Letting Go of the Missionary Guilt Complex

March 16, 2016

missionary guilt

I had been living in Uganda for five years when I first started putting a self care plan in place.

I was late to the draw, but even a little bit helped to ward off compassion fatigue and burnout.

That particular morning, I’d decided to go into the office two hours later than normal so I could lie on my yoga mat and soak in the worship crooning from my computer. It was part of a practice I’d begun to clear my mind and hear from the Lord without having all the demands of so many faces and their interruptions crowding me as they stood waiting outside my office door like a WWII bread line.

But as I laid there, closed my eyes, and tried to just focus on God, I felt guilty.

I felt guilty that there were more important things I should be getting done. I had the newsletter to get out, a discipleship class to prepare for, a woman who needed taking to the hospital, a staff dispute to settle. I felt guilty for a few moments of taking care of me.

I felt selfish when so many people needed my help.

Now that I counsel missionaries and cross cultural workers, one of the recurring themes that continues to surface in almost all of my conversations is the issue of of the missionary guilt complex.

This is basically the fact that we feel guilty about everything all the time. Guilty we couldn’t do more to help someone, or we didn’t have enough resources to do a better job, guilty for not seeing our families, guilty if we indulge in any moments of caring for ourselves.

Especially for women, and missionaries, guilt seems to be inbred within us.

We have a hard time juggling all the roles we must fill as wife, mother, sister, friend, daughter, director, helper, and we feel bad whenever we take care of ourselves. Some of us don’t even know how to. We feel there’s something else we should be doing.

Guilt is a cruel task master always demanding we do more.

Over and over women ask me the questions,

What if I just stayed home and homeschooled my kids?

What if I just had a day off to spend with my husband?

What if I carved out time to work out?

What if I went into the office later?

What if I left and went home?

Would it be enough?

But what we’re really asking is Would I be enough?

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn was that God wouldn’t love me any less if I couldn’t do it all.

God’s love is not dependent on what I do or don’t do. He isn’t more proud of me if I’m holding an orphan rather than sitting on my couch. He loves me because I am his daughter. 

As a recovering perfectionist, this understanding has been central to my healing. As well as giving myself the permission to take care of me, and learning that it was actually something God wanted me to do even though it’s hard for me.

“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

How can I expect to have compassion for others if I have no compassion for myself, if I am constantly beating myself up about all the ways I haven’t measured up. I have to constantly ask myself the question:

Would I treat someone else this way? Would I run them ragged and constantly expect more of them, would I make them feel guilty when they couldn’t deliver?

No, of course not. So why do I do it to myself?

The other issue I had to face was the fact that if I’m not taking care of me, I will become more and more unkind and demanding that someone else takes care of me. This decreases my ability to love.

One of the biggest mistakes we make in missions is we teach people how to die to themselves, but we don’t teach people how to live in peace and joy.

One of the ways we live in peace is through body intelligence, listening to the warning signals of our body and mind because stress disrupts our connection to God.

Body intelligence is slowing down enough to listen to how your body is responding to certain situations.

It’s a great way to get in tune with your “gut,” which is where I believe the Holy Spirit speaks to us.

To do this you sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths in and out. You can ask your body what it truly needs. Or if you need to make a particular decision, think about the first scenario, notice the sensations in your body: is there a knot in your stomach or a tightening of your shoulders, a clenching of your jaw? Or is there a certain sense of relaxation when you think about the next possible scenario.

Learning the signals of our body is central to learning how to care for this temple God has given us.

Start with something small today. Take all the guilt out of it.

Promise yourself you will do one thing every day to take care of you and you won’t feel bad about it.

Exercise is one of the first things that goes out the window when you move to a developing country. Let’s face it: It’s hot, there aren’t gyms, and if you go for a run you’ll pick up a parade of children following you like you’re the next Beyonce.

And yet, exercise is one of the most beneficial ways we can take care of ourselves. It releases endorphins, reduces stress, and increases immunity. Extra bonus: a Beyonce butt.

It isn’t easy to take care of yourselves in the extreme conditions you work in. We need creative solutions: Workout DVD’s, running with headphones in, bike to work, yoga at home, bringing weights or equipment over, going for long walks with friends. I shipped over my grandmother’s jacked up stationary bike from 1972, cranked up the music, and got to work in my living room no matter how many people laughed at me. Sadly, soul cycle hasn’t taken over Africa yet, but maybe I started a trend.

And lastly, the only way I know to enter into joy is through surrender. Letting go of my need to control it all, save everyone, have the answers, or understand the suffering, and I turn my attention internal. I curl up into Jesus’ arms and I let the rest slip away.

So go ahead. I am giving you permission to take care of you. I’m saying it’s alright and it’s necessary.

What’s one thing you can do today to take care of you without feeling guilty?


**If you need a little extra help putting a self care plan in place or working through issues of guilt or worthlessness, I’m here to help. I now offer online coaching and pastoral counseling for missionaries and expats. Contact me today: saritahartz@gmail.com

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  • Rachel Marks

    Thanks so much for writing this – it’s so good to have something easy to read, but impacting and straight-shooting, that I can share with my friends. I’m training to be a counsellor, and hope to work with missionaries and ministers, and this… resilience… sustainability… is such an important thing!!

    • Thanks so much Rachel! I’m so glad you’re training to work with missionaries. It’s so needed! Would love for you to share with your friends. I’d love to hear as well how you combat guilt! :)

  • sunnyhorstmann

    awsome! God’s been speaking similar things to me recently. Thanks so much for sharing! http://www.spotofsunshine.com

  • Researcher

    Thanks for a great post. How do I help those with whom I work to implement self-care?

    • Yes, I know how difficult that can be. I try to have my clients take a self care test so they know on a scale how they are doing already. Then I have them fill out a holistic self care plan that has suggestions on ways they can take care of themselves. Then we talk about it and I check in to see how they’re doing each week on self care. Mostly I encourage them and give them permission to take care of them, so they can see it’s not a bad thing to take care of themselves.

  • MrPete

    For some the following might not make sense… but in the midst of one of my most difficult times, not knowing if I would recover from a terrible accident, God asked: “Pete, are you willing to do nothing for Me?”

    That was so hard. Yet the result is exactly as you have described well… He loves me before I lift a finger. Nothing to be guilty about.

    • So good Mr. Pete. Such a hard truth to get in our bones, and yet so necessary!

  • Anna Dos Santos

    I would argue that this is a universal complex and not just associated with being a missonary.

    • I think you’re absolutely right Anna. I think all of us struggle with guilt in some regard. I just think because of the particular issues missionaries face, they struggle with it a little more than most :)