Four Types of Stories

At a workshop I attended last week, we talked about story as it pertains to race. Through a framework developed at Barnard College, we learned about four types of stories and how knowing and hearing these stories can help expand our understanding of culture, ethnicity, and race.

As we went through the exercise, the types and explanations of these stories were a catalyst to important conversations happening in the room.

Because I identify as an adult third culture kid, I thought about this framework through that lens. How can this be adapted to help those of us who are third culture kids? How can we use the material to better understand ourselves and others? How can this help us to relate well with the world around us?

To answer those questions, I decided to do this blog post and focus on these types of stories and how they translate into the TCK world. Disclaimer – these four stories are critically important in the race conversation, and this piece is not to dismiss that, but rather to see the framework as something that works in other situations.

Stock Stories: These are the stories that are most common, the ones we hear regularly, whether or not they are true. These stock stories for TCKs generally fall into two categories: The amazing TCK and the maladjusted TCK. The amazing TCK is the story that says life was amazing, we got to travel, learn different languages and cultures, have a broad view of the world, etc. The maladjusted TCK is the story that says we’ll never really fit into our home countries and cultures, we have feelings of loss and grief that are not resolved, we will forever miss the worlds where we were raised. There are elements of truth in both those stories. The problem is that neither of them make room for nuance and complexity. As Chimamanda Adiche says so well: There is a danger of a single story. No one is a single story. 

Concealed Stories: These are the stories that remain hidden. They may be sad or beautiful, they may tell a story of connection or disconnect; but they remain in the shadows. These stories challenge stock stories because they give a broader view, another perspective. They increase the complexity of the TCK. These stories are the ones that give family history and dynamics, that give the background to some of the experiences that the TCK has had. An example could be the story of evacuation, when within a couple of days, the TCK lost everything that they knew because of a war in their adopted country. The TCK keeps it hidden — after all, they were safe, they didn’t have to experience the horror of war like their national friends. But it’s a concealed story that, once shared, reveals many things about resilience, grief, and belonging. Sometimes the concealed story is the one that makes us third culture kids. The story about living in multiple places and multiple cultures – hidden because it’s easier to say “I’m from Kansas.”

Resistance Stories: These are the stories that challenge the status quo. These stories say “Don’t put me in a box that I can’t escape.” They challenge parents, teachers, and decision makers on the stereotypes that can block growth. These are the stories that say “I’ll use my sense of being ‘other’ to help me be more empathetic to the marginalized, the outcast.” “I won’t let stereotypes define me – I’ll fight them.” The resistance story fights for the research that has validated the TCK experience, and defends terminology when others are critical.

Counter Stories: These are new stories, stories that build on resistance stories and counter the stock stories. These are the stories that say “I can use my ‘best of’ skills and do well wherever I live.” These are the stories where we take our background, our past, and use it to find a niche that works for us as adult third culture kids. These are the stories that we write, not the ones written for us. Stories that combine both stock stories to craft a stronger, more honest picture of who you are as an individual and as part of a larger tribe of TCKs. It could be the story that says “Yes I grieve, but I also love what I experienced, I love that I am capable of complexity, capable of understanding multiple world views.”

In all of this, the strongest message to me is to own our story, to walk inside that story and not let others write it for us. Brene Brown says that “You either walk inside your story and own it, or stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” Understanding these types of stories can help us do just that.

As you read this, what do you think? Where do you see these types of stories working in your community? If you are a TCK, what are the stories you could tell that fit into these categories? Join the conversation! 

Living Out the Nike Mantra – Just Do It!


The morning starts poorly. I miss my bus.

It’s not a long walk, but today it feels so. Today all of life feels like a long walk. I pass by evidence of a world that is not as it should be. Weekend trash is everywhere, a homeless couple is fast asleep under a blanket – you can see their bodies spooning, unconscious comfort given to each other.

I get on the train and my gold earring, evidence of my privilege, falls from my ear and bounces across the floor. Embarrassed, I swoop towards it but a kind passenger picks it up and hands it to me, a slight smile on her face. I beam with gratitude and shake my head in chagrin at my morning discombobulation.

