Don’t say it!

Don’t say it!  Is the message that floods my head when the truth feels unspeakable. Perhaps you experience that too? Might you be curious to learn more about identifying your unspeakables and maybe even how to go about sharing some of them?

By bringing to the fore that which annoys us/burdens us, or plays out as resentment for another, we have a better chance of processing it and in doing so we can unburden ourselves and let go of the past. We know that suppressing difficult feelings can lead to increased stress levels and ultimately ill health so this can only be a good thing.

Below are some steps you can follow to help bring into awareness those blind spots we all have; the things we find it difficult to talk or think about, even when we are aware of them.Hand image Let Go

So should we verbalise our unpeakables? Would it help? That is for us to judge individually, I think the key is to begin by identifying them and then consider whether to give them a voice. Unlike the ‘Unspeakables’ in the Harry Potter books; Wizards and Witches who work in the Department of Mysteries, you do have a choice! It is important to remember that, because sometimes it doesn’t feel like we do.

Firstly, a minor confession. This week, I was returning from London and having dashed for the train, I was thirsty as kitchen roll. I tried to quickly unscrew the lid of the bottle of Diet Coke I’d just purchased. Gripping really hard, my hands wouldn’t turn the white plastic top; it would not budge. I sighed to myself and sat back, puffing with frustration. The message rebounding in my head its just not happening. I tried again (sometimes I can make it work and get the grip I need using my sleeve) but the sharp pains shooting up my thumb and into my wrist were warning me to stop, now.

There were several people I could ask for help, so what was stopping me? Answer; mostly my vanity – I didn’t want to admit to a stranger I have a medical problem that effects my thumb joints, the thought was strangely revealing and not in a good way.

Moments later, another more sensible part of me took over and I got up and asked an older guy if he would mind opening the bottle for me. As is often the case he was only too happy to respond to my request for help. Back in my seat, sipping the sweet fizzy liquid, I smiled at the irony of my own process, realising I had uncovered one of my own ‘unspeakables’.

Last month, I mentioned the power of journaling to unleash the thoughts and feelings we can’t verbalize. Don’t say it, write it, is one way of managing the emotional material that troubles us. Taking things to the next stage and actually speaking about them can be life changing, in a positive way. Equally there are some things best left unsaid, so on that basis, I would proceed with a healthy dollop of caution!

Do you have any ‘unspeakables’?

Not sure if you have any? Grab a piece of paper or if you prefer just try this in your head.

Step 1: Begin by thinking of some facts (try for three) that you always avoid revealing to anyone. A secret from your past perhaps? Resist the urge to censor what comes up.

Step 2: When you’ve got some things in mind, imagine that you have to reveal them.

Step 3: How does that feel?

Step 4: If you had to reveal your unspeakable truth, is there something you could manage to disclose in confidence but something else you definitely would keep secret at all costs?

Step 5: Think; might it be a relief to unburden yourself? Perhaps it would not seem such a big revelation to someone else. Maybe your load would be made lighter by sharing? What is the nature of the block; is it fuelled by embarrassment or shame.

Step 6: Remember that your unspeakable truth may not be a big deal for someone else and vice versa. It is okay to at least consider that prospect? Might there be someone who you would really trust and safely confide in?

Still think you don’t have any ‘unspeakables’? Below are some topics we often avoid discussing in a social setting for fear of causing offence. That habit can be carried over into our personal relationships and sometimes it’s partly down to cultural norms. In that climate, airing problems can feel impossible and ultimately block our progress. If you are an expat living outside your host culture, the following list may be even more problematic to negotiate:

Sex, money in general/poverty/affluence, political affinity, body shape/weight (fat, thin etc), body odours, health/medical problems, cultural differences, gender, facial hair (women!), graphic details of trauma, addictions, depression, death and so on…

If you would like to hear a little more about the nature of shame and vulnerability, click here for a helpful video by Brené Brown.

In my next blog I will look at the phenomena of ‘the elephant in the room’ and offer some tips on how to help share something important that feels difficult to impart… 


Impact of Sandy, what you’ll see and what you won’t

October 2012 will be remembered for superstorm Sandy and it’s massive destruction, especially by those living in The Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, New Jersey and New York. In the United States alone nine states are struggling to restore basic services. East Coast streets submerged under sea water and heaps of matchsticks that once formed someone’s home are piled high, the images are beamed to an eager world (that would be us then).

Men dispose of shopping carts full of food damaged by Storm Sandy at the Fairway supermarket in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. The food was contaminated by flood waters that rose to approximately four feet in the store during the storm. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

It’s a heady time for news journalists; the final days of the American election are playing out; Obama and Romney fighting neck and neck to take the White House, tension and suspense are mounting. But then you already know all about that.
Over the coming weeks you will be less likely to hear or see so much of the devastation wrought by Sandy; it will no longer be ‘news’ and other stories will inevitably be the headlines and yet millions of people will find their lives disrupted or forever changed.

