Third Culture Kids – Strategies in Seasons of Change

by | Dec 23, 2021 | Blog | 5 comments

How do you, as a Third Culture Kid, feel about change?

Change can be a sticky topic for Third Culture Kids. We lost so much. We can learn to fear seasons of change, having built an enormous data set for moments of change that have brought us grief, change that we didn’t choose and that felt like a tidal wave of loss.

Saying that, many of us fear stability – we chase change, pushing and cajoling it into being change we are now in control of. For many of us, change is where we notice we operate well, we feel strong here, competent here – stability and longer term commitments make us feel trapped, boring, or just offer the faint unease of, “I think I’m doing this wrong”. It’s my impression stability mostly unnerves us because stability is just change that hasn’t happened yet.

Many of us didn’t get pause, on-the-brink-of-change moments. I hear stories where the business of life, the job of adapting was the first need and first priority, and reflecting on our experience and feelings about the change got lost.

As a result, we often develop a high vigilant approach to change. Our highly sensitive TCK apparatus senses changes in the atmosphere and begins to activate our ‘change response’ systems. For some of us, this looks like an uncanny ability to predict political or economic patterns, flight price changes, or market changes in our field of work. For others of us, it looks like a heightened empathic ability that notices every head turn or curl of the lip in our vicinity, and can quickly size up office politics or family dynamics.

At times our sensitivity to the seasons of change give us a sense of power. We often have plan Bs, Cs, and Ds while those around us are still in denial that plan A just ain’t working. We find ourselves heading off conflict, managing relationships effectively, adapting to the new emotional or practical demands of this new season as easily as we’d put away our summer coat and pull out our winter one.

What I find though, working with Third Culture Kids, is that we underestimate the stress that all this change sensitivity puts us under. What I’d invite each and every one of us to remember when we are rolling out our contingency plans and adaptations is that the apparent ease with which we do this is proof of the practise we’ve had, not how little it costs us.

For many of us, however, our change sensitive strategies are fried. They got fried when we were young, overwhelmed by change after change or uncertain expectation after uncertain expectation, or simply because lack of guidance and support through these changes left us doubting our own ability to survive them. So our response systems in these situations are often limited to two – one, panic… and two, fight the need for adaptation.

The first strategy to manage change can often spiral us into fear and depression, a feeling that all we love is lost. Accompanying shame because TCKs “should” be good at this adds a special layer of despair. The second can isolate us from loved ones or frankly anyone who seems okay with this new change – their ok-ness registers as rejection of our experience of fear and loss, and for so many of us this is a massive trigger to the isolation of our earlier childhood changes. To adapt and choose change would be to imply change is okay and we are often very NOT okay with that.

And all of this makes sense given our past experiences of change. For some of us, the seasons came around too fast and we weren’t equipped for them – If you grow up not being given that winter coat at the appropriate time, you begin to fear freezing when that season comes rolling around.

So how can we soothe our change sensitive systems?

I’m going to invite two ways – one to respond to our sense of impending change that demands we stay three steps ahead, and one to one to increase our sense of power in the change. There is never a one size fits all approach to human need, so I’d invite you to take what feels useful to you, and leave the rest!

This first strategy I’ll call, “honouring our preparedness whilst remember we probably aren’t in threat” – okay, titling things has never been my strong point! Let’s try, “cutting our self some slack”? When we developed our high preparededness skills, we were probably living in a situation that left us feeling the need for high levels of independence, or we were experiencing a high degree of threat. I remember the sense of confusion at panic-buying in the early days of COVID because keeping cupboards stocked with three weeks worth of sustenance had been my norm in childhood, where curfews and coup d’etat were predictable seasons of change.

My change sensitive system has long alerted me to impending lack by introducing a sense of panic if I feel I’ve “run out” of an ingredient or I see stocks running low. It’s possible to feel my skills of meal planning and thinking ahead protect me from impending doom, but what they actually do is avoid me noticing that, these days, I live 10 minutes walk from a shop that doesn’t run out of food and that I never have to worry about not being allowed to that shop because of sudden military takeover. The only way of getting my brain to notice I’m not in threat is to *shock horror* let myself run out of tinned tomatoes occasionally, and to do the walk to the shops all the while resisting my internalised shame about how I could have even let this happen!?

Where this has gotten complicated is that, for many of us, we have been reintroduced to states of threat via our living situations as adults, or by COVID – if we don’t keep an eye on flights and COVID testing policies, we really won’t be able to access our families, for example. This is where honouring our coping strategies needs to be held on to, in balance with a practise of trying to notice where threat responses might be less applicable than in our early years. It’s a balancing act, but by introducing nuance to our assessment of threat, we can begin to moderate our change sensitive systems, and therefore reduce our stress levels.

The second approach we can call, “where is my power?” Where our systems have been overloaded by change we can feel triggered into an overpowering sense of loss and powerlessness by a season of change. I’d invite you to frame this as indicative of your early lack of support through change, rather than of your inherent lack of competence dealing with it. If a friend moving away triggers a sense of loss of friendship and being rejected by that friend, or even a pain that tells you having friends hurts too much, then we need to both honour our past experience that taught us this and consider where our experience today could be different. What resources are present to us that we didn’t have before – in other words, if we didn’t have a winter coat to help us through the cold in the past, how can we get one now? Talking to the friend, making plans to adjust communication so we can maintain it over distance, or even reminding ourselves how much they mean to us and how the change now doesn’t change what has gone before – what our friendship has mean to both of us.

The “where is my power?” strategy for managing seasons of change is an invitation to parent yourself through this time of transition – if a child was facing change, what would we do? Talk it out, cry it out, create memory books or photo albums honouring what has gone before, create a vision of the change to come, and give them choices wherever possible.

This last is the crux of the matter – so often we felt a lack of choice. That doesn’t have to be how it is today. If a change is coming we didn’t choose, how can our preferences shape HOW the change comes about?

This solstice has invited me to consider these seasons of change – and where we can engage intentionally, with power and self-love.

A solstice is a time of transition, a moment where equilibrium hangs by a thread – a moment frozen on the brink before the slow tip into change. We’ve had so many transitions, and we can feel locked into feeling it to be impossible to relax into stability available, and fearful of what the next change will bring.

And what about now? Can we take pause on the brink of this season of change? Can we hold space to breathe, notice the shifts in our atmosphere, and how we feel in this moment? This solstice time invites just this. A moment before the dive, the pause before the next step falls… a warm drink cupped in your hands while you gaze into space a while, inquiring of your own well-worn instincts, where and how this season of change could serve you – this time.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Anne Kidd

    Very nice. Well stated.

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thank you! And thank you for reading!

      Reply
  2. Dan

    For the record, I fall into the group that balks at change. Going to read your essay more carefully, then comment further (If I have anything to share or vent).

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thank you for reading, Dan!

      Reply
  3. Rachel

    I thrived on charge but the challenges of change as we age pose different obstacles to the ones we experience when we were younger.

    Reply

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