4 Ways Missionaries Can Heal from Rejection

March 28, 2017

missionaries rejection

I still remember crying on my way home as I drove my gray Toyota Hilux truck through the red dirt streets of Gulu, Uganda dodging cows, and children, and potholes.

I sobbed my way through the whole story on the truck bed of our grassy compound while my husband listened. The sunflowers wilting in the late afternoon heat mirroring my heart.

I had a volunteer who I’d deeply loved and spent time training who wanted to leave and start her own identical economic project, bringing some of our women with her. I felt it had come out of the blue and it was a blow. All I could feel was rejection. After all the time we’d spent building something together she didn’t want to stay with us, with me.

Rejection is one of the deepest wounds we can endure.

Biologically we are created to belong, which is why rejection can be so devastating. Historically, as hunter gatherers, we lived in community for survival. Being kicked out of the group was essentially a death sentence.

Rejection can leave us questioning our entire identity. It can leave us afraid to trust ourselves or others. For humanitarian workers and missionaries, it is a leading cause of burnout.

“Often the real trauma on the field is feeling mistreated, bullied, or discriminated against by our fellow humanitarians, those who should be there to share the same values. It is the daily grind, bad management, isolation, and lack of peer support that often breaks people and leads to burnout, not necessarily one traumatic event.” -Alessandra Pigni, The Idealists Survival Kit- 

It is these interpersonal hurts in relationships that rob our joy and whittle at our resolve. It is the betrayals that make it so hard to thrive in our life and ministries. Non profit leaders, missionaries, and humanitarian aid workers often struggle with rejection from teammates, or even the people they have come to serve. I still struggle day in and day out with real or perceived rejection by friends and colleagues.

The question is how do we move through rejection in healthy, healing ways and use these hurts as opportunities for growth? 

Here are 4 ways missionaries can heal from rejection:

1. Know who you really are

A year and a half ago, I went through a mental health scare related to trauma and I lost many of my close friends because of it. I questioned everything about who I was. I experienced guilt, shame, and the feeling that perhaps I was just a bad person. I’d never experienced needing others or needing help like that, and it made me wonder if I was weak. Perhaps no one could truly love me, and therefore it seemed that made me unlovable.

I sometimes would have to sit for hours journaling God’s thoughts towards me, simply asking Him how He saw me and who I was to Him, just to get through the day. I had to make lists of things I loved and valued about myself. I went back through old journals and words of promises God had given me. I read a lot of Brene Brown and Shauna Niequist and went to a lot of therapy. I took long walks in nature feeling my solidarity with the world, knowing how good everything is God created, including me. I had to ruthlessly reject every self critical thought.

I had to get as much Truth inside me as possible.

If I give others that power I will never be free. I have to love and value myself. I am His daughter, I am loved and fully worthy of love, I am strong, I am a survivor, I am wholly accepted, I am fiercely loyal. There are many things I can celebrate about my who I am. In the Bible it says, “Jesus was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” (Is. 53:3) Whatever we’re going through, Jesus has already endured. If we crawl in His arms, He can rock us through it.

2. Work through your triggers

I was only triggered because there was a big, gaping wound around rejection in my life. My sensitivity to rejection was because I constantly rejected myself. I put myself down. I didn’t realize I could make mistakes and still be lovable. I don’t need to feel defensive because I’ve already accepted these things about myself. It was ok to have imperfections. It was ok to fail and get back up.

These rejections are an opportunity to say, “Thank you for revealing a lie I’ve been believing in my heart that I need to work through.” Time for some inner healing! A great way to do this is to do a “Judge Your Neighbor” worksheet by Byron Katie and learn the “turnarounds” by recognizing the role you’ve played in creating your own suffering. For example, a thought like “She needs to accept me,” can be turned around to “I need to accept me.” Perhaps that is the greater work I need to do.

