Ask A Counselor: How in the world can we do self-care when . . . ?

by Kay Bruner on January 28, 2015

roadblock with text

Good self-care is a lifestyle of regular, ongoing, non-crisis activities that promote good spiritual, emotional, and physical health.

What feeds your soul?  Reading, running, painting, playing a musical instrument, watching a comedy, a week at the beach?  Whatever feeds your soul, brings you rest, refuels you for the journey, those things constitute good self-care for you.

Self-care gets talked about a lot.  Most of us, I think, agree that self-care is something we ought to do.

However, when it comes to taking the actual steps necessary to care for ourselves well, roadblocks mysteriously emerge.  I find this is especially true in missionary communities. Right where good self-care is most necessary, there are enormous roadblocks to its actual implementation.

People ask me things like this:

How can we possibly do self-care when . . .

  • the needs are so great, and our budget is so small?
  • we’re so isolated, and we have none of the resources we’re used to?
  • we need help, but going someplace to get it would create even more complications?
  • _______________ (fill in the blank with your difficulty)?

These roadblocks strike me as strange, quite frankly.

In missionary culture, forget cleanliness.  It’s getting things done under difficult circumstances that’s next to godliness.  Small budgets, isolation, and complications?  We eat that stuff for breakfast around here.

So why do these roadblocks present such a challenge to self-care?

Perhaps it’s a simple failure to prioritize self-care as important.  We’d rather do other things with our time and money.

Maybe it’s that we think God will magically protect us without the maintenance routine of self-care. After all, everybody says that “The will of God will never lead you where the grace of God cannot keep you.”

The truth is, some of us have never needed to think about self-care before.  We just don’t see a need.  (The problem is, by the time you see a need, you may need crisis care, not regular self-care.)

Some people, frankly, are workaholics.  It’s easier to work than stop and deal with the emotions, the relationships, the complications that arise without the diversion of busyness.

Sometimes there can be an element of pride.  Amy Carmichael went 53 years without a furlough.  We can do it, too.  (Of course she was in bed for 20+ years. Which sounds good some days.)

Maybe we’ve been the teensiest bit judgy about people who can’t cut it, and we don’t want to be needy.  We like to be seen as competent, successful, and strong (all for God’s glory, of course).

Maybe we think we won’t be good enough for God if we can’t keep going and going.  Maybe we forget how God tenderly cares for Elijah, who’s fallen in his tracks after doing just what God asked him to do (I Kings 19).

Maybe we’ve got a mission agency or a church or even family members that don’t support the idea of self-care.  (If this is true, find a better support system.  Now.)

Finally, I wonder about our need to be in control, and our ability to ultimately trust God.  Do we, bottom line, trust God enough to stop our so-vital work, and take care of ourselves and our families on a regular basis?  Or do we, deep down, believe that it’s all up to us?

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about this “Ask A Counselor” series.  You can ask me all kinds of questions, and I can give you the best answers I know of, but if you’ve got an underlying belief system that says things like:

  • The job matters most
  • Other people are more important
  • We can’t spend money on ourselves
  • We shouldn’t have needs
  • Only weak, unspiritual people need help
  • If I don’t do this, right now, today, the world will come to an end…

…well, your questions and my answers won’t make any difference at all.  We’ll never get past the roadblocks.

Getting past those roadblocks, I think, comes only when we

  • experience that God loves us and is for us;
  • trust that God loves and is for others;
  • trust that God has the capacity to work and move and redeem even though I have stepped away from my work, in order to receive rest and renewal in regular self-care.

It’s easy to assent to these things verbally:  of course I believe God loves me and others and is ultimately in control!

But I want to ask you, what happens in the doing?

The book of James puts it this way:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  (James 2:14-17)

Some of us desperately need to say to God, “I trust you enough that I will lay this life of mine, including my precious ministry, down at your feet.” 

And then accompany those words with radical, self-caring actions.

What most restores your soul?

When was the last time you experienced that kind of restoration?

What roadblocks do you experience with self-care?

How does your experience in self-care reflect your relationship with God?

 Photo Credit:  (Changes made)



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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:
  • Casey

    Kay, this is such a frank and honest post (like so much of your writing). I love it! The more open and frank we can be, the more we can move toward health and healing. Per your post, I would say we have experienced each of the roadblocks at one time or another (the biggest roadblock for us being just plain ignorance and lack of self searching as to what self care for us as individuals looked like as opposed to all our other missionary friends). That said, as God has been growing and teaching us, it is oh-so-difficult to move toward regular self-care AFTER you’ve removed the roadblocks. It is just plain hard work. Only by God’s grace is our family now doing a good job at regular self-care, but I wanted to encourage others by saying it is possible. Planning waaaaaay in advance for vacations, setting schedules and routines in stone, and committing to helping each other keep self-care commitments have been our greatest allies on this journey. Thank you so much for addressing this topic! I look forward seeing other’s thoughts.

