A Conversation With Timothy Sanford, Author of “I Have to be Perfect”

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The last four months we’ve been exploring the ideas in Timothy Sanford’s book I Have to be Perfect” (and other Parsonage Heresies). Here are the first four posts if you need a refresher:

The Little Word that Frees Us

I’m Not Supposed to Have Needs

I Can’t Trust Anyone

God is Disappointed in Me

Today we’ll conclude our series with an interview with Timothy himself. My questions and comments are in bold. Also stay tuned for his book to become more accessible for overseas workers this summer, when it will be published electronically.

 

Timothy, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us here at A Life Overseas. I know this conversation will bless our online community. You grew up as an MK. Can you give us a little background about where you lived as a child?

“Where I grew up” is a hard question for many MKs—and even PKs these days—to answer. My birth certificate and passport indicate I was born in Chicago, Illinois (many think Chicago is a foreign country).  The back of a 1957 Chevy got very comfortable while my parents did deputation.  They were in Costa Rica for language school and finally landed in Ecuador.

Back State side, my parents did their “re-entry transitioning” (which did not even exist back in those days) in Ohio.  We then moved to Texas (which self-claims to be a “whole different world”) where they did missionary work in Mexico and taught at Rio Grande Bible Institute.

We moved back to Ohio so my dad could take a preacher job (which didn’t work out) and finally landed in Arizona where I became a SEK (Secular Employee’s Kid, which some people pronounce “sick”).

 

You’ve been a licensed professional counselor for how many years now?

I’ve been in practice as a Licensed Professional Counselor for 26 years with experience in private practice, a Residential Treatment Center for youth, and an In-patient psychiatric hospital.

 

Is there anything specific that prompted you to enter counseling as a profession?

It was my wife’s idea really. We were leaving Eagle Lake Camp (part of The Navigators organization), so I went back to school (to buy some time to figure out what I was going to do next in life).  At that time the field of psychology was lab rats, long white coats and weird men with ponytails. My goal was to receive the counseling skills and use them in ministry somewhere overseas. I did my required internship in a private practice setting and have been in practice ever since.  Yes, the “God does work in mysterious ways” cliché fits.

 

From your vantage point, what things have changed, and what things have remained constant, in missionary and ministry culture these past 3 or 4 decades? How are the experiences of today’s PKs and MKs different from a few decades ago, and how are they the same?

Today there is more information and attention that on the subject of MK/TCKs.  Out of that came MK Member Caregiver staff people and Re-entry seminars/retreats for transitioning MKs.

The internet, Skype, and better international calling services help MKs keep connected with the MKs they know from the field, as well as being a forum to connect with other like-minded  MK/TCKs. That’s all good.

When my parents were sent off to the field they were told “You’re a missionary and God will take care of your kids.  Ministry first.”  That mantra is no longer outwardly stated; however, the tone in missions these days is “You’re a missionary (parents) and the MK Member Caregiver staff will tend to your kids’ needs.  Ministry is still (unofficially, of course) first.”  Even with all the increased attention and information on cross-cultural issues, many MKs still get pushed into second or third place.

 

I’ve interpreted this book through my own personal experiences: a TCK but not a PK, a missionary but not an MK, an adult who entered ministry young but did not grow up in it, and a parent raising 4 children who are all PKs, MKs, and TCKs. But you wrote this book to PKs, not to their parents. I’m wondering what kind of advice you’d give to parents of MKs and PKs? So much of the time as a parent, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I’d love your input on that. What kind of conversations would you recommend having with our children?

Since you’re the missionary parent asking this question that’s a great start.

The way I try to describe the difference between the missionary and the MK is this way:  Let’s say America is the color RED and Ecuador is the color YELLOW.  You are a RED brain (it’s your paradigm, it’s your passport country) adjusting to a YELLOW culture.  You make paradigm adjustments to your RED brain.  But, when you mix RED with YELLOW (the culture the MK/TCK grows up in) you get ORANGE.  That’s not RED adapting to YELLOW, it’s ORANGE.  It’s an entirely different color.  It’s an entirely different paradigm all together.  Poof! You have the TCK world.