3. Take radical responsibility

One of the things that has changed my life came from my life coach who challenged me to understand that I create my life experiences. Things are not happening to me. No one else is to blame for my circumstances.The first commitment of the 15 commitments of conscious leadership is radical responsibility. There is even a worksheet. I need to ask myself 2 questions:

#1“How do I create and perpetuate this situation? ” #2: “What do I get from creating and perpetuating this situation?”

In the situation with my volunteer, I needed to acknowledge to myself that I had contributed to the problem. I was afraid of losing control so I became controlling. I also allowed myself to be treated badly because I didn’t believe I was deserving of more. I was also too afraid of losing a friend rather than gently confronting her about her about the motivations behind her actions.

When you own your stuff, you admit your vulnerability, your needs, your flaws, and the impact. You can apologize without feeling like a horrible person. You also don’t try to hero them by owning things that aren’t your fault. Some things are other people’s issues. What people choose to do with your apologies or your owning of truth, is up to them. I can’t control their reaction towards me, nor does it speak of my value. I’m learning not to blame and getting curious about how I perpetuated the situation.

4. You can do hard things

You were uniquely created to handle your problems in order to become the person you are supposed to be. This crisis holds a lesson you need in order to become great. God, or the universe, is not against you. This is your work, always for your benefit. When you surrender to that reality, instead of fighting against it, you’ll be amazed at what will occur. My feelings of betrayal led me into therapy, therapy led me into owning my stuff, and my own healing catapulted me into my calling to be a healer for other non profit leaders. There is a redemptive path if you can only allow yourself to see it. Rejection can be healed. It doesn’t have to be the end of your story. You may be able to love someone else who’s experienced rejection with more empathy.

How are you learning to heal from rejection?

For further reading:
15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership
Emotional First Aid 
Present over Perfect
I Thought It Was Just Me
The Idealist’s Survival Kit

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  • Erika Loftis

    Hi Sarita, I was just discussing something similar with friends lately. The importance of self acceptance (I feel like I have reverted to junior high levels of insecurity since beginning our live overseas) and have felt rejection over and over again here. Our first term has, in many ways, destroyed me. God is recreating, and renewing. I don’t HATE living here now, but I really really struggle to relate to many of the missionaries here. I thought I could establish relationships with coffee dates, but one seemed enough for everyone. I asked one person, someone of whom I thought we had a lot in common, if we could get together and she basically said “How about we just bump into each other sometimes.” It’s hard not to internalize that. When the rejection seems so broad and universal (she hasn’t been the only one to suggest that similar method of “get together”ing) , and I can see myself withdrawing from the whole ex-pat community here (it’s VAST… I’m in Chiang Mai) and feeling like I just need to “just get through” until we can go to “real life” where I have friends and am not an apparent anathema (aka home assignment). :) Trying to figure out how to accept myself, forgive the community at large for being how we are, and opening up my arms… Hard. Hard. Hard. But maybe worth it. Maybe better than just living a half life in which I’m always dreaming of a place with good friends. But still wrestling through whether I wanna… 😉 Perhaps tmi… just wanted to say that this post touched a nerve…

    • Thanks for sharing you heart Erika. I’m so sorry to hear all you’re going through. Yes, feeling outside of the expat community can be really hurtful. I’ve been there. I’m glad you are learning self-acceptance through this process. Hang in there. If you can’t find friends in one group, there will be other people out there.

      • Erika Loftis

        Yikes, re-reading that sounds so bleak. Sorry! I DO have some friends here, really lovely people that would be my friends even if we weren’t missionaries together, and slowly building friendships with some beautiful Thai people. I am so thankful for their friendship, but still really struggle to forgive the collective of missionaries… Ugh…

  • This is a slight rabbit trail, but do you have a specific recommendation on where to start with Brene Brown? Any particular book that is more important or should be read first?

    • Hi Phyllis- thanks for writing! I really love I Thought it Was Just Me, and The Gifts of Imperfection. I would start with those!

  • sunnyhorstmann

    so good. again, so insightful, articulate and helpful for everyone. thanks for sharing your journey and wisdom.