When You Second-Guess Your Life

by Lisa McKay on August 4, 2014

Last night while we were getting ready for bed, my two year old started to tell me a story. He told me this story three times in a row, getting more excited and delighted every time.

Was this story about the herd of cows we’d seen blocking the road to our house that morning? Or how our gardener had let him cut the bushes all by himself with a huge pair of shears (gulp)? Or about how the seatbelt-less van we’d been riding in that day had braked suddenly and he had flipped right up and over onto the (thankfully, empty) seat in front of us? (It’s been quite a week, and don’t even get me started on how we all had to go to the clinic and get tested for TB last night.)

No, the story that Dominic was so excited to tell me was about making blueberry pancakes at his grandparents’ house three months ago.

He misses his grandparents terribly. So do I. And when I pause for too long and think about what we’re losing by living so far away from parents, sisters, brothers and cousins, it can really make me wonder whether this living overseas thing is worth it.

Question-MarkI know some of you who read this blog have a very clear sense that God wants you to live and work in a particular place for an extended period.

My husband, Mike, and I don’t have that.

Instead, Mike and I have the sense that God wants us to use our skills and talents for good wherever we are.

It so happens that many of our skills and passions equip us well for overseas living and development work. It so happens that opportunities for my husband to use his skills and work within the circle of his passions have opened up here in Laos. It so happens that we judged that taking up those opportunities was the best fit for the overall family system right now. And, so here we are.

Who knows where we’ll be this time next year. We don’t.

Today, I want to speak to those of you who don’t fit the typical missionary model. Those of you who don’t feel called to a particular place. Those of you who don’t intend to land somewhere and stay there – God willing – for a decade or more.

If you move overseas without a clear commitment to a place, an organization, or a time-frame, you should be prepared to second-guess yourself often. You will need to learn to build meaningful relationships within a constantly shifting social framework. You will need to grow in your ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. You will ask yourself the question “is this worth it?” frequently. You will need to answer the question “what’s next” every couple of years.

Answering both of those questions requires re-visiting a complex equation involving any or all of the following shifting variables:

  • Your perception of God’s opinion on the issue
  • Each partner’s (if you’re married) skills, passions, wants, and needs
  • Existing professional commitments and logistical constraints
  • What seems best (emotionally, educationally, and/or medically) for any children you might have.
  • Health risks and constraints for every family member
  • The career, financial, and logistical implications of any change you might make.
  • The needs and wants of your extended family.

If you’re anything like me, trying to figure life out in relation to just one of the variables listed above is hard enough. Throw them all in the mix, and decision-making in the absence of a clear sense of “divine assignment” can quickly become seriously overwhelming and very taxing.

I’ve been doing the “professional expatriate” thing for more than a decade now –most of my life, really – and I don’t have any sure-fire solutions for you on how to deal with the dynamics of this lifestyle. What I can do is offer you some things that have helped me at various points.

Direction road signs

1. Get some clarity on the hierarchy of the variables in your list. Is this a season for prioritizing building a stable community over taking an exciting job in a new country? If you can get some idea of how the variables in your own personal universe are weighted in this season of your life, it’ll help guide your decision-making.

2. Once you’ve actually made a decision, try not to second-guess yourself. Not for a while, anyway. Protect some space to live in the now. If you know you probably need to move or switch jobs in July next year you might, for example, agree to not talk a great deal about next steps until March.

3. At risk of sounding like I’m contradicting myself… talk. Talk with your partner about the whole, complicated mess, without feeling you need to make any immediate decisions. Talk about the things you love about living overseas and those you loathe. Talk about what you miss about living back home. Talk about what you want, and what you fear, and what you feel like you should want, and what you actually want, and what makes you scared and mad and sad and happy and grateful about this crazy extreme adventure you’re living.

U-turn-permitted-cropped4. Keep a physical or mental list of all the wonderful things about your life overseas so that when your two-year-old waxes wistful and begs to “go home” it doesn’t spark a complete existential crises (not most of the time, anyway). Regularly, intentionally, celebrate these wonderful things about living where you are. Rehearse how living overseas allows you to live in your strengths, to grow, to help others, and to experience life.

5. Give yourself permission sometimes to seriously consider alternate realities. Finding yourself wondering often whether you’re in the right place? Consider whether you are in the right place. Spend some time thinking about what life might be like elsewhere, doing different things. Seriously map it out. Give yourself permission to change course.

6. Pay for your parents to come visit. Tell them to bring blueberries and pancake mix with them.

When you start second guessing your life, what helps you?

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.
  • Cassie

    For me, a helpful thing is to have a set time for decision-making. My husband and I certainly dialogue about “is it worth it” or “what would life look like if” fairly often, but having a (flexibly) firm timetable that says, “We plan to stay here until at least ___ date,” keeps me from hopping on a plane on a crazy day in the first trimester of pregnancy or something like that. You know, for stability’s sake… or something.