Your world as the missionary is not the same as the MK’s world for several reasons:

  1. Your MK didn’t get to choose to do missionary work to foreign peoples.
  2. It isn’t your MK’s “calling” either.
  3. You have adult skills (I hope) with which to manage the stresses, struggles and complications of an inter-cultural environment. Your MK only has child-level coping skills. Many adults (not just missionaries) don’t stop to think about the limited coping skills their children have. This is especially true if you are stationed in a potentially hostile region. You have the adult understandings of the “chances” and “odds” of things happening – or not happening.  The MK mostly hears the “what can go wrong.” It can be especially terrifying for younger children.
  4. Be attuned to the world from the MK’s perspective and realize the “Holy Heresies” are very likely to grow inside their brains even if you’re not the one putting those lies there. MKs—and especially PKs—have 100 dads and 150 moms. Remember: the mission agency, the denomination, the church people and the secular environment you live in impacts your MK a whole lot more than you may think.  Sometimes these external “voices” are as influential as your own voice; frustrating, yet true.

Accept the possibility you may need to choose your MK over your “ministry,” at least for a number of years. I don’t wish this on any family, yet as the missionary parent, it’s a harsh “reality of the job” you need to accept.

 

The “harsh reality of the job” — that’s an intriguing statement. Could you elaborate on it?

What I’m trying to say is there may come a time when the parent is faced with the tough decision between staying on the field to do “ministry” or returning/staying home because it is in the best interest of a child. There have been several families that I recommended for the sake of the child(ren) they not continue on the field.

That is a VERY difficult and painful decision to make, and that position of facing that decision is what I hope no family has to face.  It’s just hard for everyone in the family.  Yes, it is a matter of prioritizing and making sure the MK comes out on top of the “ministry.” Part of what makes this so hard is most missionaries I know are passionate about their calling (and rightfully so), so to CHOOSE to put it aside for a while is very painful for them (again, and rightfully so).

On the flip side, I think some missionary families don’t reach out for family help because they are afraid they will be told they can’t continue their ministry/return to the field. The missionary parents often come in with an all-or-nothing thinking: ministry or suffer State-side.  I have successfully worked with a number of families where other options actually worked out very well.  Again, it’s a case by case situation, but for the missionary, it’s important to realize there may be more options available other than go or stay.

Accepting the reality that your family may NOT thrive, or even belong, overseas is something very few missionaries consider.  Yet it’s true.  My recommendation to potential missionaries is: are they truly willing (not just in theory willing) to NOT go or NOT return to the field if that is what is best for their family.  If NOT … my recommendation is to not send that family to the field in the first place.  That’s what I mean by: “…it’s a harsh “reality of the job” you need to accept.”

Again, if the missionary parents are not aware of this reality, they can become very broken and maybe even bitter if one of their children “kept” them “from doing God’s work” … which is really THEIR own work as well as their identity.  Too many missionary personnel I’ve met have made “ministry” and “missionary” their IDENTITY over what they are doing.  If this type of missionary can’t return to “their work” it can actually create an identity crisis that can bring all sorts of complications such as depression, etc.  It’s a HUGE topic that I have not heard mentioned at all in the few missionary circles I’m clued into.  It may actually be worth another post or series for you to think about doing.

 

High school graduation time is upon us. How would you describe your re-entry into American life as a young adult, and what advice would you give for MKs/TCKs preparing to re-enter their passport country, especially from a counselor’s perspective? What advice would you give their parents for helping guide them in the transition?

I know about transitions. All in all, I attended six different schools before completing the 8th grade and lived in 26 different places before graduating from high school.  You know, the normal stuff for MKs. So here are my suggestions:

  1. Make good use of your R.A.F.T.
  2. Attend a transition weekend. Many mission agencies provide these nowadays as well as organizations such as Interact, etc.  They really can help.
  3. Keep connected with other TCK friends via internet, etc.
  4. If possible, attend a university that has a high population of international students. There is a good chance you will meet other TCKs there.
  5. Remember what these four phrases really mean:

“Let’s get together …” really means “good bye.”

“I’ll call you …” really means “good bye.”

“Give me a call …” really means “good bye.”

“We’ll be in touch …” really means “good bye.”

  1. If your agency had an MK Caregiver staff or person, get to know them and keep in contact. I’ve met a number of MK Caregivers and they all want to help (they’re good at it too).  And if you don’t know what R.A.F.T. stands for, ask your MK Caregiver; he or she will know.

 

Is there anything you’d like to add to what you’ve said in the book? Perhaps something new you’ve learned since you originally wrote it, that’s burning on your heart?

