Third Culture Kids & Making a Mark

by | Apr 21, 2020 | Blog | 2 comments

Mark-making is a phrase we associate, here in the UK at least, with the experimental lines and swirls that pre-school children make before they learn to form letters. Making a mark is an important developmental phase that lays the foundations of letter formation, leading towards a formalised communication style that helps them to communicate with others.

For adults, making a mark refers to the ability to make oneself visible in a positive way – to be seen and heard, to be considered a beneficial and welcome presence. Making a mark involves risk-taking, self-expression, and doing things that are seen and heard by others.

For adults, and from the point of view of  Erikson’s eight stages of man, mark-making is essentially our goal from ages 40 to 65. At this stage, he claims, we chase generativity, ways of making a mark on the world around us that will outlast us. We seek to make an impact. Failure to do so leads to a sense of stagnation and that our connection to the world around us is limited and shallow. Success leads to us a sense that we are able to effectively care for the world around us, and feel we have been able to connect our life to those around us.

There is a recurrent theme I hear from the Third Culture Kids I work with – a sense of hesitancy or fear around making a mark on the world around us.

Can we make a mark?

Some of us fear we simply aren’t capable of making a mark. I heard one TCK refer to themselves as “a ghost in other people’s lives”. They carried with them such a sense of temporary connection to others, always being ready to be whisked away before they could feel the weight of themselves develop and ‘land’ in the community around them. Frequent mobility can lead us to assume others can do very well without us (and that we can do very well without them). Our repeated experiences of dislocation and starting again can lead us to believe that we simply aren’t able to leave discernible fingerprints behind us; our presence is as ethereal as it is fleeting. We believe we can’t make a mark.

What if we make the WRONG mark?

I have noticed that many of us Third Culture Kids carry with us an immense sense of responsibility for the well being of those around us. The origins for this may be varied – perhaps we were raised in a missionary context, with a sense of urgency around personal salvation? Perhaps we were raised in a humanitarian context, highly attuned to the medical or other physiological needs of the population hosting us? Maybe it’s a simple as always being the foreigner in any given context… so if any misunderstanding or hurt occurs we willingly take responsibility for it – after all, it’s probably us that got something wrong, right? Personally I’m conscious of a belief that my role in this world is to ‘be no trouble’; a belief that leads me to fear that leaving any mark that challenges/confronts/needs is the wrong one.

What if we don’t make enough of a mark?

Many TCKs grew up with parents whose mark-making ‘reach’ appeared intimidatingly broad. Perhaps our parents were working on national or international literacy or health programs, working in international development or aid, representing their government diplomatically or militarily. Or perhaps if their career didn’t seem to make a significant mark in itself, the perception people had our family was that we lived an ‘extraordinary life’ – we made a unique mark simply by following an expat/international/globally-minded/highly mobile trajectory. Many of us were raised to think globally, and so we expected (or others expected us) to make marks that represented the same broad scale – reach – IMPACT.

I hear a lot of anxiety in TCK stories around feeling that their contribution to the world is somehow inadequate, not enough. This sense of scale regarding mark-making can lead to a high value being placed on volunteerism, or finding work that feels meaningful both to the individual and to a broader community. It can also lead to anxiety, a sense of meaninglessness, a sense of the smallness of one’s own existence and disconnect from higher value pursuits.

What if making a mark takes up too much space?

And here is another one… okay, I decide I CAN make a impact… that I can make an impact that I feel MATTERS and is important, ENOUGH even. But what if it’s ‘too much’? What if my making a mark is seen by other people as intrusive, loud, abrasive, ‘over the top’? Basically… what if I am seen?

So many of us long to be seen… to be truly understood and noticed for who we feel ourselves to be – underneath the mash-up of cultural compositions and mixed up accents and unexpected life experiences. But to get what we long for? Does that sound more scary to you than remaining misunderstood, invisible, sliding into the social gaps left by the bigger, more assured personalities around you?

Making a mark does take up space. Telling your story takes air time. Moving through the world might even leave a footprint or two.

And we need to do this.

Making our mark

We need to make a mark on the world around us to feel truly connected to it.

Do you know what mark you want to make?

Do you know what shape that mark is?

Do you have a sense of your impact on the people around you?

I don’t want to be a ghost in other people’s lives. I want to live my own life. I want to pursue my own purpose. And I want that purpose to connect with other people. In Erikson’s terms, I can feel in my bones the significance of mark-making to my sense of living a successful life. I want to matter.

I want to matter.

Even writing that phrase causes a churning in my gut. I know how hard that is for so many of us to say; “I want to matter.”

Try it. Whisper it. Shout it. Sing it!

Because you do. Who you are lays the most beautiful imprint on this earth of ours. Your unique mark cannot be made by any other. Because you are you.

And you matter.






  1. Dan

    Bullseye, Dr. Rachel! Just last evening, I commented to a friend that my reason for making and sharing some recordings he was helping me with was to leave a tangible legacy to my family and friends. Just one of a number of possible personal illustrations of Making a Mark. The recordings represented years of effort and performance. Relating it to Erikson’s timetable, it fell more like in the timeframe of 30 to 65 (that particular mark-making of which the recordings are a historical imprint) . Probably not my most significant “Marks,” but your super essay falling so closely in time to my discusion with my friend, tickled me no end. Significant, indeed, to consider one’s life from the viewpoint of Making a Mark. I’ll bet this piece rings many bells.


    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thanks for reading, Dan! Legacy matters – I’m glad you’ve found a way of sharing your story so well – wonderful!


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