Living (Involuntarily) on the Pedestal
by Corrine Gnepf, LCMHC, NCC
“You are so brave!” How many times have I heard those words from people in my passport country when they found out where I used to live or now currently live. Sometimes the first comment was followed by “I couldn’t do it.” In that person’s mind I had reached at least the ‘Elite’ if not the ‘Superhero’ level as a believer. To give everyone the benefit of the doubt, I assume that these people wanted to express their surprise, or that the idea of living in a foreign country, being daily exposed to strange cultural ways and view, sometimes chaotic circumstances or a higher level of instability, was beyond their imagination of a “normal” life. However, a statement like this carries weight when placed on the shoulders and psyche of the CCW (cross-cultural worker). Living life on that pedestal is challenging and complex.
Many others have shared with me about the burden of the life lived on the pedestal, of how they do not like it and feel misunderstood by supporting partners. Living and ministering in a different country often becomes so normal- it is what we do on daily basis without giving it much thought. “No, this doesn’t make me brave” is the immediate thought that comes to my mind when a partner sees me that way, and, “Stop thinking of me as a super believer because I’m not!” Some CCWs get the chance to explain themselves and can help correct the assumptions that they are super humans and heroes. Others have told me they have tried to explain, but their words seem to fall on hard ground as opinions are made up, or the other person has already moved on in the conversation. The view, which a large portion of partners or family members have, is that CCWs have it all together and their faith is strong all the time. Expectations like these create pressure to live up to them.
Combined with a CCW’s personality traits, their backgrounds and views on appearance and vulnerability, the path can lead to predominantly sharing success stories, highlights, the beauty of the people they minister to, etc. Perhaps eventually, only the success stories get shared. But when reality is different, when either success has been absent for a long time, or when the personal struggles seem insurmountable, and the superhero believer label does not fit at all, CCWs can feel great amounts of shame and defeat. In some parts of the world witnessing His love can take years, or even decades, before transformation takes place, before the seed sprouts and grows into plants that will survive. The disheartening reality can be that even a labor of 20+ years may not yield in lasting fruit that can be seen or measured. Can you imagine how hard, nearly impossible, this is for CCWs to put into their newsletter? But not only the ministry lowlights are challenging to communicate- personal issues, like marital or family struggles are too. What if partners knew that their CCWs do not feel God’s closeness, that their faith has been dry for a while, and sharing about their faith only feels like a duty without joy? CCWs and their families might go through a very challenging season with their child or teenager, and in order to protect the child’s privacy, they do not talk about this in their updates to hundreds of partners. This is their right. Having boundaries is healthy and needed for the wellbeing of TCKs. Yet struggles like this take up a large part of what the parents are concerned about. It uses much their resources and emotional capacity.
Pressure, isolation, and likely a good amount of shame can be present for these CCWs. If they are lucky, they have a few trusted and safe people who can walk with them through the challenging season and maintain confidentiality. Sadly that is not always the case, which leads us back to more isolation and loneliness. Shame is detrimental because it creates an even bigger emotional barrier between people and isolates individuals. Inner messages can sound like: “You are not good enough.” “Look at what a hypocritical CCW you are! Telling people that Jesus is the solution but you don’t see that happening in your life.” “If people back home only knew the truth, they would be shocked.” “If they know how much of a failure I am they would … .” And on and on it goes. Shame is ruthless.
Breaking through these layers of shame, isolation, and pressure is quite challenging, but it can be done. This is good news. Correcting partners’ views of CCWs in a kind and respectful way is not only okay, it is actually necessary. Challenging incorrect views or pointing out where a comment of adoration may not be as uplifting as intended but harmful instead, has the potential to reduce future unhealthy pressure and can shift a partner’s perception and lead to increased understanding of each other. We cannot change people- that is not in our control- but we can offer a new perspective and our stories.
Becoming more vulnerable with partners can be scary and uncomfortable. Being more authentic and vulnerable is beneficial for us as well as for our partners and fellowship families. Vulnerability does not mean that you need to share about every personal struggle from the roof top and in mass emails. You need to decide to what degree you feel comfortable sharing about challenges. Partners are not entitled to know every single bit, although some may act like it- and in that case boundaries are needed. But they deserve to hear from you. They are your partners after all. You get to decide who receives a broad headline, which smaller group of friends, family and partners get the more detailed “press statement”, and which few select people get to hear in more depth what is hard, frustrating, devastating in your life right now.
A crucial part in dealing with pressure and shame is seeking the Lord about how it has affected you, how you may have allowed appearance and pride take the reins. Prayerfully consider what you have been called to, and how other voices may have “added” to the call. Reflect on some of these questions:
- What are the pressures I am feeling right now from living on the pedestal?
- What is the image I am trying to keep up with?
- What has God called me to and where have I responded to someone else’s or my own unreasonable expectations?
- What do I need from God, from important people in my life, from my partners, etc. as I consider pushing against my challenges with living on the pedestal?
Do not loose heart, fellow sojourner, there is always a way out of shame. We know who said “Come all you who are weary”, and that promise still stands. Seek out a trusted person and share your reflection with them. Be brave and be vulnerable.
Are you looking for resources on learning how to deal with shame, vulnerability, or boundaries? Check out these books:
- The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson
- Daring Greatly. How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
- Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend