Complex identities in a changing world of new divide: Globalism vs. Nationalism

Contributed by Daniela Tomer, MA

Identity formation, is the development of the distinct personality of an individual, it includes a sense of continuity, a sense of uniqueness from others, and a sense of affiliation. From research we learned that it is complicated enough to get a comfortable sense of who you are even if you live in one place, but what if you are exposed to several cultures and influences?

Cultural identity is the identity or feeling of belonging to a group. It is part of a person’s self-conception and self-perception and is related to nationality, ethnicity, religion, social class, generation, locality or any kind of social group that has its own distinct culture. Many of us thought that if we keep globalizing our economy and liberalizing our politics we would create an ideal world. The political debates and changes around the world are telling us that the current divide is shifting to Global vs. National, or Global  vs. Local. We are experiencing growing divisiveness.

Nationalism comes with the expectation of loyalty. We expect loyalty in order to own this identity and by that being recognized as part of the group. Nationalists believe in a single monolithic identity. It does create a problem with people who want to divide their loyalty, people who feel loyal to more than one nation. In a world that is divided by nations you are born into a community that immediately gives you a strong identity just by the act of being born in a certain geographical location. You are being recognized as part of the group. But why do we adopt it? What need does it serve? The need of belonging. The human need to be an accepted member of a group. This desire is so universal that the need to belong is found across all cultures and different types of people.

Abraham Maslow was one of the pioneer thinkers who wrote about it in his pyramid of needs. Other theories have also focused on the need to belong as a fundamental psychological motivation. All human beings need a certain minimum quantity of regular, satisfying social interactions. Inability to meet this need results in loneliness, mental distress, and a strong desire to form new relationships.

Human beings are social creatures, we need to belong to our group, we are given an easy immediate identity by the physical place in the world we were born, we immediately cover to some extent some of the need to belong. But all this comes with a price: The expectation of loyalty. Nations differ in the level of expectation, and the level of pride.

What about Globalization? Globalization is the main drive of global mobility, and the number of people who live out of the country of birth is constantly growing.

Prior to WWII, most people grew up and lived in stable, not highly mobile, monocultural communities. Now days, we are exploring a growing number of people around the world that are living out of their country of birth. The United Nations released data showing that 244 million people live outside of their countries of birth. Migration became much easier than decades ago. This change is the main driver for the creation of complex cultural Identities.

In other words: More globalization means more complex identities.

What are complex identities in this particular context? These are identities that are shaped by multiple cultural experiences.

Who are these 244 million people or more? Are they all the same?

They are immigrants, refugees, Global Nomads, SIE self initiative expats, CCKs, TCKs, What do they all share in common?

They are living or lived part of their life out of their country of birth. Which means that by definition their complex identity was shaped by more than one culture.They are very different in the number of passports they hold, the number of languages they speak, the type of cultures they were exposed to and the nature of the experiences they went through. And yet, because of the one dominant shared experience they can find a common ground with each other. They share the common language of global transition. The circumstances and locations can be very different but they share the psychological experience and cycle of the transition.

When the world was opening up embracing the idea of globalization, to be a citizen of the world could be describe as a desirable wish.Through the globalization of the economy we saw a growing demand to bring diversity into big corporates and organizations, and this kind of complex identities seemed to be welcomed .

Why were they welcomed? One way to look at it is to look at the TCK characteristics:

Researchers and writers like Ruth Van Reken and David Pollok have shown that this lifestyle can be a natural laboratory to grow people that will have:

•           Cross-cultural skills

•           Observational skills

•           Social skills

•           Linguistic skills

•           Adaptability

•           Expanded Worldview, thinking “outside of the box”

•           The capability of mentoring others because life experiences have been varied

•           The potential of being less judgmental, less prejudice

•           The ability to being independent and autonomous, blending in

All these are qualities that support the needs of a growing global society.

At the same time they are also considered to have these challenges:

•           Might have complex identity or less strong typical feelings of national affiliation

•           Confused loyalties

•           Painful awareness of reality

•           Unsureness or ignorance of the home country culture

•           Different sense of nationalism

•           Different integrated cultural identity

•           The potential to be rootless and restless

These challenges are typically in conflict with high expectation of loyalty in more nationalist environment.

Political changes can influence our identities or the way we feel about them in certain circumstances. Having complex identities can put you in a constant risk of not representing well enough the nationality you are living in.

TCKs have the ability to act as a chameleon with guilt and emotional instability. The way they tell  their life story can give a hint on the hierarchy of loyalty they hold. But is this hierarchy stable? After all, the story can be told differently according to the geographical location or political situation. How do people with complex identities solve the psychological conflict and need for belonging? Can we offer becoming a Global citizen?

Can global nomads become a nation and provide the sense of belonging?

As it is seen in the news: for leaving the EU, British Prime Minister Theresa May declared: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Or as Trump told on a rally in December 2016: “There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship.”


We are witnessing some attempts to do so, groups on social media, organizations around the world. We hear TCKs saying they feel “at home” with people that they never met but share the mobile lifestyle.

In order to become a Nation you have to be recognized by others, you can not belong to an entity that has no boundaries or recognition. We need it for communication.

For communication purposes being a global citizen is not yet well understood; neither are terms like TCK or CCK. So we tend to still summarize our complex identities by nationalities.

We are crossing countries, nations and cultures taking our identities with us. When we thought we achieved the right balance things may change again.

One thing we do know about history: it is constantly changing. It is possible that future generations will have a different cultural identity, more complex and vague.

From the news it might look like we are moving toward Nationalism, but as we can see, we are also moving towards Globalism. If this is the case, and the 244 million will keep growing in numbers, we might find the national cultures as we know them today will change too; we might be moving toward what can be seen as one global culture.

As therapists, we should be aware of this very particular growing population of people who feel that they own complex identities. In times when the political divide may challenge even more the unstable balance of multiple cultural identity we could consider them a culture of their own that is worthwhile to study and explore.

Author: Daniela Tomer, MA

Daniela Tomer is the Co-Founder and Director of GNW Global Nomad’s World. She is an Israeli licensed Clinical Psychologist, a Mediator, Coach and Trainer and serves as FIGT- Families in Global Transition Program Chair leading their global annual conference.