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Applying Principles Of Psychoanalysis To Explain Depression In Third Culture Kids & Expats: Object Relations Theory




Those of you who are familiar with my work will know that I am a psychodynamic psychotherapist, meaning that I am trained in the principles of psychoanalysis. You may also know that I am an Adult Third Culture Kid and former expat and that it has been my passion to treat TCKs, ATCKs and Expats suffering from depression and anxiety.

It has long been a goal of mine to explain how the principles of psychoanalysis can be applied to Third Culture Kids and Expats in order to illustrate how certain psychological processes can lead to depression. 

Not all theories fit the Third Culture Kid / Expat experience perfectly but knowing the principles will benefit you all the same. 

In this article, I will demonstrate how a principle within psychoanalysis called Object Relations Theory can be used to explain depression in Third Culture Kids and Expats. 


In This Article…

  1. What Is Object Relations Theory?
  2. How Can Object Relations Theory Be Applied To Third Culture Kids And Expats
  3. Examples Of How Object Relations Theory Can Look Like Within Third Culture Kids And Expats


What Is Object Relations Theory?

Let’s start off by taking a look at the core concept within Object Relations Theory.

For the sake of simplicity, I have chosen not to include sources, dates and names of theorists (Object Relations Theory is a set of theories) in this article. If you are interested in knowing more about the technicalities of the theory, feel free to send me an email.

The theory is used as a way of understanding early childhood attachments, how they are internalized by the patient and how that in turn affects the patient’s thought-process and behavior in relationships in the present.

The word object is used to refer to people that are significant to the patient. In early childhood this would be the caregiver (mother or father). In adulthood it may be a partner, husband or wife. 



A person’s first attempt to internalize a childhood attachment, or in other words, to build an object representation, is called an introjection. Introjections are vivid and specific memories of the caregiver. If the caregiver has been abusive, the introjections will remain, but otherwise the introjections should develop into identifications over time. Identifications are milder, more vague object representations of the caregiver. An example of an identification is when somebody says “this person reminds me of my father”.

If the relationship with the caregiver has (in any way) been unsuccessful, the patient will split their object representations of the caregiver into two, one being the good caregiver and the other being the bad caregiver (love-hate, black-and-white). And in order to deal with these two object representations of the caregiver, they will split themselves into two, in something that is called splitting of the self. The version of themselves dealing with the “bad caregiver” will have a different personality and different set of needs than the version of themselves dealing with the “good caregiver”.

The goal according to Object Relations Theory is to achieve object constancy. This is when the patient is able to merge the two object representations into one, containing both the good and bad versions of the caregiver. When someone has achieved object constancy, they should no longer have introjections of the caregiver.



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How Can Object Relations Theory Be Used To Treat Depression In Third Culture Kids and Expats

So how can we apply Object Relations Theory to Third Culture Kids and Expats suffering from depression?

Let me tell you! 

Keep in mind that what you’re about to read is an imperfect application of the theory and not fully thought out.

If we change the definition of the object to include places and see the object representation as the patients attempt to internalize an attachment to a place (as well as significant people) then we’ll be able to understand the psychological process that can ultimately lead to depression within Third Culture Kids and Expats.




The patient would form an introjection as a reaction to the “trauma” of not having full ownership of his passport culture or host culture. Then he or she would split the object representation of their passport culture and their host culture into good and bad versions as an attempt to cope with the pain associated with not having full ownership of either culture.

This would be seen as an unsuccessful coping mechanism and the goal of therapy would be for the patient to achieve object constancy by merging the good and bad representations of the country into one. By doing so the patient will be able to form identifications of the country and be able to relate to the country with distance and objectivity.




Examples Of How Object Relations Theory Can Look Like Within Third Culture Kids And Expats

So how does this look?

Let me give you an example that should fit with both the Third Culture Kid experience and the Expat experience.

Let’s say that Michael internalizes an attachment to the country that he was born in, The United Kingdom. In other words, he forms an Object Representation of it. This can include general thoughts on the culture (its norms and ideals) but also what it means to be British.

Then he moves to Malaysia and lives there for several years. During this period he forms an Object Representation of Malaysia.

As he travels between the UK and Malaysia, he is reminded of the fact that he does not have full ownership of any of his object representations. He is not fully immersed in the culture of the UK and he is not Malaysian by birth. This realization forms the introjection.

This causes Michael to split his object representations of the UK and Malaysia into a “good object” and a “bad object”.

When he is in Malaysia he can identify with the “good object” of the UK (assert his Britishness) as a way of maintaining the bond with his birth country whilst overseas and when he is in the UK he can identify with the “good object” of Malaysia (refer positively to Malaysia in conversations and find ways of mentioning Malaysia when not solicited) as a way of healing his feelings of not properly belonging to his birth culture.

At the same time, he would act out against the “bad objects” of each country when in them. He would lament certain aspects of the British culture when in the UK and do the same when in Malaysia.

Michael would achieve object constancy when he manages to merge both representations of each country and can identify with them in a healthy way.

In this article, I’ve demonstrated how Object Relations Theory can used to explain depression within Third Culture Kids and Expats. 



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