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!
Yes, I also feel like the (imagined) necessity to adapt and to blend in is a very very strong urge and almost an automatism that can feel like identity but it’s not. I recognize it when I’m driven by perfectionism and excessive anger. It’s a persona that I built because there was too much pain to bear. The way out is I guess to feel the original pain of not belonging, feeling stripped of qualities that were not seen as relevant in another culture but makes you who you are, grief for the past, love for friends, feeling confused and lost… Feeling all of that brings release and authenticity and brings me back in touch with myself and my history and I can feel more my multi- identity.
It’s not easy to start to get in touch with feelings, I find. Not at all… For me, it starts even with changing my thoughts around that topic. I realized that I tell myself that I cannot feel, I will never be able to learn it, I will never be able to live the life that I want, because I am not the one who gets to chose in my life, it’s outer circumstances that define my life. To change all of those patterns is a huge task that gives way to the space where feelings are actually accessable. Letting go even of thought patterns is a task that comes with a lot of fear for tcks because it comes with the fear of losing the world (again).
I feel there is a great resistance to take responsibility for that building process. To let go of co-dependency in intimate relationship feels incredibly risky, especially for tcks I would say.
There is so much generous wisdom here, thank you! Yes, it’s not easy, and yet feeling what has not yet been fully felt or processed opens up a new way forward. It can feel overwhelming, so support here is key. We need to feel safe enough to uncover these things, which is why it often seems to surprise us by bubbling up when we finally feel we are in a steady, stable place. Stability or settledness in relationship is the very ingredient we need to go to the difficult places of our story.
Yes, I agree that stability and a sense of safety would be great to begin or further the process. But growth does not always happen in this kind of organic way…. First safety, then further wisdom… This perspective can put pressure on our lives to get it ‘safe first’ and then ‘collect the fruits’ . (Sorry for the simple break-down) In order to start, there needs to be a scratch of hope inside of us to be able to build trust in relationship with OURSELVES and then… from this safe place… open up to the fragility and light and all the other wonderful and messy things and identities within me. I feel that I need to stress that trust, safety and stability are not necessarily provided from the outside but already requires the antennas being directed towards the inside in order to be built and felt.
It’s not at all a contradiction to your post, it just inspired me to comment further.
* oh, and as I write this, I wonder, if you suspect a dark secret within me… she also might notice that my English is not really British, she might kick me out of her country because I’ m not enough… not like them… and they will tell me to go back where I came from… but wait… she looks so Euopean… maybe she doesn’t even find this funny but is worried about my mental health… over here we laugh about different things…
** my stage persona needed this moment ** 😀
Glad your stage persona got a moment! 🙂 And thank you for this comment too – You are absolutely right. We can totally slow down our own growth (or noticing our own growth) when we wait for the right moment to come first… We need enough self-trust to hold us in those moments of mess. Trying to hard to ‘grow right’ can be a real hinderance.
I just love this article, Rachel. Really grounding reminders that there are reasons for my experience with identity. It is fascinating, isn’t it—that ability to even change BELIEFS in different contexts?! How amazing. I find it astonishing in myself, and in some moments, really bewildering and scary. I am glad I have friends in my life, like you, who get this! Thank you for your transparency.
So glad you found the article interesting, Tineke – thank you for reading! Long-term friends are really precious, partly because they help us draw all these different identity changes into one thread… I’m glad to have you too!