    • Yes! You really do have to get hard-core about self-care. We eventually developed RULES! We WILL go to the beach during every school break, we WILL go out-country every year, etc. It costs money and time, it does. But let me tell you, severe depression costs way more!!!

  • This is not merely a post to be read, it is one which needs to be used for evaluation and discussion. There is so sooo many good things in here. Thank you Kay. Please keep bringing your voice, your gifts, and your needed questions to our community.

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    I had a major breakthrough in self-care this month. I was reading Wayne Cordeiro’s “Leading on Empty” (recommended by a long-time missionary here), and I got to the section on monthly personal retreat days, or PRDs as he calls them. They sounded SO appealing. He talked about how they can renew your hunger for God and for ministry. My husband has been offering for a long time for me to get out of the house to spend time alone, and he will watch the kids. I have usually declined the offer, because I always think I can do all my work and living at home, where unfortunately every area seems to bleed into all the others.

    But when I read about the PRDs, I realized there was another, deeper reason I had been declining. It was because I didn’t think I DESERVED to have retreat times. Why not? Because I didn’t consider myself to be in full-time ministry like he is. I’m “only” at home. But when I add up all my mothering, my home school teaching, my church involvement, with a side of writing, it adds up to a whole lot of ministry time. He’s been taking retreat days for years. Not always monthly, but it’s been a regular practice. I realized I need that practice too, and thankfully I’ve got a husband who’s really amenable to that!

    (And yes, I love that we’re on the same wavelength about dealing with those underlying belief systems!)

    • Oh, DESERVE. One of my FB friends was talking about this yesterday! I said, well, it’s like being thirsty. Who cares if you DESERVE a drink! You’re thirsty, and there’s plenty of water. Just take a drink! But I think this is huge–that idea that we “should” push away help because we don’t deserve it. Let us know what happens with your retreat time!

  • Hi! I am new to this community as of a few days ago, and I can’t put into words how encouraging it is to be connected here. Thank you for the work that’s gone in to creating and maintaining such an awesome resource. My husband and I are a newly married couple. He has been on the field in Romania for about two and a half years, and I joined him full-time after our marriage last summer. Before we came to Romania after the wedding, our families encouraged us to be proactive about creating routines and schedules that prioritized self-care as well as quality time to spend together (‘boundaries’ is a big word around here!). I’m so thankful that we had supportive families to guide us in that direction, but we serve on a small team (the only Americans on a team of nationals) in which self-care does not seem to be valued or prioritized by other members. As a result, we often face frustration or judgment from others in those times that we are ‘not available’ for ministry needs in the interest of self-care. It’s difficult for us, not only because those relationships suffer, but also because we see what a need self-care seems to be for everyone on our team. How can we maintain peace and harmony with our team while maintaining self-care values, and how can we encourage self-care in other members of our team, cross-culturally?

    • Oh, peer pressure! You’ve thought about what’s healthy for your family, you’ve made those decisions, AND you want everybody’s approval. Sister, I hear your pain!! Do you know the part in Prince Caspian where Aslan appears, but only Lucy sees him? She wants to follow Aslan, but she gets talked out of it by everybody else. Peace and harmony are sometimes only possible when we do things we know aren’t right for us. That’s the boundary you’ve got to consider…

      • How right you are. Thanks for the wake-up call!

        • But if you figure out how to do the right thing, AND keep everybody else happy, you’re sitting on a gold mine! We’ll all want to know! 🙂

    • Right There With You

      Katie, I’m in a position much like yours. I got married last year and my husband has been a missionary for five years now in Albania. I’m writing this right now from a hotel room because my need for self care had reached crisis level and my husband encouraged me to take a few days by myself. What I found when I got here was space to let out all the swirling thoughts that had been creating a mental traffic jam… Questions (about 50 of them!) of how to deal with cultural differences, sorting out my feelings of loneliness and grief that I’m still dealing with about leaving my family and friends, marital frustrations and more than 60 things I’ve been trying to keep on a mental to-do list. It has been so good to let them all out and be able to pray through them one by one. I’ve also read “Ordering Your Private World” by Gordon MacDonald and been hugely convicted of my need to get my inner world in order. A quote from the book: “Jesus knew that time must be properly budgeted for the gathering of inner strength and resolve in order to compensate for one’s weaknesses when spiritual warfare begins.” If Jesus needed so much time with the Father, why do we think we can make it on less? As ministry workers we have painted a bullseye on ourselves and should expect spiritual warfare. As cross cultural workers we have different needs than our national coworkers and yes, they will sometimes let us know it. I was on my way to Romania after 5 short term trips (2-10 weeks each) when the Lord redirected me here. I’m thankful for the heavy caution the last missions organization gave me about joining a group there that was made up of all national workers. It would have been disastrous for me as a single woman. I would encourage you and your husband to protect each other’s time that you both need for rest and spiritual refreshment. Guard it, treasure it, and when your coworkers tell you to be flexible (am I the only one who felt like I was ALWAYS the one who had to be flexible there?), remind them that God is the one who designed the Sabbath rest and that Jesus needed time to rest too. I recommend the MacDonald book immensely.

