The Anti-RAFT

Tbilisi, Georgia

Summer is nearly upon us – and for many people that means transition of some sort. In the international and expat community people will be leaving, relocating, perhaps visiting home or relatives. Even in the not-so-expat or international community, summer often means the transition period between grade levels at school, or between high-school and university. In light of all the changes the pandemic brought (and changes we’re still dealing with), learning to do transitions well is as important as it’s ever been.

In their cornerstone of a book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Ruth Van Reken and Dave Pollock (and in a marvelously expanded later edition, Dave’s son, Michael Pollock) lay out an easy to remember simple framework for starting transition well: “RAFT.”

RAFT is an acronym for:

Reconcile
Affirm
Farewell
Think Destination

It’s an easy and effective reminder of steps to take to initiate transition well. It’s been around for a while, and it’s proven helpful for many people in many contexts. Reflecting on my own habits during various transitions in my life as I’ve shared the framework with students, parents, and many others around the world – I’ve realized that my natural unchecked tendencies were actually just about the complete opposite of what “RAFT” advises.

In some ways, that’s a really helpful realization… because sometimes it takes the recognition and naming of UNHEALTHY behaviors to really motivate us to actively work to replace them with healthier behaviors. Maybe our unhealthy habits technically accomplish what we wanted them to when we implemented them, but perhaps we set our sights too low. Perhaps we could aim for – and accomplish – more.

My bar was set pretty low in transition, as demonstrated by what I shall refer to as the anti-RAFT:

Repress
Anger
Forget
Think of the Past

Rather than RECONCILING with people and purposefully unloading emotional baggage by resolving problems, relationships, and situations… I would REPRESS. Rather than try to deal with things or people, I’d push anything negative down as deep as I could. I’d overcompensate with whatever I could to distract me, make me feel even momentary happiness, or keep me busy. I’d go out of my way to avoid fixing anything broken.

Rather than AFFIRMING the relationships and experiences that had made my time somewhere or with some group rich and worth remembering, I’d settle on being ANGRY. Instead of letting people know what they meant to me and how they’d helped me grow as a person, I’d be mad at the circumstances that were about to cut me off. I’d even be angry and hostile at the very people I was grateful to and would miss most because through anger I could at least express some emotion without having to be too vulnerable.

Rather than saying FAREWELLS, I would do everything I could to FORGET the things I’d miss, the people I’d lose, and the familiarity I would no longer have. Loss is painful, and grief can feel overwhelming, so why not continue on the path of repression and just try to erase any memory of anything I would have to mourn. If I never thought about it again, surely I wouldn’t be plagued with grief caused by its loss!

Finally, rather than THINK DESTINATION and be able to face forward as I moved on, I would inevitably THINK of the PAST… because you really can’t repress your way through transition hoping anger will burn out any memories that might cause you to look back. In fact, repression, anger, and an attempt to forget only anchor you to the uncelebrated and unresolved chapters of life you’ve left.

I think the anti-RAFT is actually a really good checklist to help us recognize when we need to reevaluate our coping mechanisms. Are you or the people around you showing signs of repression, anger, disassociation? It could well indicate a need for some RAFTing. The actual RAFT framework takes work and intentionality – because it’s growth! The anti-RAFT is easier because it’s procrastination at best, and delusion at worst.

Whether it’s leaving, being left, moving on, advancing, or changing what we’re used to: Anti-RAFTs really fall apart mid-journey… even though they look enticing and easy as we leave the shore in them. We might still make it to our destination, but we’ll arrive exhausted and worse for wear having had to swim and exert a ton of energy just to stay afloat as our anti-RAFTS disintegrate. Actual RAFTs may take more time and effort – but we’ll arrive drier, more positive, and better equipped to set up camp on new shores as a result of the investment.