So what is it like for them to be caught up in Sandy and what is about to unfold? If you were paying attention to the news in September 2008, you may recall hurricane Ike scored a direct hit on Houston. The eye of the hurricane alone took in the whole city and the six hundred mile wide storm left five million people without power. My family were British expats living in a suburb on the west side of the city. The media reported that it ‘could have been worse’ and for this reason you may not remember hearing about it. Ike claimed over 200 lives but as a news story it was somewhat eclipsed by comparison to the tragic loss of life wrought by Hurricane Katrina only a few years earlier (just down the Gulf Coast from Houston). For Houstonians, the devastation left by Ike barrelling through, was significant for them.

Downtown Houston, hurricane Ike approaching

Knowing the hurricane was coming was scary enough, living through it – hunkering down in our closet, hearing the high pressure hose rain lashing the windows, ominous thuds as branches and a tree fell on our house, huddling together in the stifling hot darkness without power, straining to hear commentary on a wind up radio pressed between our ears, was certainly an adrenalin fuelled experience, one to tell the grand-children about.

The aftermath was a whole different story; initially, so thankful to be safe, our focus was on the clear up operation and getting the tree that was lifting our roof tiles removed quickly. Optimism for a swift return to power evaporated by the second week, flooding was widespread. My memoir, ‘An Inconvenient Posting: An expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ refers to the power cables in our neighbourhood, ‘usually neat swags of black cable looked like balls of knitting wool, unfathomable to unravel, and a massive headache for the electricity workers trying to repair the damage’.

Sandy has brought the memories back; no fridge, no cups of tea or fresh food, venturing out in desperation to find some ice into a world where nothing was normal; trees and signboards littered the street. With traffic lights out, the cars took it in turns to move ahead at the intersections – in Britain there would be a more ‘whoever is bravest (or more pushy depending on how you view it) goes first’ approach, for a nation committed to forming a queue it’s disappointing, so I was very impressed by the orderly, stoic attitude I encountered! At night the children were scared of the dark so we slept together in one room – a necessary safety precaution anyway, negotiating your home is not as easy as you might think without illumination – we were covered in bruises.

The heat was at times unbearable, but we got on with it, because we heard on our wind up radio that others were much worse off. And strangely, without any television or computer, we had no images beyond our own imagination. If you had a phone signal and the means to charge it you might have spoken to family far away who would have given you an update from the media coverage. Something I found particularly strange and frustrating; there I was living through a disaster and yet I couldn’t see it beyond my own subdivision of roads.

Our little community became just that; we got to know each other, cleared up together, commiserated together – people were shaken to the core and they needed to re tell their story of Ike, to try and make sense of it. There was a night time curfew in place because of fears of looting; those of us with no family to flee to needed to stick together. 

You might imagine that life returns to normal a few weeks after such a crisis, but it doesn’t, not really. The wake of such an event plays out at every level. All activities are disrupted, appointments rescheduled or opportunities lost, everything is backlogged. Businesses shut down, unable to recover from sudden loss of profits; familiar places will be closed ‘until further notice owing to flood damage’. Insurance claims take months or even years to settle. All around Houston after Ike, ‘sky-blue plastic ‘tarps’ (tarpaulins) sat on roofs like great shower caps, covering homes with damaged roofs to protect them from further leaks.’ Years later, adverts were running on the local networks offering to help with compensation claims. Reminders were all around us.

After a few months life did return to normality, it was just a slightly different one, it’s fair to say a unique life experience had been integrated. In our family, the losses were temporary  (except for the felled tree) and we could move on. For those who have experienced something more difficult to reconcile, it will take significantly more time and understanding. I hope they get the help they need to do so.

You might like to read my article about our family’s experience of hurricane Ike, written in 2008, published in The Telegraph’s Expat section:

My article in Among Worlds Magazine: Hidden Immigrant or Foreigner?

“What do you mean a bath?” boomed my friend’s Dad with disdain. He sounded to me like the news readers I had heard on the BBC. I became aware of the pounding in my chest and heat rising up my neck. Looking down at me again, he countered: “For heavens sake, speak the Queen’s English child – its baarrth, not bath”.

Laughing and shaking his head, he turned his back and continued buffing the paintwork of his Renault car. In all likelihood he was oblivious to the wound he had inflicted upon me.

Back in 1971, I was only eight years old, but was fully aware that the joke was on me. I slunk home feeling I had behaved shamefully. I was struggling to cope with the losses of our recent move from Northern England to London. A smaller house, a smaller garden and a smaller life. Ridiculed for my Geordie, North of England accent, I was finding it hard to make friends at school.  No one it seemed wanted to befriend the kid who was difficult to understand.

I had a small success making friends with Paul, but his father’s retort had made me feel an outsider again. If I could not even speak in an acceptable way, how would I ever belong?

Like countless other children, before and after me, I quickly learned the answer to my dilemma, which was to change the way I spoke. As a result, I developed what my French teacher referred to as a “phonetic ear” – the ability to imitate an accent. Aged eight, this was my first experience of finding the chameleon from within.  It was not my last.

