Shame On Me: Third Culture Kids & Shame

steps - shame quote

Shame on me: Third Culture Kids & Shame by Robynn 

Two Sundays ago our Pastor started an enormously brave sermon series on shame.  Since shame only regains its power when it’s kept secret, when no one is talking about it–speaking about it, naming it, bringing it into the light—from the pulpit, no less, is remarkably courageous.

I find myself stirred up and I’m not entirely sure why.

Brené Brown defines shame in Daring Greatly as, “…the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Deep inside we are petrified of disengagement or disconnection from our community. We are afraid we won’t belong if we are truly known. Brown also talks about shame in terms of scarcity, often revealed in completing the phrase: Never______ enough. Never good enough. Never perfect enough. Never thin enough. Never powerful enough. Never smart enough. Never safe enough. Never extraordinary enough.

It strikes me that this is an issue the Third Culture Kid is especially familiar with. We know what it means to be deeply afraid of not belonging. We feel our differences keenly. We experience that lack of connection constantly. Our engagements, our connections, are fragile at best. We fear ridicule. We are afraid to make mistakes. It’s easier to stay quiet than to share our stories and experiences, which rarely translate. We struggle to be seen and heard. There is this core feeling, this deep sense that we aren’t enough, we aren’t acceptable where we are, we don’t belong.

Or at least that’s been my experience.

Never American enough. Never savvy enough. Never culturally adept enough. Never adaptable enough. Never an insider enough.

I live with deep, daily, durable shame.

(And that doesn’t take into account any other shame the TCK might have picked up, innocent or culpable, from life experiences in foreign or familiar places: trauma, body image issues, separation from parents as a result of boarding school, addictions, health issues, faith queries).

“Remembering that shame is the fear of disconnection—the fear that we’re unlovable and don’t belong—makes it easy to see why so many people in midlife over focus on their children’s lives, work sixty hours a week, or turn to affairs, addiction and disengagement. We start to unravel. The expectations and messages that fuel shame keep us from fully realizing who we are as people.” (Daring Greatly, Brené Brown)

Where do we go with our shame? What do we do with this heavy fear of disconnection? When we unravel where do we take our frayed edges? When we reach that midlife unraveling where do we go?

Brené Brown, in Daring Greatly, speaks of how to combat the shame. She talks about vulnerability and courage. Understanding shame and cultivating resilience to shame are pivotal points on the road to becoming real. She suggests practicing courage and reaching out to others in response to our desperate desire to hide. Talking ourselves through the shame like we would talk to someone we love and respect also promotes passing through the moment of shame: You’re okay. You’re human—we all make mistakes. She says we need to own our stories:  If you own this story you get to write the ending. Granted…our stories feel a little more complex. The plots feel a little twisted and whole chapters are written in foreign languages.

It’s good and true stuff from Brown. But I’m still left with the pain of my disconnection. I’m still left with a deep longing for belonging. Understanding it, naming it, practicing courage in spite of it, talking myself through it…. Still leaves me, up to my neck, sitting in it. Where do I go now? Where do I take my soul that struggles and simmers with the pain of not belonging, with the hurt of not connecting?

Sunday’s sermon suggested a space to place that soul that still pulses with the shame. There is a balm for the heart that longs to belong.

Pastor Steve proposed a Person who safely welcomes our shame. I can bring my shame to Jesus. And it seems Jesus has a particular affection and affinity for people steeped in shame (both those who are innocent and those who come to their shame by virtue of their choices). Try reading the gospels and consciously choose to identify with a shameful person. Stop and hear how Jesus responds. In other words…pretend to be the woman at the well and imagine Jesus engaging you in that moment. Imagine you are the tax collector and hear how Jesus talks to you in that place. You will hear Jesus’ deep acceptance. You will hear him transplant you from a place of alienation and shame to a place of attachment and belonging. He calls the woman betrayed by her own body and bleeding for twelve years–she who wished to remain invisible– he sees her and he calls her, “Daughter”.  Jesus reaches out and touches the untouchable and untouched leper. He makes eye contact with him and proclaims healing over him.

It doesn’t take my longing to belong away….which is disappointing. I still live with the feelings of shame. I’m not sure what to do with all of this yet…but it is comforting to know Jesus isn’t like the others. He doesn’t look away from those of us who live with shame. He doesn’t walk across the street to avoid contact. He doesn’t pretend he doesn’t see me. Jesus deliberately makes eye contact, he walks toward me. He looks deep into my eyes, lifts my chin up and calls me “Daughter!”

I’m trying to soak in the mystery that there really is deep belonging and connection there….

Brené Brown’s advice to talk myself through those moments– You’re okay…We all make mistakes —gives me the space I need to breathe and remember I do belong however I might feel.

Note from Marilyn – this piece…it’s so good but so hard. It resonates deeply with me. What about others? Weigh in through the comments. 

