Painting Pictures: A Whole Self

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Painting Pictures: A Whole Self

*If you are raising/have raised TCKs or are living overseas and are close to or beyond retirement age, here is a chance to contribute to a unique anthology of essays about the experience of being on the other side of TCKs. At Zuzu’s Petals check out her call for submissions to Third Culture Generations. I’ve got a few years to go but I would guess that there are a number of readers who have stories to share.

painting pictures1Today’s Painting Pictures post is brought to you by Dr. Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg. True story: I met Dr. Susannah when she wrote a blog post rebuking me for my ‘Mom Voice’ in my post 20 Things Expats Need To Stop Doing. Honestly, it was a tough read. Aren’t all critiques? And I hadn’t had very many yet in my writing life, though they are beginning to come faster and harder. But also it was a tough read because she was right. Seeing my words through her eyes challenged and changed me. I wrote to thank her for the perspective she brought to the piece and to thank her for reminding me of grace. And then, because of more grace, Dr. Susannah and I started corresponding on Twitter and I discovered she is filled with wisdom in all kinds of areas, and encouragements. I am thankful for iron sharpening iron, for new friends who refuse to let me settle with lazy writing, and for how Dr. Susannah motivates me to think deeper and to write clearer. I’m thankful for her way of seeing the expat world and especially the TCK world through the eyes of a trained psychologist, writing from Kuwait about the psychological processing of being a TCK and offers practical steps and comforting words of the normalcy of the emotions, ups and downs, of being one whole, healed person.

A Whole Self

The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. ~Ruth van Reken

heart2“I don’t really know how to answer that,” said my friend, also a psychologist, in response to my question, “Where’s home?” To be fair, I knew it was a loaded question for him because I am familiar with his background. His father is English, his mother Lebanese/French and he was born in Qatar. He has lived in several different countries in his life, eventually settling in Beirut with his wife. He went on to say that he feels there is a fundamental difference between himself and his wife. “She has her place. Beirut is ‘home’ for her, and I know she has a settledness that I lack. I don’t know where ‘my place’ is, and that internal restlessness is always with me. It feels like a sore spot that I can’t help but keep poking to see if it still hurts. It always does.

Knowing I was going to write on TCKs for Djibouti Jones from a psychology perspective, I’ve been asking my colleagues about their experiences personally and professionally with this issue. As with my friend, the theme that came up repeatedly was no fixed sense of ‘home.’ Even though one of the women I spoke to has lived in the same country for over 20 years, she described herself as “…parked, not planted.” When I explored what that meant to her, she felt that she had no real roots. Even though she acknowledged that her life in her chosen country is “probably” permanent, she felt herself fundamentally disconnected from that reality in ways she could hardly articulate, even to herself. Another person I asked described his living arrangements as “…sort of like trying on different jackets. So far, I haven’t found one that truly fits me, and I’m beginning to think I’m not going to.” This particular man is Dutch, born in Saudi Arabia, and lived in eleven different countries with his family before leaving for university in the Netherlands. He described his internal response on returning to Kuwait as “profoundly moving.” He finds that he is most “at home” in the Middle East, but logistics and prudence keep him from making the connection permanent.

When I asked my friend (he of the ‘sore spot’) what he thought were the benefits of being a TCK, he listed several – a global perspective, adaptability, cultural fluency, a genuine appreciation for the differences in humanity, resourcefulness, independence, self-reliance and a “well developed sense of adventure.” I then asked him about the downside, and he looked sad. “I always feel slightly disconnected from my own life and I am mindful that I have no really firm attachments. I know from my own therapy process that one of my core beliefs is that everything is temporary, and getting too attached to anything – be it a place, an object, or a person is stupid. It all changes at some point.”

Here’s some things I’ve learned as a psychologist in the years I’ve worked with ATCKs.

First, there’s all the stuff around culture shock. This is well-documented, and it helps to read something just to have that foundational understanding of what’s happening. There are stages of acculturation that you can actually recognize as being normal under the circumstances, and not necessarily a consequence of being TC. (A good choice would be The Expat Arc: An Expat’s Journey Over Culture Shock; Danielle Barkhouse).

Second, the issues that come with the third culture experience complicate the standard adjustment bumps one can expect in changing cultures in any case. This is where the “sore spot” happens. That wound can be an inherent part of an ATCKs identity. Not ever having truly belonged, as the quote that begins this post highlights, has ramifications in the development of one’s sense of self. In my experience, one of the things that seems common is the tendency of the ATCK to idealize a particular place/time. In Cecily’s post (Seven Stages of Re-Entry Grief), she talks about her sense of alienation in Australia, and how she longed for Pakistan. This is to be expected and it’s normal.

