Control and Third Culture Kids

by | Oct 9, 2023 | Blog | 0 comments

“I feel like a control-freak!” OR “It just sort of fell into my lap…”

I’ve heard both from the Third Culture Kids I work with, and from myself too! I’ve noticed over the years that TCKs can have a complicated relationship with control. Some of us (or some of us some of the time!) feel a strong need for control. A sense of our own agency is a strong component in our sense of safety, and so we chase information, plans and worry when the other people involved are less than communicative. Not having all the information leaves us feeling anxious, aware that even having a plan doesn’t guarantee a predictable outcome. After all, nothing is so certain as change.

Other TCKs (or some of us some of the time!) experience powerlessness early and often, so that our sense of agency is interwoven with an impulse to react rather than initiate. This gives us a sense of flow, that our lives are governed less by us directly and by our responses to external variables. While this often offers a reprieve from anxiety, it can also bring a lack of meaning and purpose. Why get attached to a particular a course when an external factor may require pivoting in another direction?

Both tendencies are born of the same Third Culture Kid experience, that as children we experience a high degree of change at frequent intervals and over which we have no control. It’s so tempting to see our relationship with control as a personal failure, blaming ourselves for our control needs or lack of direction. And this is where context and perspective are so important.


Whatever your particular cocktail of an approach to control, I believe you are simply adding together the ingredients you’ve been handed in whatever way makes most sense to you. You have your reasons. Your story holds the key to understanding why you’ve landed in your approach, and it’s a valuable resource in unpacking the ‘why’ and the ‘how I got here’ question.

For many TCKs, feeling safe is intimately connected to trying to take control of a situation because we learnt so early that we needed a quick and correct read of a social situation to be able to manage people’s impressions of us. And managing people’s impressions of us was our best way in to fitting in and acceptance. And fitting in and acceptance was the best way to get safe. Social safety is something many of us become highly attuned to, leading a lot of us to try and manage our own safety by managing other people’s behaviour.

For others of us, we learnt that the best way of fitting in was to make sure we didn’t rock any boats, so best to stay quite still and simply not take up too much space. In fact, going with the flow was easier if we didn’t develop too many personal investments in the particular direction of the flow, and just went with it.

For myself, I can see that my position in the family (eldest) and early experiences that taught me others couldn’t be trusted led me easily to a sense that if I wanted something to go well (aka the way I thought it should) I would have to take charge myself. At the same time, however, the religious context I was raised in (TCK community and host culture) emphasized the powerlessness of man and this was compounded by my experiences with frequent change that I had little impact on.

My own personal cocktail therefore around control lands somewhere around, “I desperately need control to feel safe but shouldn’t and in fact I must remember that if anything good happens I should disown any personal power that got me there”.

Yours may well sound different from mine, and that’s okay. We both make sense. Our stories brought us here.


While our relationship to control makes sense given our TCK stories, that doesn’t mean we are comfortable with it. Feeling fear when our carefully constructed house of cards is knocked down isn’t fun, and it’s confusing to feel dissociated from the events and achievements of our own lives.

At first I was tempted to think in terms of control as a scale – absolute control being at one end and absolute powerlessness at the other. It sounds alluring to think that there is a middle way – a kind of perfect balancing act – until I realised this invites a special kind of perfectionism. It also makes me think of those toggle bars, the ones used when messing with colour saturation or controls in photo editing? You start at perfect zero, mess about either side and then struggle like anything to get the toggle arrow back to perfect zero. Or maybe that’s just me… either way, I didn’t like the metaphor.

Where I’m learning to land more is in terms of circles of control. Imagine two circles, one drawn inside the other. The inner one is named, ‘things I have control over’ and the outer one is (rather appropriately) named, ‘things outside of my control’. We are all going to feel differently as we fill in these circles. When we are in a ‘I must be in control’ space, we may be tempted to put things in our inner circle that we don’t actually have control over, under the illusion that we do, or should have control over them. For example, I may want my partner to make an effort to learn a language that means a lot to me. I may be tempted to think that I have control over helping them understand what it would mean to me if they took a class. Or I may think that I could make them want to do it more if I helped them in some way. In terms of what I actually have control over though, I’m really limited to asking them to do it. I can communicate what something means to me, but I can’t make them feel a certain way about it. In another case, we may think we have control over our own financial security. In my experience, however, what I have actual control over is around making the best decisions I can with my spending and earning choices.

This kind of perspective-check can be difficult in that it brings us face to face with what we can’t actually control. But look at the potential release! Look at all these things we can now be free of trying to control! I can let go of measuring love in terms of influence. I can let go of holding myself completely responsible for financial stability.

And for those Third Culture Kids of us who struggle to take control, feeling instead adrift in the sea of their own lives, we finally get to help our stories find cause and effect within their chapters. It becomes harder to say, “This opportunity just fell into my lap” when I see that within my control lay going to that party, where a friend of a friend mentioned that job, and how I chose to fill in the application, go to the interview, and show up in a way that allowed me to benefit from a favourable outcome. And it’s so important for our TCK brains to see cause and effect, because so many of us lived in places for so short a time that we didn’t see fruit grow from trees we planted. Perhaps we didn’t get to see the longer term consequences of choices we made, because external variables (aka the next assignment) tended to intervene and become an external, impersonal reason that something happened instead. Reconnecting with our potential for impact can be actually quite terrifying (what if I get it wrong?!) but also deeply re-engaging – my actions gain meaning and therefore I can start directing my own ship with some confidence of land in sight.

The crux of using circles of control is that it stops us from taking responsibility for things outside of our control, but helps us to take more responsibility for that which is in our control. Paradoxically, we get to both let go of control AND engage more effectively to exert control in our own lives.

Short version? Control is good, when we are trying to control things we actually have a hope of effectively impacting!



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More from my blog

Third Culture Kids & Stability

Third Culture Kids & Stability

Stability. What does that word invite in you? What do you see in your mind’s eye? It’s a word I’ve had a mixed relationship with all my life. I would crave it, try and find systems or plans that would get me it, and then as soon as I had it in hand, there would rise...

read more
Third Culture Kids and Character Development

Third Culture Kids and Character Development

The Third Culture Kids I work with often feel their characters to be as fragmented as their stories. Instead of a story arch that sees a character develop over time, our stories can feel broken up, with distinct versions of our main character showing up in their different chapters. We can feel stuck with a plethora of under-developed protagonists, a sense of amorphous character ‘shape’ and unclear about our story’s direction as a result.

read more
The light returns… does anything else?

The light returns… does anything else?

Today the light returned. I joined the livestream from Stonehenge as people from all over the world joined in person and online to watch the sun rise between those ancient stones. For all our cumulative scientific knowledge that gives us assurance that the sun will...

read more