Why are we searching?
An experience shared by a lot of Third Culture Kids is that of having multiple cultural identities. They are often described as chameleons, able to adopt behaviours (and sometimes even beliefs) at will to function in changing social environments. So why would a TCK be searching for identity? Surely they have plenty to choose from!?
The difficulty often lies with the ‘adapting at will’ bit of our skill set. At whose will do we adapt our presenting identity? More often than not, I hear stories that confirm this experience; that it is the needs of others that determines who we seem to be, rather than our own sense of who we are or who we want to be.
When our identity is ‘other-need’ driven, it can feel precarious, ephemeral, inauthentic. We often carry a sense of ‘if they only knew’ into our social relationships, leaving us feeling insecure about the attachments people have to us. We doubt our relationships, holding them lightly, suspecting that they only love ‘this bit’ of us that they can see.
Underneath our (current) identity, others may jostle, competing for air time and gasping for expression. Alternatively, we feel out of touch with our own identity, having adapted to the one expected of us for so long. We may stutter when asked for our own opinions or preferences, scanning desperately to figure out the ones most understandable or acceptable to the person asking.
How do we find identity?
Identity challenges have been associated with the TCK experience for as long as we have known about TCKs. But what to do about identity challenges has been less clearly defined. I believe that since the root of the issues appears to be high levels of ‘attuning to others’, this can be most effectively combated by an increase in ‘attuning to self’. What do I mean by this?
Well, I think we can visualise the TCK as a highly adaptive creature with its antenna firmly focused ‘out there’. We grow up sensitive to signals from our social surroundings about what is needed to adapt, communicate, connect to people in different environments. And this turns out to be a very useful skill set!
Where this focus can leave us weaker, however, is in the ability to be aware of what is going on ‘in here’. If we can redirect just some of that antenna sensitivity to our inner world, we can begin to fill in some of the blanks regarding our identity struggles. We can begin to collate data about ourselves, and build up a clearer picture about our preferences, opinions, and needs. It can help to keep a journal, a log of ‘noticing Self’ moments to record our observations.
Familiarity with our own emotions
We may also find that, while we are acutely aware of the emotional needs of people around us, we have less skill in identifying our own feelings at any given moment. This can leave us highly motivated to adapt to fulfil expectations communicated by others or meet others’ needs. Perhaps we identify most strongly as ‘helper’. Which is great if we want to rescue people all the time. Again, it’s a wonderful skill set to have but when we are restricted primarily to awareness of others, our own lack of identity can leave us open to burn out, one-sided relationships, and a sense of drifting through our own lives.
Reconnecting, or even perhaps connecting for the first time, with our own emotions gives us a chance to see the world around us more fully, more completely. Our emotions are data, they give us clues about what is happening around us, and attuning to them gives us more opportunities to get to know ourselves. Use the feeling wheel (developed Dr. Gloria Wilcox) to expand your emotional vocabulary and increase your understanding of your feelings. You can get a PDF of the Feelings Wheel here.
Once we begin to get a clear sense of our inner world, our identity, our next challenge is to find ways of expressing this. Self expression can felt both self-indulgent and terrifying to many TCKs. Self-indulgent because we find it easier to prioritise the needs of others, and terrifying because we aren’t sure what will happen if others ‘see’ previously dormant or played-down elements of our Selves. Will they like us? Will they reject us?
It’s okay to take it slow. Practise increased self-expression as you would any new skill set. Having begun to play piano, we trial a few easier pieces for our nearest and dearest before booking out the concert hall! If expressing disagreement is a sensitive new area for you, practise on conflicts that feel less high stake. Help yourself by preparing a few statements that you feel comfortable with so that you have them to hand when your instinct may be taking you towards automatic agreement or silencing of your own preferences; “I’m not sure I like that colour” or “I’m not sure how I feel about that restaurant, can we consider other options?” might be where you feel comfortable starting.
Alternatively you may have begun to recognise multiple cultural identities, may of which aren’t getting the air time they need to feel included and validated. So you may find it helpful to set aside some time to consider how you can intentionally express these. Perhaps there is a language you’d love to speak more? Online radio stations can help with exposure, but perhaps there is a local group of national speakers that would welcome you? Maybe you want to find recipes from a particular culture that is dear to your sense of Self, so that you can ‘come home’ in your own kitchen more often? Music often connects to parts of our selves, and art. Get creative in your self-expression, notice those moments when you feel most ‘You’ and chase the joy.
It’s okay to need support
At any point in this journey you may feel you need support. I’d be surprised if you didn’t. Reach out to friends and family. Explain your challenges and invite ideas and support. The search for identity doesn’t have to be lonely. If you feel isolated or disconnected from people around you, reach for therapeutic support. Connection and empathy and validation are crucial ingredients for personal growth. Do get in touch with me here if you would like to discuss the ways in which Life Story Therapies can support you as you grow your story. I’d love to hear from you!