The weather is grey and wet in this early morning hour. My fifty percent accurate weather app says that there will be clouds all day. How is it that the weather so accurately predicts how I feel? Cloudy with not a spot of sunshine.

Some days you just have to get up and put one foot in front of the other. There’s no other way to do it. You put one foot in front of the other despite feelings, despite protests, despite resisting at the deep levels of your heart. You have to believe that in the midst of uncertainty, there is something beyond the broken world around you.  You live out the Nike commercial – you just “Do it!” 

“Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.”*

Today, in this early morning, life feels uncertain and faith indeed feels like a mystery. But every step I take propels me forward, reminds me not to submit to feelings of despair. Faith is a place of mystery – and today I walk in faith.

Because some days are like this – and some days aren’t. Some days all of life feels like a walk by the ocean, or a trip to the beach, or a breathless with excitement kind of feeling. Some days all of life is like shopping in the spice bazaar, where colors, textures, and people meet in chaotic delight. And so it’s worth walking through the grey days, because it makes you realize those days with bright colors are an incredible gift.

When we’re children we make decisions based on our feelings, but when adults – we make decisions despite our feelings. And today I have to decide, despite my feelings, how I am going to live.

Because some days are just like this. 

Brené BrownThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

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Developing an Empathy Quotient

old-books empathy quote

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Henry David Thoreau

This is the quote that begins a marketing video developed for the Cleveland Clinic. It’s a video they call “Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care.”

It is a well done short film that shows us many different patients in the health care system, superimposing their stories in script beside their images. At heart it’s about seeing beyond the surface, understanding the story behind the person.

When we know someone’s story, we are more likely to have compassion, to see them as human, subject to all the joys and tragedies that being human brings. Empathy is part of what makes us human. 

So how do we take this idea of seeing beyond the surface and begin to increase the collective empathy/emotional quotient or EQ in this country?

How can we teach kids to step into the shoes of others?  How do we develop an understanding – an emotional connection to their circumstances. How can we teach adults how to enter the story of another – without judgment, without expectation, just listening and learning about the experience of another?

A couple of weeks ago I posted a short video of a little girl in Iraq named Myriam. At the end of the video, the videographer thanks Myriam for her story, for her perspective. She responds by saying “And I thank you.” He asks her why, what has he done for her. “You have felt for me,” she says. “I had a lot of things to say and you let me say them.” These words from a child are remarkable. As young as she is, she recognizes the importance of story, of allowing people into our stories. She recognizes the importance of empathy and thanks the person who is interviewing her for his empathy.

In a short film about empathy versus sympathy Brene Brown talks about the research of nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman. Dr. Wiseman researched empathy in different occupations and came up with these four characteristics of empathy.

1. Perspective – the ability to take the perspective of another, recognizing it as their truth.

2. Staying out of judgment.

3. Recognizing emotion in other people.

4. Ability to communicate that emotion with people.

Brene Brown goes on to say that empathy is a choice and that it is a vulnerable choice. To be willing to be empathetic we have to be vulnerable and find in ourselves something that connects us to the pain, the circumstances of another. That is not easy.

Perhaps that’s why we saw such a dearth of empathy on the deaths of two black men in recent months – those of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Because no matter what you think or don’t think about the justice of each case, there is a place for deep empathy. Empathy with parents who have lost a child, with a woman who has lost a husband, with children who have lost their father. It seems many of us are unable to connect these tragedies with something inside ourselves, inside our souls.

Is it the same dearth of empathy that allows for rudeness and incivility in comments written at the end of online articles? The same lack of empathy that allows people to be unmoved when they see someone crying on the street? The same absence of empathy that has made bullying in and out of schools such a massive societal problem?

Or is it more complicated? Is it also because, as Leslie Jamison says, empathy is perched “precariously between gift and invasion?” Perhaps we struggle to voice empathy because we feel the person may not want us to ask questions, may not want us to connect at the heart level.

I think it’s partly about seeing people as less than as opposed to equal to. If we can see people as “less than” it is easy to dismiss them and dismiss their experience, dismiss their pain. If we acknowledge their humanity it becomes far harder to treat them poorly.

I don’t know what the answer is to developing an emotional quotient. I am a bleeding heart and can end up paralyzed by the pain of others and that’s not true empathy either. That’s being a trauma thief. But I think the process begins with watching, listening, and then being able to connect back to something in our own lives, remembering when we experienced something similar.

