Third Culture Kids & Purpose

by | Dec 13, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments

Something I hear a lot in sessions with Third Culture Kids is the idea of Purpose –

“What is my purpose?”

“I need to be doing something meaningful”

“I get so frustrated with others when they seem to settle for the mediocre”

Seeking Purpose

The Third Culture Kids I work with are typically highly motivated to contribute something significant to the world, and are often concerned that they aren’t doing enough. Erikson, in his development model, ‘The eight stages of man’, refers to the ages of about 4 to 5 as the significant time in the life course when we become aware of ‘purpose’. We begin to use initiative to achieve our aims, our purpose, and if successful we feel highly motivated to continue reaching for these. If unsuccessful or if we feel shamed or inept in some way, we lose initiative, and instead feel guilt about our lack of purpose.

Guilt may especially orient itself around feeling as thought “I’m being a nuisance”. In their attempts to assert their own goals and desires onto the world, a child may either feel validated or empowered with these efforts are met with approval and are successful, or with guilt if they find their own goals and desires to be unsupported, deemed irrelevant or simply find their efforts are ineffective.

This is another thing I hear –

“I feel guilty and selfish even thinking about taking up that kind of space; I feel it’s important to support others to achieve their aims but it’s really hard to acknowledge my own needs”

Any of the above sound familiar?

Global or Local, Big or Small?

During my time as a researcher of all things TCK, I heard again and again the phrase, “Third Culture Kids are the world’s leaders, global bridge builders”. I heard throw away remarks about Third Culture Kids being destined for greater things than being “McDonald’s service staff”.

And I bridled. As I write that phrase I notice the visceral image that word, “bridled” evokes in me. A horse resisting the bit in his mouth, the bridle at his head – tossing and shaking his head, taking a few steps back from it if possible. Resistance to an imposed limitation.

So many of us were raised with a sense of the importance, the significance, of our parents’ careers. We saw the global implications of the jobs they worked in; the field of concern they communicated was one that took them beyond their own national borders, and their purpose stretched out large. Whether missionaries, humanitarians, businessmen or women, we witnessed what happens when personal purpose is applied on a global scale.

And then many of us heard ours should too.

Which is fine. Unless that global imagination is exchanged for more locally-based purpose. Unless global becomes the only measure of success. Unless global becomes a metaphor for any life purpose which is BIG, and local becomes synonymous with “thinking small”.

If this is the case, and we leave local purpose behind in exchange for must-be-BIG-to-matter Purpose, it becomes a bit in our mouth.

And we either submit or we bridle. 

Submitting to this BIG Purpose model might look feel like dissatisfaction with your current realm of influence. It might feel like perpetual and chronic frustration with those around you who just don’t seem to get how a small life is not, SHOULD not, be enough. It might feel like an aching sense of aimlessness, a search for what the point of you is anyway? It might feel like an internal drive to prove you matter, that you contribute, that you can succeed.

Bridling against this BIG Purpose model feels like security in who you, what you are, and the skills you contribute. It feels like local engagement and global engagement, but with a sense of each realm holding goals and experiences that MATTER. It feels like a deep sense of satisfaction with the work in front of you, not because the work is necessarily fulfilling in and of itself, but because you are being fully YOU as you engage with it.

Submitting to Big-Purpose thinking says, “My Purpose makes me matter”.

Bridling against Big-Purpose thinking says, “I matter, therefore I have Purpose”.

Me? I bridle. You?





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