The Third Culture Kid drive to “be good”

by | Jun 27, 2022 | Blog | 2 comments

I’m currently sat at my desk in a mild slumpy grumpy space. It’s because I’ve eaten too much sugar, and drunk too much coffee and now I feel I need a good long lie down. I want to hide from myself, because I’m cross that I over-indulged. However, given that I’m me, I’m feeling curious as well as grumpy – why did I do it? Why did I eat and drink more than was good for me? Now I’m getting all philosophical and asking the BIG question – why do we do what we don’t want to do, and why don’t we do what we want?

I reckon it’s because of the stories we carry of how to be a “good person”.

You see, my peanut butter cookie fiasco started because though it’s what I wanted to start with – I didn’t put them on my plate. Instead I saw a slice of cake that “needed eating up” and so I put that on my plate instead. Turns out it should have been enjoyed yesterday but I dutifully ate it up anyway (because we don’t waste food!) but then my need to have something lovely hadn’t actually been met. Though my calorie intake was satisfied, my NEED hadn’t been. So I had the aforementioned peanut butter cookies as well. And now I feel a little poorly.

What does this have to do with Third Culture Kids? Well, for me – the stories I am telling in this mundane little scenario have everything to do with my history. Many grew up with an “anti-waste” policy but my story weaves an intimate relationship with famine into this message too. My religious upbringing leant me a certain ambivalence around “indulgence” too – hence my easy disregard of what I actually wanted in the first place.

In other words, I told myself a story of “shouldn’t waste” and this combined with my de-prioritising of my actual felt need for loveliness, meant I got the worst of all worlds. The danger of this, is my slight queasiness could easily encourage a narrative that sugar is bad and that I deserve what I got. A hard story; a story that tells us that we shouldn’t do this or that, and that if we do we will be less worthy of love.

So many of us carry hard stories. Stories that tell us:

“You have to keep people happy so they’ll love you.”

“You have to be thinner so people will love you.”

“If I make all the right decisions, I’ll be worthy.”

“If I work till exhaustion, I’ll know I’ve worked hard enough.”

We tend to carry these stories when we’ve grown up trying to figure out the rules, whilst carrying anxiety about not being able to do it “right”. Does this sound familiar? As TCKs we are constantly trying to figure out the (new) majority culture, find our way into it, and persuade others that we belong and are worthy of inclusion. And that inclusion often feels conditional.

In other words, I did do exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to feel like a good person. Why? Because people like good people. And other people (majority cultures) get to determine the qualifying features of a “good person”. And my internal story that I’m running on a loop says that to be a good person I should eat the thing that will create least waste. And drink all the coffee you made while it’s hot even if you aren’t enjoying it anymore.

My need to be a good person will always, always outweigh other needs – these other needs are less critical to my sense of social safety after all. So when I feel I’m compulsively doing something I don’t really want to do, or holding back from doing something I do want to do, it’s worth pausing the self criticism and frustration a moment to get curious and ask, “What is it about this that is making me feel like a better person than if I don’t do it this way?”

In many ways, it’s useful to be able to adapt this way. It aids social involvement and helps create a sense of safety that we feel control over – like an algorithm we can work out how to be accepted: if I do (a) they’ll do (b). Or if I do (a) they’ll think I’m (b).

Ultimately this is how human beings work – we will sacrifice a lot to our need to feel like a good person. And I hope that my silliness about cookies doesn’t distract from the power that this has over so many daily moments. Whether I impose my opinion in a conversation or not will be heavily linked to whether or not I believe it will make me a better or worse person for doing so. Whether I say yes to this relationship or no to that career opportunity is very much influenced by my belief in these stories I have created about myself – and these are themselves influenced by the stories I was taught in the cultures I was raised.

And here is the crux of the complication – different cultures have different sets of “good people” expectations. And we can easily feel paralysed by the horrible reality that achieve good person status in one cultural context may be precisely what gets us ostracized in another cultural context. So how do we decide the story to live by?

It’s a lot of work to sift through the stories we’ve accumulated, and decide which ones serve best the story we want to write in the future. Sometimes we worry that even this process of sifting is being dismissive or critical of the stories we have lived so far. Or that it’s being critical of the people who taught us how to be “good” in these contexts. I believe that we can assess how helpful our past stories have been to us without forgetting how important these chapters have been to our lives. Choosing our story moving forward is not rejecting the story that has been – simply recognising that for our current context, past adaptations aren’t helpful anymore.

So if we are allowed to choose the story that serves us best, what would mine sound like today? “I’m worthy when I eat more than I want to AND when I eat just what I want to. But turns out my body is happier when I listen to its needs”. Next time, I’ll just eat the cookies.

What’s the story you are working with today?



  1. Megan

    This article did not go the direction I was expecting it to! Thank you so much for your thoughts. I am also extremely anti-waste, which goes back further in my family than our experience in Niger — back to my grandmother living through a famine in Ukraine, and even before that, to our Mennonite family history and values.

    I guess I spend a lot of time orchestrating things on a macro level, so that I usually don’t run into too many issues on a micro level. Too much hot coffee? Extra gets sugar added, then put in the fridge to later be enjoyed with milk as iced coffee. (Then I just have to remember to drink it!) Also, the freezer is my friend. My grandma’s deep freeze was always filled with bits of things she had saved. I’m the same way but trying to proactively use them before they get freezer burnt…

    So I guess you could say I’m “coping” very well with the issue you’ve described… whether I should have that issue at all is a different question. 🙂 The litmus test for me is when something I value (avoiding food waste) becomes more important to me than the people I value (do I get angry at people for wasting food? would I serve something to my family that is actually questionable and ought to be thrown away?).

    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this, Megan! A lot of us grow up anti-waste, and get really good at it. But like you say, it’s so easy to justify that position that we can risk putting being “right” before the people we love (or even strangers we don’t know but who we judge by our anti-waste standards).


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