So this is post number five in the series, beginning with this one – an overview of Erikson’s ‘eight stages of man’ concept applied to the Third Culture Kid experience. And this is the big one – the one about Identity. For many of you reading, questions you have about your identity as a Third Culture Kid are what lead you to read this blog in the first place. It’s a big topic. So let’s begin with what Erikson says about it all.
Basically, in child development terms, Erikson suggests that the age of 12 to 19 is the point at which the majority of our activity orients around the question, “Who am I?” We busily collate data from all other points up until this age to construct a sense of who we are in the world around us. And this ‘identity in context’ part matters. We don’t create identity in a vacuum. We collaborate with those around us to build a sense of who we are, in relation to those others. And interestingly, finding ourselves able to successfully answer the ‘who am I’ question achieves for us, according to Erikson, the virtue of fidelity.
This fascinates me. Rather than seeing identity as an end goal in and of itself, Erikson perceives identity as the means by which we achieve the skill of fidelity. Fidelity in this context is described as, “being able to commit one’s self to others on the basis of accepting others, even when there may be ideological differences” (Simply Psychology). In other words, establishing a stable sense of identity involves the ability to commit oneself both to individuals and to society more broadly, despite meeting with value or ideological differences along the way. For Erikson, finding my identity means I know who I am and what I bring to the table. I am able to work with others who bring their own selves and agendas to that same table. I am able to find my place, my people, at the same time as I am able to perceive our differences.
So if I find myself, I find my people?
Yes. That simple, and that complicated too. Because while others construct their identities within relatively stable contexts, Third Culture Kids experience different ways of being, because of exposure to and engagement with different contexts. How can I commit myself to this society, when part of who I am wants to commit to that society also? And, for some of us, how can I commit to any? To be able to commit oneself to others, even in the face of value differences, suggests a confidence based on two beliefs: a) that these others want and value our commitment of self to them and b) that we/they will be around long enough to work through our value differences in the context of a broader and more permanent sense of belonging.
A. When we consider our identities, are we able to assume they will be valued by those around us?
So many Third Culture Kids carry scars here. Open wounds even. We have experienced so many misunderstandings around who we feel ourselves to be, feeling misplaced and disorientated by these. We have felt ourselves to be ‘doing our identities wrong’ somehow, disapproved of or rejected by those with whom we feel we ‘should’ be able to find a place.
B. When we consider our identities, do we consider how they connect us to a broader community, to commitments and responsibilities to others?
Pico Iyer refers to a certain lack of accountability that comes with having a ‘global soul‘. How would it be if we substituted the ‘Where are you from?’ question with, ‘To whom do you belong?’ To which cultures or societies do we commit our energies, our political activism, our taxes? Who benefits from our fidelity?
Suppose we don’t have a clear sense of our identity. Suppose we feel lacking in Erikson’s virtue of fidelity. Then what?
Then we revisit our stories, our timelines. And we ask questions. We explore where we were in the world, and what ties bound us there at this life stage, at the ages of 12-18. What conflicting examples of fidelity did we witness? Were our parents committed to societies and cultures other than the ones we felt most drawn to? Where did our sense of identity and fidelity collide with those around us? Did we experience rejection if we made overtures of commitment to others?
This stuff is messy and I honestly wish I had a straightforward algorithm I could share with you. An equation that would bring all the fragmented ‘bits’ of our Third Culture Kid Selves together into a crystal clear focus. But we are just more complicated than that. There is no ‘one size fits all’ fix for the complexity that is Third Culture Kid identity.
So where do we start?
We bring fidelity home. We start by committing to ourselves. We take Erikson’s notion of committing to others “even when there may be ideological differences” and we gently, firmly, compassionately, apply this to our own Self. We are Third Culture Kids. We are walking talking ideological paradoxes. We carry conflicting cultural expectations, values, priorities within our own minds, emotions, bodies. And we begin by committing to all of these. Not in the sense that we are duty bound to express all of these forever, equally and without reflexivity and consideration. But in the sense that we allow all our ‘differences’ to the table.
Fidelity, I believe, begins at home. When we begin to commit to our own stories – telling them, validating them, owning them – we begin to commit to ourselves as author of our own identity. And as author, we find our voice. And we find the places, the people, the pages onto which we commit our next chapters.
I find myself. I find my people. I find identity. And fidelity. My place.
To read more Eriksonian theory around fidelity, Brittian and Lerner are a good place to start.