How often do you feel like a fish out of water; feeling as though you lack the necessary ‘something’ to succeed in your current environment? In short, how often do you find yourself feeling incompetent, or that you are being perceived as incompetent? Are you a Third Culture Kid struggling with your own sense of competence?
The wrong competences?
That perceived part matters. Many Third Culture Kids know they are competent in many things – but that these competences are not necessarily considered of particular value here. Or you may even find that demonstration of an unexpected consequence wins you astonished alarm rather than approval from your peer group. I remember being about eleven years old, in my passport country, and in another dreaded PE class. Despite being relatively strong and athletic, I always hated my physical education lessons. There were so many invisible social hierarchies and gender rules to try and ‘get right’, with the additional pressure of being more publicly visible than the classroom, where I could more easily hide.
This class we were in the gym and tasked with the challenge of climbing a suspended rope. Growing up as I had, climbing trees and anything else even relatively stable, my upper body strength was pretty well developed and, more significantly, I’d failed to receive the memo that my female English peers distanced themselves from physical feats of strength. Eager to be finally good at something, I scrambled to the top with ease. But my competence was the ‘wrong’ kind; causing a certain amount of consternation amongst my peers and for my self too.
From parents to peers…
Erikson’s Psychosocial Development theory sees ages 5/6 to 12 as the time in which we negotiate a sense of industry or inferiority; successful experiences of industry leave us with a sense of our own competence, one we can build on and take with us into our adult life. At this time of life, we begin to look outward from our initial total reliance on home and parental caregivers for our sense of self – we begin to look to our peers. In our broadening social context we try our hand at different experiences, different challenges – often within the context of school – and build up a sense of ‘what we are good at’, and also ‘what we are bad at’. In short, our competentences are intimately connected with our sense of who we are and ‘how good we are’.
And for Third Culture Kids?
The applications of Erikson’s theory for globally mobile children are significant in two ways: Educationally and Socially.
Moving from the home, as the main sphere of activity, to the school requires a big shift in learning and absorbing different behavioural expectations. Children experience a change in the expectation on their physical self – uniforms, sitting a certain way in assembly or in class, games and a certain amount of ‘rough play’. They also experience a shift in behavioural and academic expectations, and learn to compare themselves with their peers as a means of assessing their own performance.
And Third Culture Kids? They don’t adapt to one cohesive educational culture, but to many. TCKs may move school every year, or every few years. They adapt each time to a new set of written and unwritten rules. And their sense of competence? This changes too, with each move. In one school, this behaviour or skill set is valued, in another it’s unremarkable or actually forbidden. The TCK child’s sense of competence changes as rapidly as the feedback they receive for their behaviour, and so there is a good chance that their sense of self as good or acceptable alters just as rapidly.
Am I good at maths? I was in England, I wasn’t in India. Am I good at sports? I was in Nigeria, but I didn’t make the team in Pakistan. Am I a good student? I was in America but not in France.
It turns out competence is not enough. Appropriately applied competence (which is socially constructed) is what teaches us we are acceptable and ‘good’.
And socially? Enquire of yourself what social skills were expected of ‘good’ kids in the various cultures you lived in between the ages of 5 and 12. In my own case, good kids were able to both converse well with adults (mission culture in West Africa) and gravitate more readily to their peers, eschewing adult conversation (English culture, especially at school). Good kids were able to ride bikes (England) and climb trees (West Africa). Good kids were able to tie shoelaces (England) and barter for market goods (West Africa). Good kids knew how to dress fashionably (England, France) and wear local traditional clothing confidently (West Africa).
You get the picture. Two or three worlds of competences are often expected of Third Culture Kids, if not more. Sometimes, we manage to slip through the culture cracks of these expectations because we are ‘not from here’, or we can find a skill we have that may have been considered unremarkable in one world causes us to be celebrated in another. This can be a definite advantage, but it does not signal the kind of competence we need to ‘belong’.
