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A whole person with a fragmented heart

For a long time, I felt like I was a different person depending on where I was. There was the Tanzania-Cecilie, who was a Danish missionary kid that liked to spend time outdoors, loved to read and tried to do everything perfect in school in order to be an honor student. There was also the Denmark-Cecilie who loved spending time with her extended family, and who was called “the White Tanzanian”. This Cecilie loved to shop, didn’t care that much about school, was very insecure about herself and would rather spend time with family than peers. Sometimes the States-Cecilie made an appearance and reminded me of the years we spend there, but as we never went back, she wasn’t very prominent.

Whatever country I was in, usually defined which Cecilie had the lead. Sometimes the other Cecilie could make a guest appearance if the subject of conversation brought her out, but most of the time she was very far away. In fact, at times I wondered whether the “other” Cecilie and her experiences were real or just dreams that felt like memories, because she felt so distant. This was especially apparent when I, at 16, moved back to Denmark and my family stayed behind. Sitting in my room and looking at pictures on the wall of Tanzania-Cecilie and her friends, was almost confusing because she felt so far away from the Denmark-Cecilie who felt lost and who didn’t really know what her place in Denmark was going to be. Even years after the move, when Denmark had become more familiar, and when Tanzania-Cecilie was more distant, I could find myself thinking of my “Tanzanian memories” and wondering whether they actually happened.

Of course, I knew with my intellect that this was not the case, but in many ways my life-story felt fragmented and there was very little overlap between the two worlds that the majority of my life had been spend in. Obviously, the contexts were completely different; one had rain season and dry season, the other had four seasons. One had a house with mosquito-nets on the windows and banana trees in the back yard, the other had apple trees and radiators. One had malaria and stomach infections, the other had colds and flues. One had Land Rovers and school uniforms, the other had bikes and the stress of picking out outfits each morning. One had English and Swahili, the other Danish. One had an international ever-changing community and the other was made up of people that had known each other for most of their lives. On top of this, the only people in two worlds that overlapped was my family, and another missionary family that we saw once in a while. When they visited, Tanzania-Cecilie thrived.

I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that Tanzania-Cecilies life had also been difficult in many aspects, and that it had been easier for Denmark-Cecilie to make friends, but I still missed the confidence and purpose that Tanzania-Cecilie had experienced. When people heard that I used to live in Tanzania, many exclaimed excitedly: “Wow, really? How exciting!” But deep down, I almost doubted that my memories were real, and it was painful to talk about aspects of my life that I desperately missed and that felt like they didn’t fit into Denmark-Cecilie.

In Aaron Antonovsky (1980) theory of resilience, “a sense of coherence” is the most important asset when faced with difficult circumstances. According to Antonovsky (1980) this “sense of coherence” comes from an experience that life is comprehensive, manageable and meaningful. In working with Third Culture Kids (TCKs) comprehensiveness could be operationalized as being prepared for transitions, being able to understand ongoing processes and being able to understand own feelings and reactions. Manageability in the lives of TCKs could involve the ability to regulate and express thoughts and feelings in safe relationships, to grieve, keep in contact and to have constructive coping strategies. Lastly meaningfulness could be strengthened through the development of a strong sense of personal narrative and a congruence of who they are across cultures. It could also be through integrating and reflecting on life experiences, Lastly the meaningfulness of the children’s life experiences could be strengthened by having a resource focused view and by letting them experience that the sharing of their own stories can help others (Antonovsky, 1980).

When I first read the theory of Antonovsky (1980) it resonated very well with the way my childhood experiences slowly went from being fragmented pieces of different Cecilies to being a whole Cecilie with different experiences. It wasn’t something that came overnight, but slowly different things helped the process along. The first step was meeting other TCKs and hearing how their stories were similar to mine, despite the fact that the factual events in their lives often were very different. I think this helped me understand my own feelings in a different way, because I could see my own reactions reflected in the other TCKs.

Another thing that helped along the way, was living in Ethiopia during one of my gap years. Getting to experience transcultural transition as an adult gave me a better understanding of this process and it allowed to simultaneously try out more constructive coping mechanisms and grieve for everything that I had lost when I left my home in Tanzania. In fact, in some ways the grief that I felt when leaving Ethiopia, melted into the grief that I had felt as a teenager, when I left my home and my identity behind. I was also able to meet up with a couple that were very important to me during my years in Tanzania. I remember feeling that I had found a piece of myself in meeting them, and that seeing them in another context than Tanzania, helped integrate a part of Tanzania-Cecilie into Denmark-Cecilie, and made my sense of self a bit more congruent than it was before.

Lastly the thing that has probably had the biggest impact on my journey of coherence has been getting to work with TCKs. I have been lucky enough to be a co-therapist in a TCK-group, where newly returned TCKs could come and share their stories, and feel heard, seen and recognized. In speaking with these children and in helping them make sense of their personal narratives, I many times felt like I was speaking to Tanzania-Cecilie and allowing her to become a part of Denmark-Cecilie. Being able to use these experiences, that have been so incredibly hard and yet so incredibly good, to help others has in many ways helped piece my own story into a more whole narrative. A narrative where there is room for all the places and people and experiences that life as a TCK brings.

In a guide that we at Center for Familieudvikling have developed to help children when they return to Denmark, it says: “Remember that who you are doesn’t depend on where you’re from. You can be a whole person even though your heart is divided over all the places on the earth that you’ve called home. You can have more than one home and more than one homeland.” Some days this is harder to believe than others, but in many ways, I am thankful to be able to say that although my heart and my story is spread in different places of the world, I still feel like all of it is my heart and my story.

 

Cecilie Malmgaard Jensen is a psychologist, a Member Care worker in Denmark, and an Adult Third Culture Kid who spend her teenage years living in Tanzania.

 

 

 

Images are from unsplash.com: 1 – Hendrik Ccornelissen, 2 – Febiyan , 3 – Sammy Wong

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