Missionary service can be a transformational experience. Many report meaningful spiritual experiences while on their missions; others call it the best two years of their life. Some missionaries, however, experience deeply challenging and even dangerous scenarios that can leave these young people with feelings of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, fear, and abandonment. Healing after mission service is something rarely talked about yet frequently sought after. Here are four tips that can help.
Among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many young adults volunteer to participate in dedicated missionary service for a period up to 24 months of time. They separate from school, work, friends, and family during their service. They are responsible for their own expenses and are matched up with a colleague who is with them 24 hours a day. The work done on missions is dedicated to offering service, teaching, and supporting members of local congregations and those interested in learning more about the Church.
Missionary service can be a transformational experience. Many report meaningful spiritual experiences while on their missions; others call it the best two years of their life. Some missionaries, however, experience deeply challenging and even dangerous scenarios that can leave these young people with feelings of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, fear, and abandonment. Nearly all missionaries report, upon returning home after their service, some challenges associated with transitioning back to “normal life,” finding satisfaction or purpose in “normal life,” or difficulty adjusting to the rigors of the path ahead of them.
Healing after mission service is something rarely talked about yet frequently sought after. Here are four tips that can help former missionaries heal from their mission experiences and integrate those experiences into the narrative of their life. Whether a missionary comes home early, goes at a later-than-average age, or serves part-time vs. full-time, these tips can help.
Your worth is not dependent on your performance or your ability to serve. You are a divine being with innate worth. Nothing you do or don’t do can change your worth; serving a mission (or not serving) does not change your worth.
The context of your life is always evolving. Coming home from a mission changes the context you live in, but your basic identity and purpose are not diminished or eliminated because you’re no longer serving a full-time mission.
If you knew what your identity and purpose were while you were serving, consider the possibility that they haven’t changed--your task is simply to discover what their expression looks like in your new context! This process gets repeated in each new phase of life, including educational and career pursuits, marriage, parenthood, and more.
And if you struggled with your identity and purpose while you were serving, consider tip #2.
You likely brought expectations into your mission experience based on what you had heard from others, envisioned for yourself, or felt spiritual impressions about. Sometimes those expectations go unfulfilled. It may have been that you were first assigned to serve in one part of the world and then unexpectedly moved to another, or you were released earlier than anticipated for whatever reason. Maybe you studied Spanish for 8 years but were assigned to a stateside mission speaking Mandarin, or you didn’t baptize anyone when you had been certain you would. Whatever the case, it’s normal to feel like something went wrong. You may even be inclined to blame yourself or others for it.
At the same time, your feelings of loss and disappointment are valid. To work through these feelings, it can sometimes be helpful to examine where your unfulfilled expectations about your missionary service come from and challenge whether they are worth holding on to. Another approach is to seek through prayer and meditation to know how God’s expectations for your mission service might be different from your own. As you let go of old expectations and assumptions and learn new ways to interpret your missionary experience, even painful experiences can become meaningful and important parts of your story.
This leads to tip #3.
Acknowledging and responding to your emotions is an important part of integrating your mission experience into your story. The story of you is complex, with ups and downs, wins and losses. As with any good story, the feelings that come through all the experiences are part of what makes it rich and beautiful. No matter if your feelings are negative, complicated, positive, etc… they are all valid!
Some missionaries find sadness, even a grieving process, as they let go of the experiences from their mission. This is normal and natural. Allow yourself to grieve. Likewise, if you feel a part of you was lost during your mission service, it is natural and healthy to grieve that loss. One sister explained:
"When I came home, I had an overwhelming feeling of sadness and loss. I didn't get it. And I thought it was bad. I felt like I should be happy to be back home with my family, but I felt like I had a hole inside."
Making space for and allowing emotions tied to your mission is an important part of sense-making and healthy processing. You may have mixed feelings, and that's OK.
Through support groups, social gatherings, family interactions, and other moments in life, you will have opportunities to tell the story of your mission. Tell it! Giving words to your experiences gives validity to what you lived. This helps your brain process and organize the thoughts, feelings, memories, and experiences tied to your missionary service.
Just as the story of your mission needs to be told, it is important to recognize your story of life continues. Your mission may be a small dot on the timeline in the story of YOU. Your story of life goes on; tell that story too. It matters! There is much to discover and share.