So this is the second of four posts in which I explore the ways in which Third Culture Kids can engage in territory (or the building of safe places) as a means to more groundedness and belonging.
A safe place is one where we are known. A safe place is one where we have investment and a voice. A safe place is one where we know how things work. A safe place nourishes us. A safe place reminds us of who we are. A safe place allows growth as well as protection.
Last week we looked at how we can make home a safe place in our lives, and today I wanted to talk about community.
So many of the TCKs I work with long for community. Many of us were raised in expat communities or communities that were tightly knitted and orientated around our parents’ workplace. Perhaps our community came ready-made through our schools, or compounds, or places of worship. Perhaps we long for community because we never had any one. Perhaps we felt isolated by our mobility; cut off from the support of extended family and the comfort of old friends. Perhaps we never felt safe in our friendships because they were always somehow new, and prone to disappearing with a simple plane ride.
So, if it is so longed for, why is community so elusive to us adult TCKs?
Well, I see two factors that interfere with community-building in the lives of TCKs.
- It’s scary.
- It’s hard.
It’s scary because community is a network and, like other networks, works best with strong connections made between individuals that are maintained. Strength of connection requires intimacy and maintenance of connection requires time – and these can be the two most scary things we can face as TCKs. We often talk of making deep connections fast, but how many of us pursue truly intimate relationships – ones where we allow others to glimpse our inner emotional worlds, those trembling vulnerable places at the very core of our being? Intimacy is terrifying. And time? Time in one community, one place… Investment in one population? Time means seasons, means rhythm… means repetition… means Mundane. Another scary experience for the TCK, one which I’ve written more about here.
And it’s hard to build community because… well, all of the above. We have developed mechanisms that have protected and nurtured us in our fast-paced, spontaneous, varied whirling world of experiences, but these gifts have tended to leave us with a certain Achilles’ heel; we aren’t always gifted in the ways of community building. The mechanisms of long-term friendships, and local network building seem to elude us.
So how to we build community? How do we create for ourselves in adulthood that network of support that sustains us and cheers us on? How do we invest in a network that will challenge us and strengthen us? How do we make (and keep) friends that are interdependent, mutually stimulating and fulfilling?
First, we decide that we are going to do this; we decide that we can do this.
If we have grown up in ready-made community, or we have spent years witnessing what seems to be the ease with which others have built community, we may have concluded that we are just bad at this. And maybe we are (!) But we can learn! We are TCKs, chameleon adapters and new skill seekers… we can learn to do community. And once we decide to commit to the building of community, our safe place already has some sure foundations set.
So then what? We have established our foundations through a simple declaration of will, but what next? Then we take stock of what we have. What resources for building do we already possess? For resources, see people. What people do we currently have in our lives? List them, mind map them, create beautiful graphics – whatever floats your boat, do it! Now note the people you actually like. There might well be people who it’s important you continue to invest in, for the sake of work or family for example. But we are talking about safe space building here… and the only people you want in your safe community are people you like! If there are people you struggle to connect with safely, but who you want to keep involved in your life, then these will need investment too. But focusing on how you can invest in these safely is probably the subject of another post. So for now I’m just focusing on those people you choose to build into your safe community. If you don’t know many people you like, who do you want to get to know better? Note these too.
Now, what are you currently doing to invest in these relationships? We are often good at initiating, but less gifted at maintaining… what are you currently doing to maintain relationships with people you like? Perhaps even initiating is a challenge – perhaps you are accustomed to being a “ghost” in the lives of others, and assume your presence would hold only the faintest relevance to them? Note ways that feel “safe” to initiate deeper relationship with people you want to get to know better – a brief conversation, a Facebook message, an email, a phone call, a coffee date.
Perhaps you are reading this and your list of people feels depressingly few. So let’s dig deep. What kinds of people do you like? What kinds of people do you want to spend time with? What places do these people spend time at? What classes do they take? What do they spend their leisure time doing?
No idea what people you are interested in? Dig deeper. What are you interested in? What places do you like to spend time? What classes interest you? What do you know nothing about but are interested in? What are you good at? Where do people who are good at these things go? Where can you meet others like you?
And this is the start of intimacy. Knowing ourselves, and being willing to share that self with others. Start small, with a hobby. Find those safe people you can share you with. Find people who are willing to share themselves back. And then spend time with them. Rinse and repeat over time. This is how we build community.
Next week I’ll be looking more at how we can make our own Self a safe place. There our times when our own stories, our own histories, feel dangerously fragmented. There are times when our patterns of behaviour seem to disrupt the things we want most in the world. So let’s spend a little time making our Selves a little more secure. See you next week!
As one who has reached a stage of life where I’m much less mobile, I’m presently finding community in email friendships and in sharing my memoirs (again, a function of the Internet). Thanks, Dr. Rachel, for your thoughtful analysis and suggestions.
Yes, virtual community is a thing too! Glad you have found creative ways to nurture community as a safe place despite limited mobility, Dan. Thanks for reading!
Once again, Rachel , your post has hit home. Just back in the UK after a visit to Canada (‘home’) that involved reconnecting with my 2 brothers and a dear family friend – all of whom are ATCKs, accustomed , whether we recognise it or not, in being ‘ghosts’ in the lives of others. We’re each dealing with our experiences of being global nomads over many years in a range of ways that reflect the characteristics you describe so well. ‘Going home’ always seems to amplify the ATCK themes of your work – and I’m back here in the UK experiencing that all-too-familiar ‘where do I belong/where is home’ anxiety – and your insights about safe-space building are spot-on, from my perspective. I really appreciate your comments about ‘the people you like’ – Pook (in Edmonton, via Ottawa, Montreal, England, Guernsey and the US), Andrew (in Atlanta via Boston ,Toronto, Montreal, the Netherlands, England and Guernsey), and Jeff (in Lewes, via Uganda, Toronto and Singapore) – hope you guys are reading this!
Thanks, as ever, for your words of wisdom, Rachel. They always seem to appear just when I need them most!
Thank you so much for reading, Sherry, and for your kind words! I hope the ‘going home’ anxiety eases as you focus in on your safe people 🙂