Thirty years later, as I touched down at Singapore’s Changi Airport, I became what Ruth Van Reken1 refers to in her Traditional Cultural Identity Box for TCKs as a “Foreigner” – the definition being to “look different from the culture and think different from the culture”. A theoretical model which has helped me to understand the challenges of moving to a place where the “surrounding dominant culture” is different.

On moving to South East Asia as an adult I expected cultural diversity. The outer physical differences between myself and the Singaporeans were obvious and to an extent so were their inner – thinking, values and belief systems. Of course, I still experienced significant culture shock, but I was also able to resurrect the skills which sprouted from a need to survive a childhood move.

I could be found lurching around Singapore in the back of a taxi, trying not to stick to the black vinyl seats, I would holler “U turn back please la”. I was copying the Singlish accent and was relieved to be understood.

Having returned to the UK, another move this time to Houston, Texas came along four years later. I imagined that I would be culturally aligned in this new posting, with hindsight (a wonderful thing) I was ill prepared for the move.

On arriving in Houston, I was a “Hidden Immigrant” – look like culture and think different from culture. I was surprised to find that the British, with their deep historic ties to the Americans since the Pilgrim Fathers, thought very differently on many issues even some of the deeps ones – the values and beliefs.

As I learned to negotiate the ribbon of freeways, I was alarmed to see motor bikers without helmets and workers with their dogs, huddled untethered, in the back of open trucks.

As a “Hidden Immigrant” I looked like a local, but was thinking differently. I felt more challenged than in Singapore, where I clearly was different because I looked it. Now isolated, alienated even, I tried to function in my new home. At first, questions such as why is it considered a good thing that “everythin’s bigger in Texas” – including the gargantuan portions of food, flummoxed me and highlighted the contrast in our values.

Winston Churchill, the British wartime Priminister, is famously credited with referring to Britain and America as “two nations divided by a common language”. I could relate to this, my radar was broken as I tried to cope with what I perceived as an over familiarity in communication style, underpinned with little depth in conversation. I was confused about how to begin and where to end. What should I hold back and what should I bring forth?

After many months of tussling with my identity – a period of great adjustment, I found it helped to remind myself, that there does not have to be a right or wrong, just alternative ways of being. With acceptance, came integration and gradually I felt my former life had transitioned to the new one. Now I could enjoy the posting. It also helped to discover that even Americans from other States, have experienced culture shock after arriving in Texas!

Now, more than a year since I arrived, I appreciate the warmth that is offered to me as I move around Houston. “How are you t’day and where ya’ll from?” is a typical greeting. Houstonians often like to make acquaintance, if only for a minute, as you pass through the supermarket till. What I mistook for insincerity was merely people operating from a friendly bubble.

I have learnt how to respond in my new environment and function effectively.  I have also traded my cultural way of communicating, but part of my identity is retained – as soon as I speak most people know I am British (or Australian!).

Having three children under the age of 12, I am focused on helping them cope with their cross cultural moves and appreciate the diversity they encounter. As I look back and try to make meaning of my emotional journey as a “Foreigner” and a “Hidden immigrant”, I notice how difficult it was for me as a child, to verbalise my dilemma.

How do you explain to a potential play mate, why you have a strange accent? (which until recently you were not even aware you had). How do you cope with giving up a part of yourself, which you thought was perfectly normal? That is before your world was transformed overnight.

Children are by nature, ill equipped to analyse their experience and cope with the loss of their culture and identity. It can be tough to feel what Linda Bell[1] reports in her book Hidden Immigrants as “coming from outer space”.

I have tried to give my children the words to explain who they are. For example, they might say “I come from Kent – which is near London, but I am living in Houston”. It sounds simple enough but can be complex – my youngest child was born in Singapore, should she mention this? Perhaps not, simplicity is easier.

And I wonder, what of the children who continually move countries, those that have not lived in the place where their parents grew up or their extended family live. How they look and think may be more complex.  They will need words too.

There are, as we know many upsides arising from exposure to cultural diversity. One of the potential attributes being a confidence upon meeting new people. Learning to be cautious and observe, before leaping into relationships is another skill. Not a surprise then, that this growth phenomena can spawn the development of sophisticated social skills in TCK’s.

My experiences have taught me to make a judgement regarding how much of myself I will trade off. As an adult, I can choose to give up some of my own culture or at least keep it temporarily hidden in the interests of fitting in or making a friend. To have done otherwise and denied any experience of culture shock, might surely have made me culturally incompetent.  These decisions are often made at a subconscious level as we act on our gut instinct. But we can all become aware of what is okay for us – how much of the inner identity we show through our outer self. Which parts we might change in order to be accepted and effective in our environment.

It can be helpful to know we have a choice and support our children in theirs. And with a little curiosity and a sense of adventure, we can usually experience the joy of learning about others and new ways of being in our adopted home.

Copies of Among World magazine  are available at:

1 David C Pollock/Ruth E Van Reken (1996) Traditional Cultural Identity Box for TCKs.  Pol/Van Cultural Identity Box Copyright 1996

[1] Linda Bell (1997) Hidden Immigrants. Cross Cultural Publications/Crossroads