Since writing “I Have to be Perfect,” I have done a lot of research on the subject of attachment child to parent.  In doing so, I realize there can very easily be attachment issues within a missionary family.  In 2003 I presented a workshop at the World Reunion 2003 (for TCKs not just MKs) on the topic of attachment.  They had me do the workshop two additional times because nearly all the attendees wanted to attend that workshop. As I did so, I did an unofficial, unscientific experiment. At the end of all three workshops I asked for written “yes” or “no” response on a small piece of paper stating whether the attachment issues presented fit them.  To my surprise, nearly 80% of the attendees at the World Reunion 2003 indicated they had significant attachment issues in their life.  It was this gathering that got me started on studying the attachment dynamic and how growing up as an MK/TCK can impact attachment.

For about nine years now I’ve been working on a manuscript on this subject and I’m glad to share INSIDE: Understanding How Reactive Attachment Disorder Thinks and Feels will be released in eBook form early summer 2015 through LifEdvice.com. Had I known then what I know now, I would have added at least some of this to “I Have to be Perfect.”  Oh well, I guess people will just have to order the eBook (which will sell for $4.99 I believe).

Oh and since I’m talking about eBooks being released, “I Have to be Perfect” is also coming out in eBook format through the same publisher (LifEdvice.com) early this summer as well—and it will be cheaper too! Again, I think it will be $4.99.

 

Thank you so much, Tim, for taking the time to answer all these questions and share your hard-won wisdom with us. I know people will really appreciate how practical this advice is.

 

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A Life Overseas community, do you have any questions for Tim? He’ll be available to answer your questions in the comment section until Sunday, May 31.

 

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Tim Sanford holds an M.A. in Psychology, a B.A. in Bible and a B.S. in Outdoor Recreation.  He is licensed by the State of Colorado as a Licensed Professional Counselor and is an ordained minister.  He has received further training in areas of communication, trauma response and debriefing and experiential education.

Tim’s background includes being raised in South America; many years of involvement in his home church (including interim College Pastor); and being the Director of the wilderness camping ministry for The Navigators, an international, interdenominational Christian organization. He currently runs a private counseling practice in Colorado Springs that focuses on adolescents, adults and marriage.  In addition to his practice, Tim is a full-time member of the counseling staff at Focus on the Family.

He has published many articles in the United States, Germany and South Africa.  He is the author of “I Have to be Perfect” (And Other Parsonage Heresies), a book intended for preachers’ kids, co-authored Growing Pains: Advice for Parents of Teenagers and Losing Control and Liking It, a book for parenting teenagers published by Focus on the Family/Tyndall Publishing. Tim’s most recent work INSIDE: Understanding How Reactive Attachment Disorder Thinks and Feels is scheduled to be released early summer, 2015, In total, his works have been translated into seven different languages.

He has been married to Becky since 1981 and they have two married daughters.  They currently call Colorado Springs, Colorado their home. Tim has spoken at numerous conferences over the years, for many kinds of gatherings, workshops and seminars; national and local.

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God Can Heal Our Broken Potatoes

A beautiful, healing post from Chris Bowman, an Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) who returned to one of his host countries for a couple years to work with middle school and high school TCKs.  

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One night we asked our middle schoolers, “What’s the hardest thing someone could ask you to do?” Here are some of their answers:

  • Walk in a pool of custard. (I agree.)
  • Eat something fermented.
  • Read for a long period of time.
  • Kill someone. (…good to know)
  • Run around school naked.
  • Do homework.
  • Walk without hands or legs.
  • Say goodbye to my best friend.

Thankfully most of the above are things that they will never be asked to do — that is, except for saying goodbyes. Unfortunately, it is one of the most painful downsides to being a Third Culture Kid (TCK).

It gets to a point where no matter where you are in the world, you are always away from people you care about. According to some research, by the time a TCK is in their early 20′s, they have experienced more grief from goodbyes than most adults experience in a lifetime. As a TCK myself, that sounds pretty accurate.

It wasn’t until I moved back to Australia for university that I noticed that life in our home countries isn’t quite as transient. I spent four years not having to say goodbye to the people around me. So this is what’s it like to have consistency? Huh?

I said so many more goodbyes in the two years I was back in Cambodia than in the four years I was in Adelaide. This is just part of the TCK experience.

As we opened up the discussion with our middle-schoolers, we asked them the simple question – “Who have you had to say goodbye to?” Best friends. Favorite aunts. Pets. Siblings.

For some, their last goodbyes were just that – last goodbyes. They never got to say goodbye to a dying loved one. They didn’t get to sneak in a last hug with their sick dog. The goodbyes hurt, and they make them angry, and they make them sad.