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27 thoughts on “Shame On Me: Third Culture Kids & Shame

  1. My soul resonates with this post. I can so relate to ‘never being —- enough’ even as I write this, the reason I stumbled upon your post was because I was struggling, once again, with the shame of who I am. I realize that at the base of this shame is my upbringing as a TCK (though there will always be other contributing factors like abuse).

    I have recently been journeying through handling of this shame. It was good to hear afresh that Jesus has a particular affection and affinity for those burdened with shame.

    Something that I took one step further recently was to place my shame on Jesus (after all, He died for all the sin and shame in the world). I am a visual person, so in my mind I create a picture of me literally taking off the shame and putting it on Jesus, and in exchange taking his honorable, respectable self to clothe me. And this made me feel very free.

    I still struggle with shame – but it seems like there may be a way out – time and practice will tell!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, really feel your pain in this piece, and I appreciate you didn’t try to sanitize it – end it with a ‘redemptive’ note like we are so often tempted to do. Thanks for being real, it allows those of us who have not overcome, find a refuge in your words.


    1. Thanks Cindy. What you found comforting I have found frustrating! I want answers!! But I am glad it gave you permission to carry on.


  3. Thank you for this excellent post, Marilyn. Yes, I agree. I have felt a chasm of disconnection for most of my life. For years, I have done a large amount of work on myself with my therapist, in groups, and in prayer and other spiritual disciplines. These things have helped me to change and to grow, gradually and incrementally.

    But that’s not all! As you mentioned in your post (the reference to Brene’s book), reaching out to others is a great way to get out of myself, and get off that hamster wheel in my own head. Any time I focus on service to others, that’s so positive for me. And realizing that God considers me special and worthwhile? That is the icing on the cake for me. I don’t care if my self-talk is negative and depressing and isolating at times. What God thinks about me is what I need to focus on! Thanks so much for a great share. @chaplaineliza (Here’s a link for my take on this idea. )


    1. I think you are right… Reaching out to fellow sojourners does help. Even just for the simple reason that it distracts me…. I think about others for a change. I loved that you told your son he is fearfully and wonderfully made. That is kind. And it helps alleviate his shame…. Even proactively.
      Thanks for joining this conversation!


  4. I have taken hold of the line from Staci Eldridge’s book, Captivating, that changed me forever: “….the underlying feeling that I am not enough and I am too much at the same time.” Sometimes it’s being “too much” that brings shame.


      1. Here is the quote:
        “Unseen, Unsought, and Uncertain – “I know I am not alone in this nagging sense of failing to measure up, a feeling of not being good enough as a woman. Every woman I’ve ever met feels it – something deeper than just the sens of failing at what she does. An underlying, gut feeling of failing at who she is. I am not enough, and, I am too much at the same time. Not pretty enough, not think enough, not kind enough, not gracious enough, not disciplined enough. But too emotional, too needy, too sensitive, too strong, too opinionated, too messy. The result is Shame, the universal companion of women. It haunts us, nipping at our heels, feeding on our deepest fear that we will end up abandoned and alone.” – Stasi Eldredge


      2. This is so good Martha and it resonates — but it strikes me that this is a dilemma that only a portion of the worlds women face. Others are too busy surviving? What do you think?


      3. Thanks for the longer quote….I get it now…. And ouch! It deeply resonates. Sigh…. Thanks Martha.


  5. Such an interesting perspective has come to me whilst reading this piece. In looking back on my childhood, I realize that my gift was in the exposing of the secrets rather than perpetuating the secrecy and lies. I raged against insincerity and pretention and tradition for the sake of tradition and fitting in. And this led to a few things…it allowed me to see through all the foolishness and fakeness of the culture I tried to fit into, because in reality, no one fit in. The only reason they fit in was because of the secrets and the shame that kept everyone quiet and in line. Exposing all of that made everyone, including myself, uncomfortable because we certainly didn’t know how to address these issues that were now laid bare. I do remember feeling relief though…that at least people were talking…and that as long as people were talking, it meant that there couldn’t be any more secrets and that meant healing was inevitable.


    1. This is one of those times I’d love to sit down and have a conversation with you over milky coffee or spiced chai! You have stories to tell. I know I could learn from you. I think you’re right that the path to healing is often awkward and uncomfortable. Shame cloaks and perpetuates in us the desperation to run and hide. It takes courage and vulnerability to fight off our own shame. It sounds like you were brave.
      Thanks for entering into this conversation.


      1. Mmmmmmm….milky coffee and spiced chai. You definitely hit on some of my favorite things! Add in a sincere and honest conversation and it quickly jumps to the top of my to-do list :) Perhaps one day…


    2. Robynn, LOVE this post! You’ve articulated exactly how I’ve felt all these years….
      Gysela, I’ve tried that too….but I’ve found other people can’t deal with me being real, have no idea how to handle it once stuff is exposed, and unfortunately I feel it’s led to an even greater sense of isolation and being different/ not belonging on my part :(
      I would love to join you both for spicy chai!