Feeling competent here
To feel able to be perceived as competent here, to feel ourselves to have what we need to succeed, we need to be able to simultaneously value our ‘good for another world’ competences, and engage actively with strengthening the competences that are valued here.
How can we do this? How can we acknowledge our other-skilled-ness AND foster new skills that are needed here? This can feel especially challenging if we have been hurt by misunderstanding and rejection… feeling ourselves unappreciated or alienated from the skill-sets and values required by our present peer group.
It is not unheard of (read British understatement here!) for Third Culture Kids to feel familiar with a kind of imposter syndrome. We can find it difficult to accept or acknowledge our own competencies or own the decisions we have made as leading to our own achievements, for there is an underlying fear that actually, we are a complete fraud and some day we’ll be found out and exposed as ‘not really having what it takes’ and ‘not belonging’.
One really helpful exercise to do if you experience imposter syndrome is to write a kind of ‘holistic CV’ – you list, chronologically, your achievements in different arenas (work, home, family, friendships, etc.) and then frame it or put this up somewhere where you will constantly be reminded of who you are, and what you have learnt to be good at. I suggest that for TCKs, we can add an extra kind of ‘column’ to this exercise, by noting not only the year of the achievement (as many CVs do) but also the country or culture in which it was learnt. Intentionally acknowledging the cultural context of our collected competences both validates and affirms them, especially when they fall outside our current cultural framework.
After completing this exercise, notice how you are now feeling about yourself, and your skill sets. And notice if you feel there are any lacking that you need to succeed or feel ‘good’ in your present context. You learnt all the others, you can learn these too. Perhaps you can prioritise two or three, and sketch out a plan to strengthen these competences today.
However mixed up your sense of your own competence might be in the past, understanding their story and acknowledging them in the present opens up a future that makes space for a stronger sense of self.
If you feel you’d like some support as you work though your own Third Culture Kid story, get in touch with me here – I’d love to hear from you.
This is great, thank you Rachel! I can’t stop thinking about another blog post (can’t find it) where you talk about the loss of status that occurs when you move, when it’s no longer true that people know who you are and what you accomplished. I experienced this most acutely when I moved from the eastern US to the western US at age 22, and maybe especially because I didn’t expect it (same country!!). Only in hindsight do I understand it. But loss of status/loss of competency was also pretty brutal at age 8-11, living in the “wrong” country against my will. At age 30 I have just moved to a completely new country but this time, for the first time, instead of feeling even more fractured, I finally feel that all the threads have come together into a workable whole. Thanks for your role in that! Also, all my competencies have transferred this time. I’ve spent the past 4 1/2 years learning how to be a good stay-at-home mom, and my role is the same here. I know how to cook, parent, and run a home. I just have to make some adjustments to a new culture and environment. Such as hunting for things in the grocery store because the categories are NOT what I’d expect. 🙂
So glad you liked this post (and the other one too about loss of status, loss of story) – thank you for reading! People become reservoirs for our stories and our identities are definitely in some way communal… except when they aren’t! I’m so, so glad you are experiencing wholeness instead of fragmentation this time – how much does the role of your own felt choice and agency play here, I wonder… plus of course years of accumulated processing and skill development! It must massively help that, amidst all the change, your role (and primary social identity) has remained stable… albeit translated into a new context… All the best as your adjustments continue, and may familiarity with grocery stores signal a new sense of home 🙂
Oh, Rachel, I knew this one was going to hit me where I live and I wasn’t wrong…
Every time I try to examine my 8-12 year old phase, the images slide away from me, and reading this makes it very clear why. So much of my identity is tied up with the concept of “competence”, that to look at that period, when my family lifestyle switched from mobile to settled, the rules changed and all my previous understanding of being “good/capable” went out of the window, is extremely painful.
It probably hasn’t helped that my daughter is coming to the end of her journey through this phase as well, so I feel like I’ve been pushing my own experiences away for the last few years to try and avoid them interfering with the support I need to give to her.
I think this is the year I need to tackle this!
So glad this was helpful, Sharon. Our self concept is so tied in to what we are ‘good’ at, so this all makes so much sense.