Here you are, with this great and mighty call on your life, you’re doin it. You’ve stepped out in faith and you’re really doing it. You’re excited, anticipating how God is going to move in your life and those around you. You have high hopes for the people you will talk to and the souls God will save through your obedience.
Three weeks later…..reality sets in. Maybe its three days later, or maybe it’s three years later. At some point, whether in short or long-term missions work, there is a strong probability you will feel the unsettling sense of loneliness, of being isolated, misunderstood, disconnected, overwhelmed, underwhelmed, invisible. You try to talk to your close friends and loved ones about what it’s like, what you’ve seen, the joys and the hardships, but their efforts to empathize and relate feel empty. It’s not their fault, they simply can’t relate or fully understand. Pictures and stories can only tell so much. Maybe you are lucky enough to have other missionaries serving with you, who can meet you where you’re at and understand your experience. But what happens when what you’re feeling and experiencing feels shameful and there is fear in talking about it with those serving alongside you?
Don’t worry, this is more common than you think. Loneliness and emptiness can be experienced at all different phases of missions work. Through a series of articles, I will be breaking down Loneliness and Isolation in all phases of missions work and providing helpful tools and techniques for managing this unpleasant emotion.
Part1: Predepature Loneliness and Isolation: Where Did All My Friends Go?
While planning and preparing for your missions work, you will most likely be feeling a variety of emotions, from happiness and excitement to fear and anxiety. These are normal and healthy feelings, ones that should be acknowledged and respected. You may be wondering, “Respect my fear and anxiety? What does that even mean?!” I’m glad you asked. Within reasonable moderation, a little fear and anxiety can be helpful tools to instill motivation, productivity, organization, and problem solving. They help you anticipate potential obstacles and increase awareness of what resources, material or support you may need to navigate those situations.
These emotions can become harmful or unhealthy when they lead to obsessive thinking and isolation. If your fear and anxiety are starting to feel like they are suffocating you, then it’s time to get additional help around that. Your fear and anxiety (and all the other unhelpful emotions that are coursing through your veins) may cause you to isolate, shut down and be so overwhelmed that you don’t even feel like getting out of bed. In these circumstances recognize what is happening; insight and awareness are the stepping stones to being able to work THROUGH these emotions and not deny, suppress or avoid them. Your instinct might be to isolate, remove yourself from friends and loved ones, after all, you don’t want your “bad mood” to bring anyone else down with you.
STOP! As a missionary, you naturally have a servant’s heart, and with that loving, giving, sensitive heart, you are likely to be more prone to suppressing your negative emotions and believing you will be a burden to others if you are vulnerable. Galatians 6:2 encourages us to “Carry each other’s burdens and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” So please, reach out to a supportive friend, family member, church mentor, or therapist to help you process these feelings and move through them. Shameless plug right here, we at Strength International are here to help walk you through this exact dilemma and many others!
Ok but what happens when you are trying to include those around you and open up and it isn’t going well. You may experience some let down when telling people about the journey you are embarking on. You are likely to receive a variety of responses, from supportive and encouraging, to demeaning and minimizing.
It’s important not to get too caught up in others’ emotional reactions towards what God has called YOU to do. As far as people’s tips, advice and opinions, take what fits, what works and what is helpful and release what is not. It can feel very lonely and isolating when those close to you are pessimistic about your calling. With these relationships it is important to have what we call internal boundaries. When you think of internal boundaries, imagine a net that catches all the information given to you. The net helps you filter helpful vs unhelpful, verbal and emotional input. Invite the Holy Spirit in to help you navigate these conversations: “God help me to use wisdom and discernment with this conversation. Help me to remember and keep what is of you and forget what is not.”
While preparing for your trip, you may experience loneliness perhaps through your own isolation. People don’t like goodbyes and change is hard. You may find that you are distancing yourself from friends and loved ones, consciously or unconsciously, to help reduce the pain of when you have to leave and say goodbye. You may blame it on getting caught up in preparing for your trip. There is a lot to do before a long or short-term trip and your isolation may feel necessary to get everything done. I get it. There are a lot of little details that become a priority but try not to completely shut people out. It is important to still engage socially, invest in the people who will be investing in you.
I strongly encourage choosing a handful of people to be in your inner circle. These will be the people you have “on call” to reach out to, process with, confide in, and connect with during the hardships. They will be your support when you are feeing lonely in your ministry country, when the culture shock gets to you, when you are tired of being the minority and having to navigate cultural and language barriers. They will be the ones to listen and encourage you when you feel defeated and can’t remember the assured prompting you felt from the Lord. But in order to have them there for you while in your ministry country, you will need to invest in the relationship and tell them what you need from them before you leave. Strengthening that partnership beforehand will pay off later.
One last tip for predeparture preparation in reducing loneliness: have a person of contact for the community you will be living in. This could be your main contact person, another missionary in the same area, the host you will be living with, etc. Having a friendly face or at least knowing someone by name, can help ease the transition and reduce the sense of isolation and homesickness. This might not always be possible if you are traveling with a team and don’t have a direct point of contact. In this case, reach out to someone on your team, make a friend with another person who will be traveling with you.
To wrap this up, remember, loneliness, although uncomfortable, is not always a terrible thing or something that we can completely avoid. When you experience loneliness, sometimes all you can do is sit with the feeling and interpret it as a God given emotion that is showing or teaching you something. It may be showing you that you have been blessed with close friendships or family members, people that you miss; it may be showing you that it’s an opportunity to draw closer to the Lord for that comfort; God designed us to be in community, fellowship, and partnership so it may be a prompt to leave your comfort zone and meet someone new. Stay tuned for Part2: On-the-Field Loneliness and Isolation: Who are These People and Where is My Starbucks?