Complex TCK Identity

Contributed by Mari L’Esperance, MA, LMFT

[Note: I interchangeably use the pronouns “she/her” and “he/his/him”.]

I didn’t become aware of the term Third Culture Kid until a colleague who is also a TCK introduced me to it, along with Ruth Van Reken’s co-authored book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, just a couple of years ago. Suddenly, it was like the projectionist at the movie theater had adjusted the lens and my life suddenly came into focus in a way it hadn’t before. For the first time, I not only had language for certain feeling states—grief being primary among them—but I was aware that others shared them, too, and for similar reasons.

As a psychotherapist who works with Adult TCKs and cross-cultural/multiethnic adults, I have spent considerable time reflecting on my own experiences growing up among worlds, even as I continue to learn about the singular experiences and presentations of TCKs and how to most effectively work with this growing population. It’s been especially helpful for me to read the stories of TCKs and other clinicians’ words about TCK grief and complex grief.

Along with the “world” of TCK experience, another world I’ve been immersed in for 10 years is that of “psychotherapist,” which has its own attendant culture, subcultures, values, and codes. As a psychodynamically trained therapist who was supervised by psychoanalysts, I’ve long struggled with the issue of self-disclosure when working with clients who are TCKs. How can I reconcile, on one hand, my clinical training, which taught me to limit self-disclosure, with the world of engaging in therapy with TCKs, where the understanding is that clients work best with, and feel most seen and understood by, therapists who are themselves TCKs? What to share openly and what to conceal/withhold is the ongoing question for me as a therapist who happens to also be a TCK. Writing this guest blog post, then, is an exercise toward alleviating the internal conflict between my clinical superego and my authentic, “whole” self, which is, ideally, what I bring into the room when I sit with clients.

Yet another “world” I inhabit is that of a mixed-race, cross-cultural woman who was raised in a multiethnic household in California, Micronesia, and Japan in the 1960s and 1970s. Often I’ve struggled with disclosing or not disclosing my racial/ethnic background (which isn’t immediately visible to many—I often “pass”), in particular with multiracial/multiethnic clients. I wonder to myself: is disclosure of use to the client, or is it about my ego, anxiety, etc.? Do I withhold this information and allow the client to project what he needs to, or is there a way that sharing it with the client fosters healing, integration, and self-acceptance? This is something I often consider. I’m continually negotiating the internal “borderland” between my cultural/ethnic identities (Japan and California, primarily) and how it informs my work with clients.

Which brings me to the issue of pathologizing, an (in my view) unfortunate phenomenon that seems to come with the territory with Western psychology and psychotherapy. From the time we enter our graduate programs, the Western clinical model teaches us that the client is broken, wounded, maladjusted, “disordered,” etc., and comes to us to be put back together again. When it comes to TCKs, I prefer to consider the individual as intrinsically healthy and whole. If the client’s had retraumatizing experiences in the mental health system (i.e., she’s not been “seen,” acknowledged, and understood as a TCK) on top of what she’s experienced with unenlightened schoolmates, teachers, relatives, etc., she becomes symptomatic.

Although it’s not a new concept, what if it’s conventional society with its binary lens and a poorly informed mental healthcare system that are “disordered” and not the TCK? It’s all the more important, then, that the constancy and safe holding of the therapeutic relationship provide what the client didn’t get when he was growing up mobile and among worlds. Over time, we can help the TCK to develop a more cohesive and positive sense of self, one that’s also been enriched and deepened by his diverse experiences growing up as a TCK. In this way, we can avoid the trap of pathologizing him and meet him where he is.

Finally, when working with clients with complex TCK identities, I feel it is absolutely essential that we as therapists have done our own work in therapy to become more conscious, to process and mourn our losses, and to accept ourselves and our unique experiences as TCKs. Only then can we be fully present and available to our clients in the way they need us to be for their own development and healing.

Author: Mari L’Esperance, MA, LMFT

Mari L’Esperance, MA, LMFT is a relational, depth-oriented psychotherapist, counselor, and California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Pasadena (Los Angeles County), where she works with adult individuals of all ages and specializes in working with Adult Third Culture Kids/Global Nomads and cross-cultural/multiethnic adults on issues related to unresolved grief, identity, belonging, connection, relationship difficulties, and other life challenges. You can read more about Mari’s practice at