Adult TCKs

Numbing Emotions and Feeling Feelings


“We cannot successfully numb emotion. If we numb the dark, we numb the light. If we take the edge off pain and discomfort, we are, by default, taking the edge off joy, love, belonging, and other emotions that give meaning to our lives.” – Brene’ Brown, Dare to Lead


Numbing emotion is a skill I mastered as a young TCK during the years of transition, loss, and traumatic events. I became excellent at being strong and independent and was seemingly unphased by events that would be grief-inducing for most. The great thing (I thought) about this approach to not grieving, is that it looked very successful. I looked like I was doing quite well despite all that I had gone through. I was not an angry child or teen, I was not turning to substances or unhealthy behaviors, I seemed to be a parent’s dream child – holding it all together through the difficult times, easily adaptable, very good in school, well behaved, etc. I felt like I had successfully usurped the challenging TCK life and had maintained my persona of the perfect missionary kid. Fifteen years, marriage, and two kids later, I realized that my skillful ability to not feel emotion while looking like I was successfully handling life, was actually a very unhealthy coping mechanism that my brain never learned to switch off.

A few years ago, in an interview with a therapist who works with TCKs, he said something that stuck with me. He said that it is not the child who is acting out behaviorally or emotionally that he is usually concerned about - though that child is usually why the parents come to him. It is the child who seems to not be struggling, is very independent, and who the parents aren’t worried about that he is most concerned for. The child who is obviously acting out is at least releasing grief and emotion in some way. The other child, however, is not grieving at all and while that seems fine (and is even easier on the family) at the time, sooner or later it will catch up to them.

Emotional numbing is a common trend for TCKs, especially those who:

  • Feel the need to be/look successful

  • Are naturally independent

  • Are the firstborn and/or have firstborn tendencies

  • Feel they don’t have permission/opportunity to grieve

  • Feel they will let people down if they are not strong

  • Have a deep need and desire to have it all together

  • Have parents who do not demonstrate a healthy grieving process


Some, like me, struggle with this only internally and are able to keep it hidden and contained… for a while. Others may turn to addictive substances and other unhealthy behaviors.

One adult TCK said to me, “I couldn’t handle the intense emotions any other way than by sleeping with any guy that would take me. My emotions were just too intense for me to deal with and I had no other release.”

Like that TCK, the emotions, no matter how well you stuff them, have to eventually come out at some point in some way.

For me, it was the realization of my tendency to turn off emotion during difficult times as easily as flipping a light switch.

As I continue go through the hard process of learning to feel feelings, I am reminded of the importance of caring for young TCKs. By helping TCKs learn to process grief while they are young, you are setting them up for a healthier adulthood - one where they can experience all the feelings: joy, sadness, love, belonging, angst, excitement, etc.

If you are an adult TCK, it is never too late to resolve your unresolved grief and learn how to manage the coping mechanisms that got you through the hard times. Join me in learning to be ok with being in process.

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. 

Copyright © 2019 TCKTraining, All rights reserved.

The Hidden Shame of the TCK

TCKs are often referred to as cultural chameleons. They have a wonderfully complex ability to morph into the present culture, environment, and situation. They blend in in a way that makes them look like a native, though they are often anything but.

This trait is a valuable form of protection. It keeps them from always looking like the outsider (though it may not keep them from constantly feeling like one) and it helps them to be successful and accepted in any culture.

I have noticed in my work with TCKs, that it is typically between the ages of 13 to 25 that they take on the most chameleon-like form. In this time period, they are uncomfortably aware of the peering eyes of those around them (real or perceived) and they are simultaneously not yet comfortable in their own skin.

OR, they don’t even know what their own skin looks like because it has changed colors so often.

While this adaptability can be helpful, I have realized in my own life that the reason behind it, especially during those years, went far deeper then just wanting to fit in.

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 underlying reason for mastering the trait of adaptability was shame.