And then we ask. We ask them more about their story, more about their feelings, we learn the event behind the feeling. We think about how we might feel in the same situation. We let people tell their story, without judgment or fear of repercussions. Only then can we begin to see beyond our reactions into the heart of the person who hurts. Only then can we raise our emotional quotient and offer compassion and love.

What do you think? Do you think we have an empathy problem? What do you think would help? How do you teach your children empathy? 

I wish empathy was less ‘walk a mile in another’s shoes’ & more of ‘believe the experiences of those who walk in shoes different from yours.’


*quote from Twitter

Be Okay With the Process

book-shelf brene brown quote

On Sunday I connected with a third culture kid younger than me, Tayo Rockson. We talked by Skype for an hour. It didn’t matter that the video portion was not working – it was a gift to connect with this man. Tayo had asked me to do a pod cast for him on third culture kids and there was not a single gap in conversation. We connected immediately through the common experience of wondering where home is and the challenge of identity. He has walked a journey from country to continent and city to city. His countries include Vietnam, Burkino Faso, Sweden, the United States, and his passport country — Nigeria. Tayo has a passion to use his global identity to make an impact in the world, to challenge other third culture kids to use their identity, to see it as a gift.

The questions Tayo asked were valuable and challenging. He began with the question “Where is Home?” We laughed about this – how could he, a third culture kid that knows how paralyzing this question can be still begin the interview with this question? But he did and he wouldn’t back down. We talked about many things — my journey, homesickness, identity, challenges, and successes. At the end he asked an important question: “What advice would you give others?” What would you say to others who are uprooted and live between worlds, never feeling completely a part of either? Through this blog I’ve written a lot about what I would say, but it can be summarized into this: Be okay with the process. Relax and allow room for change, change in your feelings, change in your sense of belonging, change in your connection to your past and all it holds. In the days since the interview I’ve expanded that to be more specific: Be okay with the process of owning your story.

Periodically I teach a train the trainer course on chronic disease self management. It’s an intense and excellent 4-day training. One of the things I say many times during the four days is “It’s not about the content, it’s about the process.” I do this because there are people who want more substantive content, they get restless. The principles we put forward are not rocket science, they are practical and simple and participants begin the course by wanting more. But sometimes practical and simple is like rocket science. And it struck me the other day as I was speaking with Tayo that the advice I would give to a third culture kid is the same: “It’s not about content, it’s about process. Be okay with the process.” The process of adapting to the country that claims you as citizen, even if you don’t claim it. The process of growing and feeling like a chameleon, bright with promise one day and grey as a stormy sky the next. The process of figuring out those big words with bigger meanings like home and identity, belonging and culture. “Be okay with the process of owning your own story.” 

We are people of flesh and blood, feelings and longings, hopes and dreams. And each of us has a story. Your story is unique to your background, your family, all the moves and places that shaped you and hold your heart. But knowing your story is one thing, owning it is another. Owning our stories takes time, it’s a process. And so I’ll close with a quote from Brené Brown: “You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story & hustle for your worthiness.” May we learn to walk inside our stories. May we learn to accept that we are a people in process. May we be freed from the bondage of hustling for our worthiness.

What advice would you give to third culture kids or the person who lives between worlds? It doesn’t matter whether you’re a TCK or not, we still want to hear from you! 

Here are the questions that Tayo posed to me that may help you as you think about process, as you think about owning your own story, as you think about walking inside your story. And if you would like to hear the podcast, here it is! Home is Where Your Story Begins – Episode 5 

  1. Can you map out your third culture/ nomadic experience and tell us why you moved so much?

  2. Where is home?

  3. Favorite country you enjoyed living in the most and why?

  4. Were you ever homesick and how did you deal with that?

  5. When did you first get a sense of an identity crisis and how did you deal with it?

  6. What was your journey like to being comfortable with yourself

  7. Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced growing up and how you dealt with them

  8. On the flip side how did it help you succeed?

  9. What is one piece of advice you can give to a TCK’s

  10. Where can we find out more about you and what are you up to?

*Picture credit –

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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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