And with that one question, it wasn’t long before something triggered, and an ocean of emotions was let out. Tears that had been held back a long time were let out. They each understood each other’s pain and found a safe space to share those emotions.

We had a plan for that night – we quickly threw it out the window. God had a better plan.

To kick off the night, we had cut up potatoes, and then sent teams out to find the pieces. Once they had done so, they then had to put their potatoes back together with toothpicks.

It worked – kinda. Sure, the toothpicks held the potatoes together, but the potato wasn’t healed; it was just a bunch of potato pieces, stuck together. We do the same thing. We try to keep our broken hearts and lives together. We hold on for dear life and try our best to keep everything from falling apart.

All our hurt. All our disappointment. All our failures. We just try and hold it together so that maybe we can convince the world that we’re not really broken potatoes.

The truth is – only God can heal our broken potatoes. We can try, and most of us do. But we will never succeed. God made your potato and only God can heal your potato.

 

cbChris Bowman is a twenty-something who has grown up across Australia, Uganda, and Cambodia. He has a Bachelor of Media, is studying a Graduate Diploma of Divinity, and leads a small group for young adult TCKs in Adelaide, Australia. He can also be heard Saturday mornings on LifeFM and blogs at wheresthescript.com.

Living Between Worlds – A Post on TCKs

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For as long as I can remember I have lived between worlds.

My first memories of life are from a rooftop in the southern area of Pakistan. The high, flat roof surrounded by walls was a perfect place to keep cool when the hot months came in early May. We slept on rope beds covered in mosquito netting able to feel an almost cool breeze after sundown.

Mosques surrounded our house on all four sides, their minarets stately and tall against the desert sky. While on the inside prayer times and Bibles sustained us, on the outside we were minorities in a Muslim world where the call to prayer echoed out over the city five times a day and ordered the lives of all those around us.

When you grow up between worlds the research on identity formation does not apply in quite the same way. Instead, you move back and forth as one whose identity is being forged and shaped between two, often conflicting, cultures. “A British child taking toddling steps on foreign soil or speaking his or her first words in Chinese with an amah (nanny) has no idea of what it means to be human yet, let alone “British.” He or she simply responds to what is happening in the moment” (Pollock and Van Reken, 2001).

 There is now documented research that identifies some of the strengths and weaknesses that are part of growing up between worlds.

Here are some of the strengths that the third culture kid develops through living between worlds:

Cross-cultural skills

From their early years, third culture kids interact and enjoy ‘difference.’  They often take on various characteristics from the cultures where they have lived. They don’t see difference as good or bad – just different. This gives them a huge advantage in our global world. To be able to interact across cultural values and differences is a gift that is inherent to who they are.

Adaptability

Third culture kids show amazing ability to adapt across cultures. They are as comfortable in a crowded bazaar in a large city in Asia as they are in a pub in England. They blend with seeming ease into whatever setting they are thrown into – as long as it is outside their passport country!

Maturity

Often third culture kids are seen as more mature than their counterparts in their passport countries. They easily interact with adults two and three times their age and can see things from a more mature perspective.

Global view of the world

The worldview of the third culture kid is broad and wide. They often look around a room and think – “am I the only one who sees things this way?” People, governments, cultures, and countries all over the world have shaped them and it is impossible for them to have a one-dimensional worldview.

 Flexibility

The third culture kid has learned how to be flexible and adjust their behavior to fit the situation. This flexibility can be a tremendous gift, particularly in rapidly changing situations.

Bridge-builders

Third culture kids are natural bridge builders. They are often able to see both sides of a situation and help to negotiate a successful outcome or interaction. This is an invaluable skill set and they often look for jobs that will allow them to function in this role.

With every strength comes a weakness and the successful third culture kid learns to recognize their weaknesses.

Some of those include: 

Insecurity

There can be profound feelings of insecurity related to one’s passport culture. The sense of not belonging can come in unexpected places and spaces and result in precarious footing – like you’re on a cliff and one step in the wrong direction could send you hurtling into a place where you will get badly injured. Food, dress, cultural do’s and don’ts can all feel foreign, and with that cause a distrust of one’s ability to navigate

Unresolved grief and loss           

Dave Pollock articulated the profound grief and loss piece of a third culture upbringing in this statement: “Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than monocultural individuals do in a lifetime.”There is so much more to say about this, but just know that this grief is real, the losses are real, and with real grief and loss comes the need for real healing.