As a psychologist, when I explore this same scenario (Cecily’s) with you, what I usually find is that, in truth, you also felt marginalized or excluded in the formative culture as white, Western, expat, foreign, weird, mixed-culture, wrong religion, wealthy …whatever. But – this is the key – in the discomfort and distress of trying to adjust to the current culture, you don’t remember the truth of this.

heartWe, you and I, work together to build a balanced perspective of the formative culture, the current culture, and the values common to both. We explore how many people confuse principle and practice, and thus become rigid or inflexible, incapable of adapting to new situations and circumstances. As you identify the values that are important to you, we then figure out how those values are manifesting in the current culture. We talk about unresolved grief – a lifetime of losses, accumulated mostly without the opportunity to mourn. We make Stones of Remembrance. We laugh. We cry. I am witness to your rage of letting go. Not only of the hurts of the present, but also of the wounds of the past, never truly acknowledged in the effort to be accepted in the formative culture. Together, we clean out that deeply buried reservoir of the flotsam and jetsam of relational fractures, wounded self, and thwarted or bent dreams. And the whole time, we keep coming back to the work of defining ‘home.’

Lastly, we talk about the impact of coming back to your own identified culture and immediately running into the expectation that you as “one of us” will know the nuances, etiquette, inside jokes, and social zeitgeist of your peers. And we talk about what happens to your already fractured sense of self when you don’t, and what can be done about it.

Practically speaking, there are things you can do to maximize the upside and minimize the downside of this reality.

  1. Focus on people/relationships.
  2. In some way, collect “Stones of Remembrance.” These are not necessarily actual stones, but rather tangible mementos of a time and place you wish to remember.
  3. Mindfully, consciously accept that “home” for you will always have a different experiential meaning than it does for others and that it is up to you to define what ‘home’ means.
  4. If you’re going to be returning to your own culture and you’ve got “missing years,” take some time to learn about the social trends, the movies, the pop culture of those years when you were elsewhere. Google is your friend, as are archived issues of People magazine, the NewYorker, and such like.
  5. Expect to feel lonely. And restless. Without mindfulness, self-knowledge, and deliberate self-care, those feelings may overwhelm you.
  6. Talk. Talk with others. Join forums, find a therapist who understands what it’s like to be American/Canadian/British/Whatever on the outside and Kenyan/Indian/Malaysian/Arab/Confused on the inside.
  7. Own your TCK self. Name your fears, name your losses, own your wounds and your choices. There’s a great exercise on page 262 of chapter 19 of Third Culture Kids (David C. Pollock & Ruth Van Reken) It’s worth doing. If you can’t manage it by yourself, do it with a therapist.
  8. Celebrate who you are and how you came to be the you that you are (there’s a Dr. Seuss rhyme in there somewhere).

Resources (some I’m sure you have!)

Family Variables in the Cultural and Psychological Adjustment of Third Culture Kids

So Where’s Home?


susannahDr. Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg is a Canadian behavioural health psychologist traveling the world on a busman’s holiday. Currently parked in Kuwait, she is a culture vulture, seeing the world through the lens of her camera, the eyes of her grandsons, and the framework of psychology. Makes for an interesting mix. Bossy from birth, compassionate by choice, and funny by accident, Dr. Susannah writes about anything that catches her attention. Follow her on twitter.


  1. Janneke @DrieCulturen July 9, 2013 at 7:52 pm - Reply

    Thanks you Dr. Suasannah and Rachel for this very thoughtful, insightful post. I am an adult TCK and can identify with these words. What concerns me is that many (expat)parents do not realize that there is a real difference between an adult making a couple of international moves and a child (who is still forming his/her own identity) making these same moves. Their experience is completely different! It concerns me that there are expat parents who do not want to hear the negative side. They say that “all is well because my kid even adjusts faster than I do, they learn the language quicker…”. The speed of which a child adjusts does not say anything about the impact this kid of lifestyle will have in the long run.
    I hope there will be more therapists worldwide who have knowledge and experience in working with TCKs and ATCKs, like you Dr Susannah. I still hear stories of therapists who have not even heard of what a third culture kid is.
    Thanks for your 8 tips. Writing my blog helps me feel more of a whole person by the way. A great discovery!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones July 10, 2013 at 5:12 am - Reply

      You’re exactly right, it is different for adults than it is for kids. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to start this series. Since I’m not a TCK I know I have a lot to learn but I want it to be rounded, and then I need to be sure to take into consideration my own family. Sad that some parents and therapists aren’t more aware.

  2. Susannah July 10, 2013 at 6:53 am - Reply

    Very relevant observation, Janneke. Some of the wounds I help ATCKs deal with is the “…dismissive, cavalier attitude my parents had to the pain their choices caused me, their child.”
    There is much parents can do to minimize these painful moments, and it all starts with being able to talk (without fear of criticism) of what’s it really like, in the moment to be affected by the decisions and choices of the adults in the family. Sadly, as you point out, many parents don’t get this, deny it, or ignore it.
    Much of the same can be said of therapists, unfortunately, in their response to the truth of the TCK experience.