For many teenage and young adult TCKs, this shame dictates their life. They put an incredible amount of energy and emotion into looking like they belong out of fear that they will be found out. Out of fear that they will misstep and someone will see it and mentally shame them for their cultural faux pax. Out of fear that people will silently applaud the inner voice that tells them they truly will never fit in.

Shame is not often talked about in the TCK world, though I believe that it is a significant issue for this growing population.

If you are a parent of a TCK, or are working with TCKs, consider bringing “shame” into your vocabulary. Spend a significant amount of time helping your TCK to wrestle through the things that are core to who they are. How do those core traits play out in their life? What do they do because it is a part of who they are, and what do they do out of fear of not blending in with everyone else?

As TCKs mature, they begin to discover their color - the color that doesn’t change out of fear of being found out, but instead the color that they are proud to be wherever they are.

Because of their diverse background, this identity may not look exactly like any one place or people, but it is instead a beautiful and healthy mixture of all the cultures that have made them who they are.

In my own life, this shedding of the ever-changing kaleidoscope of colors has been an incredibly shame-reducing, self-esteem building process, but it had to begin with realizing the true reason behind my chameleon nature. Shame.

Let’s work together to expose and tenderly love-out the hidden shame of the TCKs in our lives.

Sentimental Means "Settled"...and I Don't Like That


  My grandmother passed away last December. Though we lived most years on different continents, she was the most present grandmother during my childhood- especially before we moved to Africa. She was the one to pick me up from school when I was sick, she came to every performance (including backyard musical productions), and she loved to take me shopping.

She was a very sentimental lady who saved everything that I made her, collected anything that might one day be valuable, and made sure that her home was furnished with the finest things.

A couple of weeks ago, my parents flew to her home in Florida to clean out the house and drive the things of sentimental value back to Oregon in a U-Haul. She had left me some antique furniture and a few other things that were special to her, and that I'm sure she hoped would be special to me one day, too.

As I added some of her furniture to my home and started to pull things out of boxes, I had an uneasy, anxious feeling that I couldn't shake. What was it about this that was making me feel so restless? As I began to process through it, I realized that it was the permanence of it that was bothering me. 

For the first time in my life, I have stuff in my house that I can't just get rid of.

Up until this point, all of our furniture, and pretty much everything other than what could comfortably fit into a few suitcases, are all things that I don't have any personal attachment to. A better way to say it - I could sell everything in my house tomorrow, move across the world, and not be sad about leaving the "stuff."

Not having sentimental things gives me a sense of freedom. We could pick up and move if we wanted to and could fit everything sentimental in a few 50lb bags. I like that.

But, now I have these large pieces of furniture that are genuinely special to me, that don't fit in a suitcase, and that I hope to pass down to my own girls one day. That makes my TCK-self incredibly uneasy. It ties me down and goes against my adventurous, minimalist, flexible, pick-up-and-go nature.

But, I am learning to settle. I am learning to be content rooting myself for a while. Learning to invest in friendships and to plant trees - both of which need time settled in one place to see grow. And, I'm learning to appreciate a house that now contains pieces of my history and furniture that still smells a bit like my grandmother.

I am learning to value the sentimental- even when it doesn't fit in my suitcase. 


5 Things for TCKs to Consider When Choosing a University


  Last week, my husband, myself, and our two kids traveled to the Midwest to visit family and attend the wedding of a good college-friend of ours. The wedding took place near where my husband and I both went to university and this was my first time back to that place since our college days several years ago.  

There is something about going back to a place that makes you see it in a new light - through new eyes. If I'm being honest, my memories of our college town are stormy and dark. The thoughts of my time there have always been accompanied by an anxious, sick to my stomach, thank-goodness-I'm-not-there-anymore feeling. If I'm being honest, I was really dreading going back to that place. I was excited for the wedding and elated to see old friends but was not thrilled with the geographical location.  

But, Indiana surprised me. As we spent the weekend exploring Indianapolis with our kids, I kept saying to my husband, "Wow! Indiana isn't as horrible as I remembered!"  

