Glancing in the Rearview Mirror

by Jessi Bullis

I was in my first car crash in May 2023. I had just gotten off a flight and was too hungry to complete my 90-minute drive home before eating (there always seems to be those awkward lengths of time between meals on flying days). It was pouring rain, and I pulled off at an unknown town in search of a late dinner. Traffic was coming up on a stop light, and while we all seemed to slow down quicker than anticipated, I came to a stop with room to spare. Glancing in my rearview mirror, I noted that the car behind me had enough space to fully stop. 
   
Less than a second afterwards, I felt the impact. I later found out I was actually the third car to get hit from behind in a four-car pile-up. 
   
Before that moment I had never really thought about getting hit from behind. It wasn’t a concern. For some reason I just had a lot of trust in other cars around me. Maybe it’s because I grew up in countries with incredible drivers who could fit four cars to a road, squeeze through any narrow street, and make lane switching in traffic jams look effortless. Or maybe it’s simply because I hadn’t yet experienced it.

 

Focusing on the Rearview Mirror

For many years, the way I “processed” the heavy (and even exciting) emotions that came with my Third Culture Kid (TCK) experience was to simply disregard them. 

The announcement would come that we were moving to another country, that yet another friend was leaving, or that the thing I was looking forward to was cancelled because of some complication with living abroad. And I would just shut down. Try to put on a blank face. Spew out some platitude about God’s goodness.

I would tell myself, “Emotions make you look weak and only get in the way of moving forward.” So I just kept pushing on, driving forward while never looking back. 

Years later, once my body very suddenly and drastically had its fill of painful circumstances going unprocessed and I developed an autoimmune disease, I was forced to look back as though I’d been hit from behind. In response, I began doing the heavy lifting of truly honouring my experiences and allowing myself to finally feel the waves of emotions that came with long-ago moves and crises.

As I realized just how much my refusal to process had stunted my emotional growth, I completely pendulum-swung from my “shoving down” mentality. I felt like I couldn’t move forward unless I had completely processed every single block on my Grief Tower

I was trying to gain control of something, anything, because I felt so very out of control. Suddenly I was trying to drive while only looking through the rearview mirror. 

As you can imagine, it was terribly painful. I became burnt out on grief processing and eventually learned that there needs to be a balance of intentionally looking back and intentionally looking forward, while also acknowledging and enjoying where I’m currently at. 
   

Taking in All Angles

In my grief-processing journey, I’ve learned something surprising. No matter how good you are at the balancing act of processing past grief while still looking forward, sometimes you get unexpectedly rear-ended by past grief that you thought you’d dealt with. No matter how much I check my mirrors, no matter how good of a driver I am, and no matter how safe an area I seem to be in, I’m not immune to being hit from behind.

We can feel like we are managing life well, just driving along. But then something from our past sneaks up behind us and taps us on our bumper – or maybe even causes a full collision. 

My car has been my safe space. It’s where I’ve done all my most profound processing. As an introvert, I have found I have the clearest thoughts in my car because it’s one of the few places I can find absolute solitude. It is in this space that I feel completely free to perform my “scream-singing” as I blast music to release any intense frustration, agony, and joy I may be feeling (my go-to song for emotional release is “Life is a Highway” by Rascal Flatts, which seems all too fitting here). 

But after this accident I was nervous about even getting into my car. Suddenly my safe space felt dangerous. And when I did drive, I spent a lot of time nervously surveillancing my rearview mirror in fear that I would be hit from behind again. When our past comes knocking, it can feel disorienting. 

This is where I anticipate you saying, “Great, so you’re saying I can never fully relax? My past will never be fully processed?” What a terrible thought. And no, that’s not what I’m saying.  Rather, remember that life has ups and downs that are outside your control, and it’s not your fault

I often felt that when my past came back to haunt me, it was my fault — that clearly I hadn’t processed well enough. I felt ashamed that my “ghost of Christmas past” was returning for a visit. 

Control is something we TCKs tend to struggle with. After years of losing friends and community and stability over and over, seeking out “control” can feel desperate and hopeless. 

Yes, we can’t be in control of everything, but we can choose to give ourselves grace as we remember that the waves of life are not our fault. When we choose to remember that sometimes collisions just happen, the emotional weight of “fault” gets lifted. 

There’s only so much contingency preparation I can do, and there are only so many hours in the day for therapy and processing and – oh yeah – everyday life also. 

There’s a need to intentionally glance backwards. We cannot fully accept ourselves and move forward if we do not gently and graciously love our past selves. We need to take into account the circumstances we faced growing up because they are impacting the person we are today – how we make decisions, invest in relationships, and care for ourselves. 

It’s important to intentionally create space to process, whether it’s taking a Saturday afternoon to journal or do an art project while considering processing questions, talking with a friend, or sitting down with a counselor. (Check out this emotional processing activity guide for processing suggestions you can implement.) 

There’s also a need to steer forward. The rearview mirror should not be our focal point. There’s a reason you got in the car: you have a goal or endpoint in mind! We need to remember those goals as we move moving forward in hope. 

And there’s a need to be aware of who you are and where you are. Sometimes we just need to live life, not pull out another piece of our past to process, not plan the turn we’re going to make in five miles, but rather allow ourselves to be present and enjoy the moment.

For some months after the accident I had to be gentle with myself, evaluating my emotional stability and prioritizing self-compassion. It took time, but eventually my car became my safe space again, because I had allowed myself to authentically show up how I needed each day. 

Collisions will happen. Our past will come knocking throughout life. That doesn’t mean we’ve failed, and that doesn’t always mean we haven’t done enough processing. Yes, processing the past is important, but we can’t get stuck driving through our rearview mirror. We need to balance looking back and looking forward while remembering that sometimes life hits us from behind. And we can give ourselves grace for that too. 

Photo by Olga Nayda on Unsplash

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Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She uses her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling to create resources and serve TCK and their families as the Director of Adult TCK services at TCK Training. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God in how they are cared for.