On the Field Loneliness: Who are These People and Where is My Starbucks?
Ok so phase one is complete (refer to Loneliness Part 1). You have supportive people, you are maintaining friendships and relationships with safe people. They are encouraging of you and your ministry. Now you are in your ministry country. You’ve had roadblocks along the way, that, by the grace of God, you have overcome.
However, now it’s hitting you. Homesickness creeps in and cuts you deep. The relationships you’ve built with locals are starting to feel like a chore. It takes twice as long to accomplish a simple task or plan anything due to language barriers. Your humor and vulnerabilities are lost in translation. What now?
First off, let me reassure you, you’re not alone. It’s okay to feel this way right now. The honeymoon phase is known to wear off. You’re now hit with reality. The things you are seeing and experiencing are new or uncomfortable. Your sense of control has been stripped from your fingertips and your isolation, emptiness and loneliness have increased. This shift could be due to your fear of being vulnerable or your failed attempt at being vulnerable. Maybe you’ve tried to talk to a close friend, a teammate, or a family member but your pain was minimized, diminished, overlooked, or discouraged. Don’t worry, there’s hope.
Let’s break it down. “Acceptance vs Control” is a key concept that will help you navigate pesky emotions. When you start to experience overwhelming or uncomfortable emotions do a quick emotional check-in. Ask yourself “What is happening in my environment?” “What is happening in my heart?” “What things am I struggling with?” “What do I have control over? “What can I change or influence?” “What factors are out of my control and how can I change my relationship with or perspective of those factors?”
Often times our peace is diminished simply by trying to move a brick wall that isn’t budging. We like instant gratification and are quick to avoid discomfort. When you start to notice your feelings of sadness, loneliness, anger, resentment, angst, fear etc. check in with those. What are your emotions trying to tell you about your situation? Are your emotions accurate? Feelings are not facts, but they are indicators. Your feelings might not be telling you the truth about the situation, but they are telling you something about yourself (your mindset, your wounds, your blind spots, your mental/emotional health).
Once you’ve noticed or identified the feeling, it’s time to do some investigative work. See what internal and external factors are contributing to that feeling. Have you been isolating? Have you been taking on more than you can healthfully manage? Has your team been preoccupied? Maybe there hasn’t been as much connection? Have the days been long and rushed without the opportunity to press into your own relationship with the Lord? What are areas you need to ask for strength from the Lord or support from your team that you’ve been too embarrassed to ask for? Factors such as sleep deprivation, spiritual attacks, compassion fatigue, and good ol’ hormones could also be at the core of your loneliness and sensitivities.
How many of the contributing factors are within your control? Can you uncomplicate or make small adjustments to help you work through the emotion or turmoil? Be patient as you lovingly soothe your “emotional hangover”. It may take a few days to get your stability back. Please make sure to talk to someone on your team to let them know you need some extra sensitivity, help, or support to engage in self-care.
The other side of this is a little less comfortable and takes a little more effort to navigate. If you aren’t able to identify, address, or change the issue, you may need to just accept it as is. When you are able to accept the emotion and the circumstances surrounding it, you release judgment toward the emotion and toward yourself. You can feel the discomfort without trying to force it to go away and without letting it control you.
This is often the case with loneliness as the pain runs deep. Loneliness can manifest in different ways. It can be specific or more general. You can have an experience of loneliness without knowing why. Perhaps it’s a feeling of heartsickness for the loved ones who are not with you or a persistent longing for the ones back home. It could be a loneliness for a partnership through a season of singleness or a loneliness in a marriage. Even a loneliness for a deepness with the Lord that you aren’t experiencing. And a deeper one still with a loneliness for the Lord. These aren’t quick fixes as loneliness can have multiple layers. It’s often multidimensional.
There were plenty of times I remember battling through this confusing emotion while on the missions field. One time in particular that sticks out to me was in India. I remember being confused by my sense of loneliness as I was with my three siblings, both my parents and a wonderful team from our church. Reflecting back now, I remember feeling lonesome for deeper connections with the community we were serving. My heart ached for a sense of acceptance with the population and the team I was serving with. I felt insignificant and overlooked. I was overwhelmed by my desire to reach EVERYONE and not knowing where to start. I felt lonely in my sense of smallness and battling with my importance to the team. I struggled to see how I could contribute being young, shy, and feeling invisible. The struggle I was going through initially led me to want to isolate and shut down. Luckily, I had someone on the team who validated my importance to the team and the population we were serving. She saw my gifts and encouraged me to use those gifts to reach a small group of girls. I was reminded of the importance in making meaningful connections and now see the bigger picture.
Understand what this season of loneliness might be trying to teach you. We can try and plan out our friendships, our social engagements, to avoid being along or disappointed by the people around us. However, that’s not always how it works. People make mistakes, they hurt us (usually unintentionally) and they mess with our plans. Allow God, through prayer, petition, and seeking Him, to fill those empty spaces. Ask Him to heal those wounds and bring you the connections he’s ordained for you. Sometimes people are in our lives for a certain season or specific purposes but are not meant to be forever friends. Allow yourself to grieve the loss of certain people or the transition of a relationship. Understanding what that person taught you and release the relationship to make room for the next one God has for you.
Press into the things that bring you a sense of relief, a sense of purpose, control, and connection. What works for you? If you know it, do it. It’s not enough to just think about it, you have to do it. If you don’t know, here are some suggestions. Journal, go for a nature walk, draw, message the one(s) you miss, reach out to someone who uplifts you, engage in mindfulness, make a gratitude list, treat yourself to something good not harmful, pick up a project, pick up a hobby, surrender to the season, breathe, discover/rediscover your resources, ask for help, ask for encouragement, or find someone else who is lonesome (which might be the best bet yet). It might not completely heal the wound, but it can help you move through the emotion by reducing its intensity.
If the pressure and intensity is too much, please reach out for professional help! Seek support from a professional, unbiased outlet who can walk with you through the process. Here at Strength International, we can connect you to a licensed Christian counselor at no cost and through the convenience of in-person or telehealth sessions! Stay tuned for Part 3: Loneliness On Furlough: First World Problems and Awkward Blank Stares