Third Culture Kids and Burnout

by | Sep 30, 2020 | Blog | 9 comments

I’d been dragging for a few days. Everything was fine – great even, and I’m REALLY good at noticing when things aren’t okay. I’m SO great at noticing when things aren’t okay that I sometimes take a big stick and poke ‘just fine’ into a big pile of ‘not okay’, just so I can say, “I found the next thing to work on!”

Yep. I’m a Third Culture Kid who sometimes finds it hard to cope when things are fine for too long.

I’m wired for change, growth, and adaptation. Finding myself queen of the life I have been doggedly constructing for years, finding that life can adapt around ME… that’s scary stuff.

Not EEK scary. But the kind of scary as when you see your own reflection in one of those funhouse mirrors that turns you upside down, or so wavy in your silhouette that you are barely recognisable. It’s you, but in a form that is strange to your own eyes.

So for me, like for a lot of us wired for the BIG changes, samey fineness can feel a little triggering. Either because it’s not emotionally stimulating enough, or because it feels like the calm before the inevitable storm. We feel the residual strain of the ‘waiting to move’ element of our journey – a case of ‘any moment now…’ when the bottom drops out of our daily routine and relationships.

I’ve begun to notice this restlessness that turns up for me fairly regularly. I’ve learnt to recognise when it’s a constructive prompt to address a stagnating area of my life, or when I’m prodding my stick at something that really doesn’t need the bruising.

But this restlessness was more tired. More discontented with self. More anxious. These felt like signs of burnout.

The article linked above gives a good overview of what burnout means, and what it’s about. While I didn’t feel the compassion fatigue many authors on the topic refer to, I was feeling the lethargy also associated with burnout. This phrase especially caught me…

“The cynicism, depression, and lethargy that are characteristic of burnout most often occur when a person is not in control of how a job is carried out, at work or at home, or is asked to complete tasks that conflict with their sense of self.”

And then I remembered to count the years I had spent in this house – they now number eight. Five years was my personal best, and now we are at eight. Many TCKs have a certain rhythm they are raised with. It might be two year postings, a move every summer, or (like for me) three to four years in the host country, one year in the passport country. Eight years here means I’m coming to the end of my second posting to this “country” as my internal clock would see it. The fact that autumn is upon us and I first moved here in November is not lost on me either.

Coming towards the end of a posting is to feel a certain disengagement, a loss of control over one’s daily routine. You are surrounded by boxes, goodbyes and the ending of things. For many of us, a sense of “what’s the point?” would creep in as we considered spending the time we had left with people. What could be the purpose of that? We couldn’t take them with us, and we may even have felt we no longer served any purpose in their lives.

Burnout for the TCK might well look like this; a sense of “what’s my point?” creeping into every moment of the day.

Everything was fine, but I was feeling increasingly pointless and purposeless.

And then I read this:

“To counter burnout, having a sense of purpose, having an impact on others, or feeling as if one is making the world a better place are all valuable” (from the same article as linked above).

Of course. Purpose is a topic that comes up so much in my work with Third Culture Kids. We seek a way of feeling like we are making a difference in the world around us, and this is so often complicated by being raised in families or organisations with a very clear sense of globally focused purpose. Finding our own sense of purpose is complicated by comparison with this kind of purpose-of-origin but also by the rhythm of our own mobility.

How can we achieve our purpose when our time in place to do so is often truncated, severed… interrupted?

How can we identify our purpose when our meaning to the people and culture around us changed so often?

We set our own purpose.

I remember the day that Sociology as a field stood up as a beacon for me, shining clarity onto how I could move through the world. The teacher explained the notion of social roles – daughter, community member, sister, mother, teacher, partner, cat owner – that we can hold, and how these roles all expect different sets of behaviours from us. Suddenly my life made sense of the internal multiple faces I felt myself wear, the cultural code switching so many of us are so fluent in.

But what if we could focus on our own expectations of ourselves within these roles? That would bring our wibbly wobbly reflection in the funhouse mirror into clarity too.

“What is the purpose of my different identities?”, I asked myself. The question itself is grounding. I am assuming I HAVE purpose. And by assuming purpose I can stay engaged in my geographical and physical world because I am in control of my mobility rhythms these days. I don’t need to disengage from my purpose in preparation for the lack of control that is coming, or the sense that the tasks I am facing are ill-matched to my identity.

I am in control. I choose my tasks. I define my purpose.

And so, while I still get tired and I still have to be mindful of self care and of rest, I can avoid burnout by reminding myself of my purpose.

My purpose as a parent.

My purpose in my close relationships.

My purpose in my community.

My purpose as a therapist.

My purpose as house keeper of my home.

Even my purpose as a pet owner!

I can define these roles and resource myself to meet them to the best of my ability and to my own satisfaction. No need to burn out when we are queen (or king!) of our own lives.

No need to burn. Instead we shine.

 

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Sharon Shaw

    Aaaaahhhhh… the moving cycle; that makes so much sense! I’ve been experiencing a similar sense of restless dissatisfaction, and it ties in with 2-3 year job cycles and intersecting/overlapping house cycles (I haven’t changed employer for a while, but I hit the 3 year mark on my current role back in February, after which lockdown created a kind of Limbo-like pause, and I completed my counselling training two years ago this month). I’ll observe this for a little while; it may be that I just need to let it wash over me.

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      It’s amazing when we look at the internal clock ticking inside of us, isn’t it? Often, like you say, it’s a case of observe and let it wash over us… seeing it as a pattern can help release us from repeating it when doing so would be detrimental to our conscious goals. But sometimes, I find it helpful to take the opportunity to make a smaller, constructive change, if that itch needs scratching.

      Reply
      • Sharon Shaw

        I just finished listening to the podcast as well, and I loved your observation about changing hair or wardrobe after a breakup, as a way of creating positive change out of negative.

        What I have to watch for (and I’ve seen myself do this time and time again) is what you mentioned about doing something destructive as a way of causing change that feels like it’s in my control, before the out-of-my-control change that feels like it’s just over the horizon kicks in.

        Reply
        • Dr. Rachel Cason

          Oh, thanks for listening! Yes, getting to recognize that need for change feeling is super helpful in keeping us in the ‘constructive’ rather than ‘destructive’ zone! We often overlook the big constructive impact that even the smallest shifts in routine can have on us… whether that’s switching to take out (or trying a new recipe) tonight, or learning a new hobby… the magic is often in the mundane…

          Reply
  2. Megan Gardner

    I’ve also been in love with sociology since my first exposure to it! <3

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      It’s such a fantastic field!

      Reply
      • Megan

        After my Christian faith, it is the #1 way I make sense of the world I live in.

        Reply
  3. TRACEY TRICKEY

    The moving cycle- I wondered why I was getting “itchy feet” after 2 years of living in the States and now I’m up to 5. Makes complete sense. Thank you for your article.

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thank YOU for reading and commenting!

      Reply

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