  6. Wow. Thanks so much for this post! Shame is exactly how I felt for many years before I realised and understood how the TCK experience impacted my life. “A fraud” is how I described myself for along time. I spend so long trying to fit, and hiding my ignorance and confusion over all the things I was “suppose to know”. I recently started attending a very multi-cultural church,and the difference I see in myself when around a community steeped in different cultures but deeply committed to God’s word has been a relief.

    The TCK book was the first big step in finding that freedom.
    One really helpful book I found was “Released from Shame” By Sandra D. Wilson


    1. I so relate to this Lynette! Impostor was my big word. I was an impostor, a chameleon. And it served to reinforce that I liked myself better overseas, that I was a ‘better person” overseas. Which was true mostly because I accepted myself and others in a way I was unable to in my passport country. I too am at a different place and partially due to my church as well! A church full of immigrants – in a sense none of us belong so all of us belong. And we are working out what it means to be in this world but not of this world. Thoroughly engaged without falling into the trap of believing this is the final authority. Thank you for this comment!


    2. You said, “fraud”. Marilyn said, ” imposter “. I felt I was a “fake “. All of us experienced that shame…. As if somehow if we were our selves, if we stopped pretending to belong, our shame would be highlighted! Painful stuff!
      I am going to check out the book you recommended. Thanks for engaging me on this stuff.


      1. I actually have thought about this a lot again in the last week and went back over quite a few things I’d learnt while trying to understand this… and I realised that I don’t think we realise how much our sense of belonging is impacted by our cultural influences related to social norms, shame/ guilty and even ideas related to child-rearing attachments (I did a bit of research for myself on cross-cultural child development, and what a difference cultural perceptions on what is a “healthy attachment” to family/community can make!).

        Our blind spots to what those influences actually mean can become a barrier or a miss-communication at times. I think the irony of TCK connections is we recognise our sameness in our differences…our gaps, missing pieces, idiosyncrasies,and eclectic backgrounds…it’s almost like making friends based on the things you don’t like/ don’t have LOL.

        I found a couple of links that might be of interest…

        Article: “Cultural Models of Shame and Guilt” by Ying Wong & Jeanne Tsai


    3. I have always considered my younger self to have been an excellent mimic, quick to outwardly model myself on those arround me. I would shamelessly steal others answers to casual playground conversations about tv, music etc so as to fit in. I was desperately ashamed of being different. It has taken me a long time to embrace what makes me different from others.


  7. Ooh, great and difficult topic! I just finished a book entitled “Grace for the Good Girl” by Emily Freeman, in which she talks about our many ways of hiding. I highly recommend it, although I’m a little mad at her because she figured so much of this stuff out in her 30s. I felt as though she had been watching me and documenting the process that has taken me several years of sorting out the truth of my own thinking. I like what she says about shame:

    Guilt says I did wrong.
    Shame says I am wrong.
    Guilt deals with behavior.
    Shame deals with identity.
    Guilt leads to repentance.
    Shame leads to hiding.


    1. Not that your post is about guilt, Robynn–one more quote to give a little context:

      As a good girl, I formed my own definition of sin rather than understand God’s. Sin was the bad stuff people do, the heartache people cause, the poor decisions people make. But my insatiable desire to be my own little god somehow didn’t make the list of sin in my book. My incessant need to be better than, to be important, to be liked and right and good on my own and by myself–those things pulsed just under the surface of my smiling exterior.


      1. I like the quote, “shame leads to hiding”…. I’ve been trying to blend in for so long…. It’s the imposter/fraud/fake feeling in different words. Trying to hide numbed some of the terror I felt at the idea that I don’t belong.
        To be honest, I am still not sure what to do with all this. I’m praying through it. I have re-lit my Christ candle… Which is what I usually resort to in times of desperation. How did you step out of the shame shadows? How did you shake it?
        We journey on….


      2. Longing to belong is absolutely a weakness for me, but longing to be strong is my greater weakness. I have spent a few years praying that I could actually desire to “boast all the more gladly in my weakness, that the Spirit of Christ may rest on me.” I resisted that notion with my whole being. The myth of my strength has unraveled altogether in parenting (and I have pretty amazing kids, in spite of myself!). The perspective from my knees has helped me love the dynamic of his power being perfected in my weakness in ways that I never thought I could–but it is an ongoing process to say the least! Praying for the light and warmth of the Christ candle to flood your soul.


      3. Tracy – loved all your comments in this piece – and I found the last one the most compelling. The boast in my weakness thing flies in the face of our culture’s “do by self” individualism. Weakness says “I need help” “I need to let people in” – I’m right with you on this but didn’t even realize it until now. Thanks. Or maybe no thanks…..:)


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