    • Yeah, another good one. Having a “barring disaster we plan to stay here until at least …” is related to “I’m not talking about what’s next until…” And I think it does breed some stability. Or at least some breathing room.

      • AlyssaMM

        Yes! “We’re not talking about what happens next until…” is my favorite phrase right now. And yes, it buys us a little time. This article struck a chord with me, because it’s where we live. We’re 13 months into a 2 year commitment, and we need to decide what’s next around Christmas time. When we moved here, the job was different then it is now, and we’re adding a new (unexpected) baby to the family next month… so much happens over time that changes the needs of our family. Right now, I don’t really even know what things will feel like in December. I am thankful to know that we are not the only ones in this situation. I will be referring to this post in December, Lisa!

        • Yes, that sounds so sensible. With a new baby coming you’ll JUST be getting your feet under you in December/Jan. Hope all goes well with the new arrival and all the change associated with that!!

    • YES. “for stability’s sake” YES. Totally agree.

  • kim a.

    Oh my! This is so good. We have spent the last 3 months second guessing and not feeling sure…holding tight to what God has said (even though it was not really specific to this country. ..) and lots of skype processing time with very insightful wise people!

    • Ooooh, good one. Skype processing with trusted sounding boards!! Hope you’re moving into a season with less second guessing and more clarity.

  • So…we have been in Laos 2 1/2 months. It’s already been hard in many ways. My husband is and always has been sure about us living overseas but I struggle much more with doubt and second guessing what the heck I am doing over here. Our team consists of us and one other guy so I am very lonely for other moms to connect with. Most days I just want to take my one year old to a park or a library, or not dread going to the market for food. I worry about my son falling or getting a high fever and how long it would take to get to any decent medical care. And I desperately miss my family and feel guilty for keeping my baby away from his grandparents and cousins. ANd then I feel guilty for thinking those things when I am supposed to be serving and sacrificing. The saving grace has been our term limit. We are here for 3 years and then plan to reevaluate things. I obviously don’t want to spend all three years counting down the days so I am praying for peace and to figure out how to make a home here. Thank you for writing this Lisa. It seems like everyone I talk to over here has this amazing peace about where they are and what they are doing. It’s so good to know there are other people out here who question.

    • Oh, Lindsey. You’re down south, right? I recognize SO much from this comment. We lived up north in Luang Prabang when our eldest was born, and until he was almost two. I really struggled with the implications and reality of that sort of isolation, too. What are you doing next week?? Mike’s going to Bangkok Mon am through Wed pm. Wanna come up and hang out with us in Vientiane for a couple of days and meet some Mums and let the babies play together?? Email me on lisamckaywriting (at) gmail (dot) com if you’d like to come up for a Mama break next week or some other time.

      • Thank you, Lisa. Yes, I am in Pakse and while I like the small town-ness of it, I am frustrated with the lack of expats and resources. I would LOVE to come up north and visit-I don’t think next week is an option sadly, since there’s not a cheap (and safe-those night buses scare the heck outta me) way to get there at the moment. But I know my husband will need to head up there in the near future so I will be sure to tag along. Thank you for the encouragement!

        • Let me know when you’re in town. Would love to meet up.

    • Cara

      I am in Uganda. My husband and I have been here with our 6 kids for 2 months. I just need to share that you are not alone. Same feelings here. Praying it gets easier with time…

      • It does get easier with time. MOST of the time, anyway. You’re in the throes of transition – a time when the first shock of transition is fading, and with it all the adrenaline that carried you there, but things aren’t yet “normal” enough not to be uber-taxing. It’s a hard time. Hang in there, both of you.

      • 6 Kids?? Oh wow-you are my hero. We are thinking about another already since I am nearing 40 and just the thought of 2 scares me. I’m praying for it to get easier as well.

      • Sandy

        Cara, Praying for your family and ministry. This is Katy’s sister who lived in Sierra Leone for a year.

  • Wow! This is an awesome post, Lisa! You’ve been able to break down into realistic thought nuggets the overwhelming endeavor of redirection of a life course. I am thoroughly impressed. When one is caught up in the emotional what-ifs this clear, concise list would help to focus one’s decision making process. Thanks so much for pulling this all together and making it available to the readers and to me especially. You are amazing.

    • Thanks Angie… I wish this post hadn’t been so easy to write (in that, I wish I hadn’t spent the better part of the last three years marinading in decision making… but you use what you’ve got, right??) Thinking of you during a big season in your life.

  • Marcy

    I think when someone knows their vision and mission(s) (for their personal life and ministry), it can lessen (but won’t eliminate) the second guesses. The key is understanding that the vision never changes (who you are called to BE) and the missions can change (what you are called to do as well as how and where). Everyone should carry who they are to any place they go. ‘Seeing’ it mapped out can help. For a vision mapping consultation packet, email me: marcy@atcministries.org (www.atcministries.org).

    • “the vision never changes (who you are called to BE) and the missions can
      change (what you are called to do as well as how and where)”… Yes! I’d love to see that resource. I’ll drop you a line. Thanks.