      • Thank you for writing and thank you for taking the time for yourself that you need!! Thank you for being an encouragement to me, too. I will have to check out that MacDonald book ASAP! Thank you for the recommendation! God bless the rest of your retreat time there in the hotel room and may you return to your routines with clearer perspective and renewed vision. It seems you understand some of the specific difficulties we face here; thank you for your encouragement in that area, too! I’m not saying I would have listened or even understood well beforehand, but I do wish someone would have tipped me off on the particular challenges that the combination of new marriage + new ‘field work’ would bring. Not easy!

  • Kay,

    All I can say is ‘Amen!’ So glad that you have said it here! It needs to be said, and we all need to listen. Thank you 🙂

    • Giving people permission to chill. This is my mission in life!

  • Thank you, Kay. This article is spot on and I’m sharing it as widely as I can. One point that could perhaps be drawn out more–sometimes it isn’t just agencies or churches that don’t support self-care but it is etched into the very ethos of a team. I worked in a challenging place for over 5 years with a team leader who didn’t value self-care. I can recall during a mandated retreat as his wife was commenting how hard it was for him to be away from his medical clinic for the day (ONE DAY!!!) and she said to me (a teacher), “If you don’t go to work, someone doesn’t learn English, big deal. If he doesn’t go to work, people die.” This strikes me as wrong on so many levels now but as a 25 year old, pretty new to the field, I had no clue so instead redoubled my efforts to do all I could at all times so that I could measure up to the unspoken team culture that we needed to do everything for everyone. There was no time for rest. There was no grace for my very real weaknesses and humanity. Thankfully my husband and I were able to step away from that particular team and agency, get the crisis care we needed by that point and now as we look ahead to future work, we are looking specifically at things like how teams approach Sabbath and rest and just being a finite human!

    • YES–team or corporate culture plays a huge role in self-care. I’m SO glad you were able to get out of an unhealthy situation! Good for you!!! I hope you find a good, healthy fit for the future.

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    So good, Kay. Thanks for being this voice offering us the chance to rest.

  • Dave Lewis

    Such a good write, Kay. In our ministry to missionaries we have found that the two major “reasons” they give for not taking care of themselves are lack of time/resources and lack of permission. Often they do not give themselves permission, and that’s where people like you come in. Those who send and support missionaries should not only grant permission, they should expect their people to practice good spiritual hygiene, including regular time off. Thank you for being a much-needed voice!

  • S. Elisabeth

    This is excellent. I think there are some other “roadblocks” too that come from our first couple of years on the field: Firstly, When you haven’t really been working – maybe are still figuring out your role or ministry or havent been given a clear job description from your leadership – and so you don’t feel rest is justified. I realise we need to chill out and not think there is a certain level of work we need to accomplish before we “deserve” a break, after all we need rest to refresh our souls and minds which take a battering when we’re struggling with identity and are questioning what the “work” is that we’re meant to be accomplishing in the first place – But there can be a tendency (in some organisations or teams) to forget that the day of rest comes after 6 days of work. I by no means think the exact number of days has to be followed literally, but we should pay attention to the rhythm that God created us for- to rest well, yes, but also to work hard. In this respect, I believe it can be just as unhealthy to be part of a deep that doesn’t encourage each other to work. Isn’t it possible to burn out from lack of work as well as from being overworked? We personally noticed that the most positive change to our mental wellbeing came when we were given the freedom to work in the roles God’s called us to. Being confident that we are working well, we’re now able to rest well.
    Secondly, the worry about what others will think.. local friends and neighbours. How does going on vacation fit into the philosophy to live incarnationally? Will it create a barrier? Will they think we’re lazy? Etc.
    Anyway, great discussion!

  • S. Elisabeth

    *team not deep!!

  • This is so good & rich on SO many levels. My family & I are in the throes/woes of reentry, having just completed a term and moving through our furlough. I wish, oh how I wish, that I knew some of the things you draw out in this article sooner. I look forward to reading your book, Kay! Blessings to you!

  • Jennifer Shaw

    What if you’re too far down the hole of wanting to be “good” or feeling like you don’t “deserve a break” that you’re not even sure what self-care would look like for you?

    • Geoffrey Britton

      I don’t have an answer for you, but I see that you sent out this desperate plea and none has answered. I am praying for you. I share with you a verse that has strengthened me in recent years “But may the God of all grace who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.” I Peter 5:10 Most sincere blessings and health to you, Mary Britton

  • taralivesay

    Kay –
    I just read this tonight. It kicks ass. Thank you for writing it. I am going to the beach on Friday to read this again.

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