26 Oct

By: Daniela Tomer

Identity formation, is the development of the distinct personality of an individual. Pieces of the person's actual identity include a sense of continuity, a sense of uniqueness from others, and a sense of affiliation. The process of finding our true self results in finding what psychologists have called our identity.

From research we learned that it is already 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.

Cultures develop in an historical context, in the words of the historian Yuval Harary, human beings think in stories and the story we were telling  ourselves in the last decades is changing. 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. We are living in times that we have global ecology, global economy, global problems like: climate change, technological disruption, bioengineering but local politics.

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.The expectation for exclusivity  is already creating a possible challenge.

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, in many ways immediately gaining the benefits even before you contribute something.

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 being we 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, or 3.2 percent of the world's population, 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? This are identities that are shaped by multiple cultural experiences.

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

They are immigrants: “a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence end are expected to assimilate and adopt the local culture.” They are refugees : “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” They are Global Nomads: people who are living a mobile and international lifestyle. There are SIE self initiative expatsThey are CCKc: “ children who grow up among many cultural environments for any reason”.And there are TCKs: “A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture(s).”

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 passport 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. in 1984, Dr. Ted Ward, of Michigan State University, stated that “TCKs  were the prototype citizens of the future”. The experience of growing up in and amid many cultures coupled with a mobile lifestyle would one day be the norm rather than the exception. 

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 they were 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 this are qualities that support the needs of a growing global society.

At the same time they are also considered to have this 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

This 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. Obama at the time was questioned about his “real American roots”, he is a great example, he is actually a CCK.

The flexibility of identities and the psychological challenge

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 does this hierarchy is stable? After all, the story can be told differently according to the geographical location or political situation. When we moved to Europe from Israel I moved as someone who succsefuly overcame the challenge of adjusting to the new culture. I became israeli. The expat life and living within the international community gave my Argentianan identity a chance to flourish. At times it was easier to use one identity as the leading one and not the other. It was significant and surprising how emotional confusing it can be even when you think that you solved all your identity problems.

 How do this people with complex identities solve the psychological conflict and need for belonging? Can we offer becoming a Global citizen?

 Can the 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 like: “I am a triangle”, FB groups, FIGT, InterNations….participants report that 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 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. 

In my story I imigrated with my parents from Argentina to Israel, we entered the new country as political refugees, with time and effort I adopted the Israeli identity. I thought that the process was done. Then when we moved to Europe my Argentinian identity was given a second chance to flourish, loyalty was shifting at times, questions that were solved in the past were re opened.

Our kids became the citizens of the world fitting perfectly into the international community up until we moved to the US a very rich and diverse community in Brookline MA but every morning my kids were asked to pledge legion to the falg. They are expect to become local/loyal/connect to the new nation.

One thing we do know about history: it is constantly changing. It is possible that future generation 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 found the the national culture as we know it today will change too, we might be moving toward what can be seen as one global culture.

As cross cultural trainers, coaches, psychologists 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.

Daniela Tomer is an Israeli licensed Clinical Psychologist. She is a Mediator, Coach and Trainer and serves as FIGT- Families in Global Transition Program Chair leading their global annual conference

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