  • Fascinating! This, “Today, I want to speak to those of you who don’t fit the typical missionary model.” We have always felt like we don’t fit the typical missionary model, but it was it in the opposite direction. (Sorry. I’m afraid this is a rabbit trail.) Most missionaries we have met live in their location, because God called them to serve there, like you said. I’ve heard some say that if He would let them free (not their exact words, but this general feeling), they’d be HOME* in a moment. Whereas for us, this is home, and we’re happy that God allows us serve here. As in, we have no plans for retirement in another country or heading to another home; it could happen, but we’re not planning for that. I think, actually, we’re in the same boat, your kind of non-typical and mine: maybe the typical missionary idea is “career years overseas, then retirement in passport country.” We’re weird because of longer/shorter/less definite plans. We’re just here, and that’s that. 🙂

    *Of course, we all probably share something of the confusion about where and what home is.

    • Yes, don’t we all share THAT particular brand of confusion?? That was the primary question that drove me to spend three years writing my memoir. Time well spent. A lot cheaper than therapy 🙂

  • brokengurl

    For those who dont fit the typical. I am that person. I am second guessing everything at the moment. I am juggling an american life with a heart for central america. I hate it here but am scared to go there. God is bringing preparation in the midst of personal refining. I want to be there now.
    BUT…I am not typical. I am going to be 45. I am divorced. I suck at relationships. I am a survivor of incest. BUT
    the call came before my first marriage.
    We own the land where we will be going. Our heart there our body in ‘merica. What typical missioanary owns their own land?
    I am not typical. Just broken and in need of a God who calls the messy…

    • What type of missionary owns their own land??? The lucky kind. What a blessing, hey? To have roots and some stability and some expectation of longevity (whether or not it works out that way). That’s very, very cool. All the best as the refining continues…

      • brokengurl

        I know right?! And what is wilder we own our home in the states. What kind of a missionary has that? One that God is at work and knows my crazy desire to serve…refining/preparation…and the beauty is we go to the same village for short terms twice a year. So we know the peeps and they love us…and I still HA second guess….and I do have the list of alternate realities… 🙂

        • Yeah, I think having a list of alternate realities is still helpful, no matter how well placed we think/know we are. If nothing else, it helps remind us we’re on the right path.

  • Robert Julian Braxton

    I drift – my motto “where you are, be there”

  • Catherine Grace

    Oh I’ve come in late on this one and I so wish I didn’t.
    Cos I do not love this country I am in and I second guess being in it sometimes.
    I do not not-love it. But oh, I love winter and cities and art and music. I love earth and nature and fresh fresh food. But the country I serve in is the opposite to my ‘taste’. It is tropical and villages and (often ugly!) functionality and 5 times a day badly-pronounced-arabic chants. It is rubbish and sewerage and fried scraggly chicken (and food poisoning). There is art and music and rich culture too… just not that excites my heart or that I want in my home.

    I’m just here because we came here for the task. Because though I would never holiday here. I think Jesus should be known here.
    Because here was un-engaged and we said we were willing to engage. It is unreached and my family want to be part of reaching. Commitment, not love, has kept me here so far.
    We made a commitment to (our team) and to this place for a length of time (that I was so gung-ho about at the time and was like, I’ll never want to leave. sigh)
    And now I look at that commitment and see the reason it was made.. out of love for the task, for God’s glory and worship here and not for the white rice or jungle swamp.

    So many times over our time here (though its only been 2 years so I’m still in 1st term angst here) I have wondered at the other workers who seem to really love their fried fish and white rice. Who marvel at this place that I could leave in a heartbeat. I have often wondered, am I wrong to have come here?
    Do you need to love it to serve it?
    Sometimes I find myself wondering (idealizing?) what life would be like somewhere else, would I be thriving… would home school be easier… would my marriage be smoother… would my fruit be abundant – if I was in a place I loved? Maybe that’s just me.
    Maybe I’m worrying about all this second guessing when is just a really important part of reaffirming those who need it…and redirecting those who needed to be affirmed in moving on.
    So thanks for making it part of the conversation, Lisa!

  • What a relief to read this article, Lisa. Like a symphony to my ears, or just simply a yummy morsel of chocolate savoured in the mouth. I can relate to so much of what you’ve written. I’m learning to function with a whole new ‘navigational system’ for personal guidance, because I have found myself in an (unexpected) extended period of time without a specific sense of God’s leading in my life, which used to be the norm (His seemingly direct guidance and assurance for the path I was on). I have done much of what you have done (and are doing) and have had to rely now on my little humble ‘priority list’ rather than a ‘divine call’ to continually keep myself going forward on this path, and to keep myself afloat, always just two steps away from falling into a sea of uncertainty and confusion about the whole scenario, and often tempted to focus on wishful thinking that God would just wave His magic wand and confirm my life path for me. I share all this just to say THANK YOU for sharing this; it comforts me to no end, knowing that others out there are walking a similar path.

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