is Dutch, born in Saudi Arabia, and lived in eleven different countries with his family before leaving for university in the Netherlands. He described his internal response on returning to Kuwait as “profoundly moving.” He finds that he is most “at home” in the Middle East, but logistics and prudence keep him from making the connection permanent.

When I asked my friend (he of the ‘sore spot’) what he thought were the benefits of being a TCK, he listed several – a global perspective, adaptability, cultural fluency, a genuine appreciation for the differences in humanity, resourcefulness, independence, self-reliance and a “well developed sense of adventure.” I then asked him about the downside, and he looked sad. “I always feel slightly disconnected from my own life and I am mindful that I have no really firm attachments. I know from my own therapy process that one of my core beliefs is that everything is temporary, and getting too attached to anything – be it a place, an object, or a person is stupid. It all changes at some point.”

Here’s some things I’ve learned as a psychologist in the years I’ve worked with ATCKs.

First, there’s all the stuff around culture shock. This is well-documented, and it helps to read something just to have that foundational understanding of what’s happening. There are stages of acculturation that you can actually recognize as being normal under the circumstances, and not necessarily a consequence of being TC. (A good choice would be The Expat Arc: An Expat’s Journey Over Culture Shock; Danielle Barkhouse).

Second, the issues that come with the third culture experience complicate the standard adjustment bumps one can expect in changing cultures in any case. This is where the “sore spot” happens. That wound can be an inherent part of an ATCKs identity. Not ever having truly belonged, as the quote that begins this post highlights, has ramifications in the development of one’s sense of self. In my experience, one of the things that seems common is the tendency of the ATCK to idealize a particular place/time. In Cecily’s post (Seven Stages of Re-Entry Grief), she talks about her sense of alienation in Australia, and how she longed for Pakistan. This is to be expected and it’s normal.

As a psychologist, when I explore this same scenario (Cecily’s) with you, what I usually find is that, in truth, you also felt marginalized or excluded in the formative culture as white, Western, expat, foreign, weird, mixed-culture, wrong religion, wealthy …whatever. But – this is the key – in the discomfort and distress of trying to adjust to the current culture, you don’t remember the truth of this.

heartWe, you and I, work together to build a balanced perspective of the formative culture, the current culture, and the values common to both. We explore how many people confuse principle and practice, and thus become rigid or inflexible, incapable of adapting to new situations and circumstances. As you identify the values that are important to you, we then figure out how those values are manifesting in the current culture. We talk about unresolved grief – a lifetime of losses, accumulated mostly without the opportunity to mourn. We make Stones of Remembrance. We laugh. We cry. I am witness to your rage of letting go. Not only of the hurts of the present, but also of the wounds of the past, never truly acknowledged in the effort to be accepted in the formative culture. Together, we clean out that deeply buried reservoir of the flotsam and jetsam of relational fractures, wounded self, and thwarted or bent dreams. And the whole time, we keep coming back to the work of defining ‘home.’

Lastly, we talk about the impact of coming back to your own identified culture and immediately running into the expectation that you as “one of us” will know the nuances, etiquette, inside jokes, and social zeitgeist of your peers. And we talk about what happens to your already fractured sense of self when you don’t, and what can be done about it.

Practically speaking, there are things you can do to maximize the upside and minimize the downside of this reality.

  1. Focus on people/relationships.
  2. In some way, collect “Stones of Remembrance.” These are not necessarily actual stones, but rather tangible mementos of a time and place you wish to remember.
  3. Mindfully, consciously accept that “home” for you will always have a different experiential meaning than it does for others and that it is up to you to define what ‘home’ means.
  4. If you’re going to be returning to your own culture and you’ve got “missing years,” take some time to learn about the social trends, the movies, the pop culture of those years when you were elsewhere. Google is your friend, as are archived issues of People magazine, the NewYorker, and such like.
  5. Expect to feel lonely. And restless. Without mindfulness, self-knowledge, and deliberate self-care, those feelings may overwhelm you.
  6. Talk. Talk with others. Join forums, find a therapist who understands what it’s like to be American/Canadian/British/Whatever on the outside and Kenyan/Indian/Malaysian/Arab/Confused on the inside.
  7. Own your TCK self. Name your fears, name your losses, own your wounds and your choices. There’s a great exercise on page 262 of chapter 19 of Third Culture Kids (David C. Pollock & Ruth Van Reken) It’s worth doing. If you can’t manage it by yourself, do it with a therapist.
  8. Celebrate who you are and how you came to be the you that you are (there’s a Dr. Seuss rhyme in there somewhere).

Resources (some I’m sure you have!)

Family Variables in the Cultural and Psychological Adjustment of Third Culture Kids

So Where’s Home?


susannahSusannah-Joy Schuilenberg is a Canadian behavioural health psychologist traveling the world on a busman’s holiday. Currently parked in Kuwait, she is a culture vulture, seeing the world through the lens of her camera, the eyes of her grandsons, and the framework of psychology. Makes for an interesting mix. Bossy from birth, compassionate by choice, and funny by accident, Susannah writes about anything that catches her attention. Follow her on twitter.