Territory and Third Culture Kids – Building our Safe Places

by | Jun 26, 2018 | Blog | 4 comments

“Thirty days inside. She’ll hate it, but do it anyway.”

This is the advice I received as I received a cat into my home. I wasn’t sure how to make the transition easier for her so I took to Google and anyone I knew with cats for guidance. And so Jack the cat was confined to my home for thirty days.

They were right. She hated it. I mean, she took it on the chin and would mostly hide her displeasure with a look of disdainful disinterest when doors opened she knew she wouldn’t be allowed to go through. She would sit on windowsills watching me move around the garden with a hurt expression and hover hopefully around thresholds. Out there was so much more interesting than in here.

And then one day, around the thirty day mark, she silently slipped between my legs and out of the house. I held my breath – part of me wanting to give chase, scoop her up and return her to the safety of the Inside. A greater part of me knew she would bolt if I followed, and would be more likely to end up somewhere unknown, and struggle to find her way home. So I paused, watching her calmly examine her new surroundings, and saunter off out of sight. I retreated to the Inside, opened a window, and waited. All Day.

At the end of the day, Jack the cat jumped through the window. She was tired, and gloriously pleased with herself. I expected her to leave the house the next day at the first opportunity. But she didn’t. She has ever since popped in and out, never for very long stretches at a time. In here turns out to have become interesting too.

Why am I telling you about my cat? Because of territory.

Cats are territorial. And this quality became part of Jack’s transition tool kit. For her new home to become fully hers she needed time to transform it into her territory.

She needed to spend so much time in her new home that it frankly bored her. She knew every nook and cranny. She knew the smells and the routines. She could predict our presence by our voices and our footsteps. She knew the best places to eat, sleep and hide. She knew it so much she was done knowing it, and longed for the unknown. She patrolled the borders of her own territory.

It is only because Jack knew her own home so well, that she was able to return to it safely at the end of the day. It was only because she’d spent so much time in it that she was able to feel it as her safe place. Out there was fascinating, stimulating, interesting and exciting… but having home to run to is precisely what made out there safe to explore.

Are Third Culture Kids territorial? Can being territorial add something to our transition tool kits?

I think TCKs tend to avoid territorialism. We avoid limiting ourselves to fixed-border definitions that feel narrowed in their expression. We identify more easily with hybrid motifs… fluid identities, flexible citizenship, non-binary belonging. And yet, so many of my clients are struggling in some way with place and belonging. Where do they belong, and to whom? While able to express strong identities that embrace diversity, the multicultural and the novel, so many of us feel a gap in our experiences; a gap shaped like a safe place. Safe places are shelters. Shelters are, by nature, boundaried in some way. There is an out there and an in here. We use them to retreat from the elements, and their borders give us rest.

A safe place is one where we are known. A safe place is one where we have investment and a voice. A safe place is one where we know how things work. A safe place nourishes us. A safe place reminds us of who we are. A safe place allows growth as well as protection.

Could building territory contribute to the construction of safe places in our lives? I think so.

We can build three kinds of safe place:

A safe physical environment.

A safe community.

A safe self.

And I have a feeling time might come into it all somewhere… I’ll spend some time next week posting about the first of these three safe places, and then watch this space as I cover the second two in the weeks following. Let’s take a journey together.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Dan

    Dr. Rachel, I don’t know what direction your upcoming expansion of the Safe Places will take. But I wonder whether old friends will fall into one of the categories . . . A few of my friendships from Nigeria days still are going strong (this goes back to the middle 40’s and early 50’s). I hadn’t previously thought about these friendships being “safe places,” but now I’m realizing that’s part of what those relationships bring to the table. Yesterday, I learned that one of these friends had passed away a few days ago. And in the sadness, I notice that I also feel diminished, I feel less safe, I miss one more vital connection. Who knew that such a treasured friendship could also be considered one of the dimensions of a safe place? (Well, you, of course!) Now I look at some of the remaining long-term friendships with clearer eyes, and will appreciate them all the more. Looking forward to your exposition.

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thank you for reading, Dan. Yes, old friends are safe spaces for us too… and I’m so sorry for your loss – and that accompanying loss of connection and safety, of feeling known. It’s hard to lose.

      Reply
  2. Marilyn

    This is so wise and good. I have never thought about this, but it makes so much sense. It really fits with Tournier’s work and his idea that you have to have a place to leave a place. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thank you so much for reading Marilyn… it’s one of the big contradictions I’ve found in some of the assumptions we make about TCKs… that we don’t need Place… but we do!

      Reply

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