So why did I remember it that way? Why did I picture a dark, dreary, lifeless place when I would think back on my time in Indiana?  

While I do believe that I was exactly where I was supposed to be for university and wouldn't trade the great friendships and amazing husband that I found there, I realized that there were some things that made my college experience very difficult. Things that I never would have considered before arriving at college. Things that I think are likely relevant to most TCKs.  

So now, when I talk with parents and their TCKs who are starting to think about and apply for universities, these are the things that I recommend that they explore.

1. A school with a TCK program or group. Because I went straight from Africa to school in Indiana, I was considered an international student. I quickly realized that, in that group, I was the odd one out. The international students were those who came from different parts of the world, but were not American and had, for the most part, never lived in the United States. I, on the other hand, was very familiar with the United States and knew how to grocery shop, open a bank account, dial 911, et cetera, so it was hard to be required to attend these "American Life" classes. While there were great people in that international student group, I didn't feel like I really fit, and it seemed like they didn't think I fit with them in either. Likewise, I found it hard to connect with the majority population of the university who were mostly from the midwestern states and hadn't traveled outside the country. These were the main two groups and I didn't feel like I really belonged in either one of them. Though I did end up making some great friends, it was a difficult process trying to figure out who I was and where I fit. I later found out that there were a few other missionary kids at the university who had similar experiences, but we never crossed paths during our college years because we were all TCKs trying to blend in. I think that things could have been so different for all of us, had we had a TCK group to associate with.  

2. A diverse population. Having lived in international communities overseas, I missed being surrounded by people from all over the world. The university had some international students, but there were not very many, and the American student population was not very ethnically diverse. I would also have loved to have had professors from different parts of the world who could offer a more globally-influenced perspective on the topics they were teaching. 

3. A multiethnic location. Along with the previous point, the Midwest is not incredibly diverse. Location wasn't something I had ever considered when deciding on a university, but I wish I had. I think that I would have felt more comfortable and less of an outsider had I been in a city that was more culturally diverse. The fact that I had to drive an hour to find an international grocery store and that ethnic restaurants were few and far between, was painful. 

4. An option that minimizes debt. Most TCKs end up going into a helping profession, according to David C. Pullock and Ruth Van Reken, (Third Culture Kids 3rd Edition, 2017). Unfortunately, many helping professions are not the most financially lucrative. This works fine for TCKs (who are generally not interested in wealth), but it does create a problem when they graduate from university with an average of $60,000 in student loans and a career path that can't pay those off in fewer than 25 years.  

The bigger issue with this, and something that I wish I would have considered when choosing a university, is the fact that student loan debt ties your feet. Tied feet is many TCK's worst nightmare. No longer are you free to travel, because you have lead ball of student loan bills chained to your foot. Paying bills requires a job, and maintaining a job requires sticking around long enough to avoid looking flakey on a resume. I ended up switching to a community college and finishing up at an online school to reduce the amount of student loan debt I accrued, but if I would have thought to do that from the beginning, I could have significantly reduced the debt that I graduated with and thus would be more financially free to travel. 

5. A school and major that allows for travel. I didn't consider, as a young college student, the fact that my TCK-self would have a need for change and travel. If I had, I would have chosen a school and major that required some sort of overseas study program, or an overseas university entirely. I would have also made sure that my degree was one that would yield a career that allows for travel. I ended up changing my major and now am in my dream career that does involve travel and cross-cultural work, but, if I was to go back, I would have started with that trajectory from the beginning- considering that I would want to travel.  


 Third Culture Kids experience an intense and challenging transition when they leave their globally-mobile lifestyle and head to university. Considering these few things could have eased that transition for me and allowed for a university experience that catered more to my TCK nature. If you are a TCK or parent of TCKs starting to think about university, keep things things in mind as you sift through your university options. While they may not be essentials for all TCKs, I do believe that they are worth considering, exploring, and having conversations about.