Arrogance

Arrogance is often insecurity by another name. When the third culture kid feels ‘other’ they resort to coping mechanisms. This can come off as profound arrogance and result in exactly the opposite of what they really want – cause further alienation and feelings of being ‘other’ when what is longed for is connection and understanding.This can turn into a vicious cycle for the TCK and needs to be addressed for what it is – a deep insecurity with who they are within the context of their passport culture.

Difficulty planting roots

When your roots are everywhere, they can feel like they are nowhere. When the third culture kid tries to transition from a global background to a life of less movement it can be unsettling. As much as they may say they want roots, the tug of the airport, the feel of the airplane, the sense of hopeful expectation that comes from travel has been a part of their lives for as long as they can remember. Releasing this and exchanging it for roots is a huge step, and not one that is made easily.

While this is in no way an exhaustive list, it is a good start to recognizing strengths and weaknesses. When we name something, we have more power over it. When I name insecurity, I can address it for what it is. When I admit to grief and loss, I can begin to heal.

So how can you help your third culture kid as they live between worlds? The one you love more than life itself, the one who you’ve heard crying into the night, even as you face your own losses? Much has been written on this and there are some excellent resources available. But here are a couple of thoughts that have recently come up in conversation with other third culture kids. 

Here is what helped us – perhaps it will help the kids you know who are living between worlds. 

Name the losses

Naming the losses, identifying those things they long and grieve for legitimizes their grief. They no longer have to keep these feelings bottled up, dismissing them as unimportant. Naming their losses helps them face and deal with those losses. Naming them begins the important process of healing. Naming the losses can feel disloyal for a third culture kid, particularly if they have a good relationship with their parents. They don’t want to appear ungrateful or hurt their mom and dad. Because of this, it is often best done with a neutral person, one who will not feel hurt by this process.

Express feelings of restlessness

The third culture kid needs to be able to express their restlessness without parents or other loved ones becoming defensive and telling them how lucky they are to be where they are, to have the background they have had. The TCK experience is best captured by the word “Saudade”, a Portuguese word that has no English equivalent. It is an indolent wistfulness for what no longer exists.  “Killing the Saudade” (Another Portuguese phrase) happens when they can get together with like-minded friends and express their restlessness, talk about home or the last place they lived, eat familiar foods, and reconnect with those from their past. Killing the saudade really works. It is an effective tool to address the restlessness and move forward in the places where we are planted.

Journal life events

Some of the fears of the third culture kid is that they will forget; that these places that hold such a big part of their heart and soul will be relegated to distant memories, and soon be gone. Journaling these events, even if they happened long ago, helps to remind the TCK of the gift of a global upbringing. Journaling can help the TCK process thoughts and memories.

Tell their story

As parents, it is easy for us to want to tell the story – but our kids have a story as well, and it is vital that they learn to tell it, that they own their story. If we are the ones hijacking the story, they never learn to take hold of it as their own. Part of their story is connecting their multicultural past to a meaningful present. We can’t do it for them, but we can encourage them along the way, encourage them to develop their own voices, separate from those of parents and siblings, remind them of who they are through their story. When they learn to tell their stories, they are better able to hear the stories of others, to recognize that everyone has a story. 

It is these things that have led me to tell my own story, to write, to reflect, to describe – “my memory may be biased, or relayed in a way that my mom would say ‘that’s not quite the way it happened,’ but it is inalienably mine.”*

This past year I took one more step forward in my journey toward living whole and healthy, one more step in remembering my story. I released a book called Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging. The book is a set of essays on living between and is divided into 7 sections: Home, Identity, Belonging, Airports, Grief & Loss, Culture Clash, and Goodbyes set the stage for individual essays within each section.

My deepest prayer is that somehow, by the grace of God, the book will resonate with others who are living a life between worlds,  so that others can remember their story and know it was worth it.

*From Kebabs in Jalalabad in Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging

How do you help your children live between worlds? What have you found to help them in this process? How do you help them learn to tell their story? Join us through the comments and the suggestions will be compiled into a future post! 

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Between Worlds on Amazon“In Exodus God repeatedly tells the people of Israel to remember their story, to remember their beginning, to remember who they are. Later, exiled in Babylon, unable to return home, they were to remember their stories – stories of wonder and deliverance, of the power of God and His provision. They were to remember their beginnings.” from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging, July 1st, 2014 Doorlight Publications.