  3. Susannah July 10, 2013 at 7:51 am - Reply

    No matter how much one proofs… *sigh*

    The paragraph that begins “When I explore…” should actually say, “As a psychologist, when I explore…”

    Among other things, writing for the world is an exercise in humility. 🙂

    Rachel, you have brought together such a diverse group of voices, able to express the TCK experience in ways that resonate with those who often feel they lack the words to speak the truth of their experience. Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this so, so excellent series. I plan to print all the contributions and bind them as a resource for my ATCK clients.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones July 10, 2013 at 12:19 pm - Reply

      I’m on it, will get that fixed. I so appreciate your voice, as a trained professional I feel like you have so much to offer. Great idea about binding them all together, I love that! I’ve been planning to add another page to the blog with all the links together, just haven’t done it yet. It will be nice to have them in one place I think. As far as I have lined up, the series is just getting going! I’m pumped about what has already been written and what is coming.

      • Susannah July 12, 2013 at 7:00 pm - Reply

        Thank you, Rachel. Having “Painting Pictures” in one clickable link would be wonderful. A great place to send those who need the collective wisdom and identification with others who’ve experienced many of the same things.

  4. Marilyn Gardner July 10, 2013 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    I waited until today to comment. I sent this to a friend, another ATCK and her response was “Where does one find a therapist such as this one???” High praise indeed and I would agree. So here’s my question: What have you found with ATCK’s who do go on to raise TCK’s? I seemingly went through none of this as long as I was living overseas, but it hit so hard when we moved to the United States. Some of it may be that we moved to New England, a place that is considered tolerant but so dismissive of anyone who thinks differently or comes from elsewhere. Liberal but world view narrow didn’t sit right with me. There were no forums. There were immigrants and refugees and that’s who I connected with. I finally found a therapist but it was over other issues – although my sense was that he got the TCK piece. But why did all of this not surface earlier overseas? What have you found in your work around ATCK’s who stay in one place after being raised globally vs. ATCK’s who move from place to place. And thanks ahead of time for your wisdom.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones July 11, 2013 at 12:33 pm - Reply

      Great questions. I’m looking forward to her responses. I love your friend’s question too.

    • Susannah July 12, 2013 at 6:48 pm - Reply

      Hi Marilyn! I’ve read your posts and your wisdom has very much been a part of what I’ve shared with the ATCKs I know.

      Briefly, many of the issues of being TCK don’t show up while in the formative culture because the “Mental Supervisor” that governs our processing is almost always on duty. We are mindful of the fact that every encounter has the potential to blow up into something ugly/huge/shaming/insulting/whatever, and we monitor our responses accordingly. On a subconscious level, we never forget that we will never be Korean/Indian/Whatever. (It’s part of the reason that many TCKs/ATCKs experience a sense of ‘freedom’ in flying away from the foreign country. The Mental Supervisor goes “off duty” and there is a sense of relaxation/relief.)
      We often have a grace for ourselves in the formative culture that we do not have in the identified culture. In other words, we have completely different expectations. This is also true of others in both the formative culture and the identified. We will be excused for our cultural mistakes in the formative culture much more readily than in our identified culture, and so we experience a sense of criticism, judgment, and censure that may be more obvious and open than it is in the foreign place.

      In my work with ATCKs, I’ve found that they tend to fall into two camps – those who cannot tolerate being too long in one place and who usually end up overseas again, and those for whom the idea of moving overseas makes them feel physically ill. This group looks for a place of permanence, a place to belong – to make home. This doesn’t mean they don’t continue to feel lonely or unconnected, but this group tends to eventually find a measure of security, both mentally and emotionally in the feeling of permanence – as in, “I’m NOT moving.” The former group become almost perpetual nomads, and it is this group that I see most often because they are endlessly looking for something that they have never defined. Until they do, of course, they won’t find it.

      As for finding a therapist, I always suggest to people who ask me this that they ask the therapist how much work they’ve done with refugees & immigrants. Not second or third generation, but people who’ve come to America (or in my case, Canada) within the last 10 years. If they’ve not had any exposure to this demographic, I suggest they keep looking. The other alternative that has worked is to ask the therapist to read “Third Culture Kids.” If the therapist is willing, then very likely, working together will be beneficial. If the therapist refuses, keep looking.

      • Rachel Pieh Jones July 12, 2013 at 6:56 pm - Reply

        Wow. Thank you. This could be a blog post in itself. Great advice on finding a therapist and deep wisdom on some of the adult issues. Even not as a TCK and simply an expat I totally resonate with what you said about having more grace in the host culture, on myself. If I don’t know something back in the US or mess up, I beat myself up. If I do here, I chalk it up to being a foreigner. So helpful to recognize that. Wow again.

        • Marilyn April 1, 2015 at 12:18 pm - Reply

          Oh I’m so sorry – I didn’t even see this! Did you use as a blog post and I missed it??

      • Marilyn April 1, 2015 at 11:24 am - Reply

        I just re-read this comment and can’t thank you enough. So much wisdom in here. Copying it for future use. I wonder if I might use it in a blog post?

  5. […] Arpin tailored every meeting to the specific cultural background of the patient. My childhood spent in Sri Lanka, Zambia, Thailand, Pakistan and India as well as my time in Los […]

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