Dear Young Adult TCK, What is the Price of Adapting?


“I was a chameleon because I knew that to be exposed, to change to the wrong color at the wrong time, to momentarily forget (or genuinely not know) how to go about life like a competent young adult in my passport culture would be incredibly shameful. “

- The Hidden Shame of the TCK, Lauren Wells

Dear Young Adult TCK,

You are an excellent adapter. But, you know this. You have been praised for this skill your entire life. You are great at adjusting and adapting and you have probably found your chameleon nature to be a valuable and necessary trait. It is one of your many superpowers. But, what is the reason behind this constant adapting? I know for me the reason was shame.

When your adapting is fueled by shame, your primary motivation changes from learning how to live in the culture to constantly hiding any trace that you don’t already know how to live in the culture.

Unfortunately, this shame has consequences.

If your goal is to look like you fit in, to look like you know what to do, to look like you are confidently and competently navigating the culture, then you are simply striving to portray and uphold an image. Not only is this exhausting, but it often prevents true connection and support.

Michele Phoenix, a writer and MK advocate, started a wonderful ministry called the “Harbor Project.” The ministry connects MKs (ages 17-24) with people who can support them, show them how to navigate life in the culture, and to simply offer help and hospitality. This seems like an excellent resource, but even as I was listening to her describe it and thinking “I wish this would have been around during my college years.” I simultaneously thought, “Even if it was, I probably wouldn’t have reached out.” Evidently, I am not alone.

In a podcast interview on TCK Care, Michele said this in regard to the Harbor Project:

“The challenge, I’m finding, is getting MKs to reach out for this kind of connection.”

The Harbor Project has over 200 “harbors” around the world (people who have been vetted, interviewed, and are ready to love on TCKs.) Yet, only about 20 MKs have reached out for connection (Michele Phoenix, 2019).

Why is this?

What keeps you from reaching out?

There could be many reasons, but I would imagine a primary one is the underlying shame. By reaching out, you are admitting that you are not quite as confident and competent as you let on. When your mission is to always look like you know what you are doing, reaching out could only feel like defeat. I understand this feeling.

In my college years, I would have thought, “If I reach out for support, I am admitting to myself that I am not as good of a chameleon as I thought I was.”

Not only is that uncomfortable, it is shameful - especially for a TCK who is praised throughout their life for enviable adaptability.

But, dear TCK, the price to pay for looking like we have it all together is the love and support of someone who knows that we really don’t.

We need people to whom we can ask silly questions about how the post office works, how to use the self-checkout at the grocery store, and how to use (or if you even should use!) the public transit. Someone who lets us hang up our chameleon-suit in exchange for a homemade dinner and great, non-threatening conversation about our many global adventures.  

One of the greatest gifts for a TCK is finding people with whom they don’t need to put on a flawless show of brilliant adaptability.

But, I don’t think the challenge is necessarily finding these people.

The challenge is overcoming the shame that says that reaching out to them is weakness.

So, I challenge you. Consider the reason behind your ever-adapting nature. Then, humbly take advantage of the resources available to help you find your people - the people who will get to know the you underneath your adapting-self.

I know it’s hard, but you can do it. After all, us TCKs are always up for a good challenge.

An Adult TCK who wishes she would have had a harbor.

TCK Care (the podcast) is a platform for increasing awareness of TCK issues by encouraging TCK’s to tell their stories and inviting TCK care providers to share their wisdom, providing expert advise on navigating life as a TCK or caring for members of the TCK community. Visit to listen to the podcast with Michele Phoenix. 

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