Inside Out:  this summer’s must-see movie for expat families

If you are anywhere near a movie theater showing recent releases this summer, you absolutely must take yourself and your family to see Inside Out.

This is not a movie about kissing the handsome prince or surviving an amazing outdoor adventure or defeating the bad guys.

This is a movie about how to have a healthy, mature emotional life–and it all comes to you in gorgeous, entertaining Pixar wonderfulness.

The set-up for the movie is this:  11-year-old Riley and her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco for dad’s job.  The real action, however, takes place on the inside of Riley, as her personified emotions interact.

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) is Riley’s primary emotion.  Riley’s had a great childhood, and she’s a happy kid.  Joy’s in charge with all kinds of energy and enthusiasm, and, as far as everybody knows, that’s perfectly wonderful.

Of course, every kid gets angry or scared or disgusted at times, and Joy understands what those emotions are for:  protection and safety and social belonging.

Sadness, though?  Sadness is just kind of blobby and lethargic and unattractive.

Joy keeps all the other emotions on task and on target, but she doesn’t know what to do with Sadness.  And Sadness doesn’t know what to do with herself, either.  Nobody knows what sadness is for.

At one point, Joy draws a chalk circle and tells Sadness to just stand inside the circle.  But, as Riley struggles through a tough transition, Sadness keeps escaping.

While Joy is a wonderful character and you just love her to pieces, there’s this one moment when Joy says, “I just want Riley to be HAPPY.”  You realize: wow, if Joy doesn’t get a hold of herself, this could get ugly and self-centered very quickly.

Joy is missing something, and we all eventually realize that Sadness has some very special abilities that Joy lacks:

Sadness has explored the deep parts of the brain that Joy’s been too busy to deal with.

Sadness is able to empathize with the sadness in others.

Sadness draws people together for comfort and care.

You guys, I’m a counselor.  I see a fair number of adult TCK’s.  And one of the most common problems that adult TCK’s bring to therapy is unresolved grief–and in general, a lack of understanding and acceptance of emotions like sadness and anger.

I think a lot of times, TCK’s are encouraged to BE HAPPY about their awesome life.  Of course we want our kids to be happy!  And many times their lives are awesome!

It’s just that, in order to deal with the realities of transition, separation, and loss, our kids need better emotional tools than forced happiness.

They need to be able to deal with their sadness and fear and disgust and anger in productive ways as well.

The great gift of Inside Out is this.  You can take your kids to a movie they will enjoy, and at the same time create a shared emotional language for your family.

(Of course, while your kids learn to deal with their emotions, you’ll have to deal with yours as well.  Because we are the grown-ups, and we don’t ask our kids to do what we won’t do.)

If you’re anywhere near a movie theater this summer, go.  If you’re nowhere near a theater, get Inside Out on your wish list for Christmas.  Your family dynamics will thank you later.


Talk about the emotions you saw inside of Riley.

What does each emotion (Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy, Sadness) do for Riley?

What happens on the outside of Riley’s life, and how does that make her feel on the inside?

Think about a time when you were upset like Riley was.  What happened on the outside?  What emotions did you feel on the inside?

How did Riley’s friends react when she moved away?  Tell me how your friends have reacted when you’ve moved away.  Has it been hard to maintain friendships?  What helps?  What makes it hard?

Why do Riley’s Mom and Dad say things like “Where’s my happy girl?”  How did that make you feel?

After Riley gets upset at the dinner table, her dad comes to her room.  Did it feel like Riley’s dad was being fair to her?  Have you ever felt misunderstood, like Riley did right then?

What did you learn about Sadness in this movie?  How has Sadness been a part of your life?

When you feel sad on the inside, how do you act on the outside?

Which of the emotions do you think is your main emotion right now?

What helped Riley feel close to her parents again?  What helps you feel close to your family?

Ask A Counselor: What can we do about loss and grief?

wildebeests“Over the years, we’ve said goodbye to so many friends and colleagues.  What can we do about all the loss and grief that’s piled up?”

It’s that time of year again in the expat universe, when the Great Migration takes place.

You’re coming or you’re going.  You’re leaving or you’re staying.

It’s your first move, or your tenth, or your 27th.

And it just hurts.

So what do we do, with all the loss and grief that’s piling up?

We grieve it.

That is a really awful answer, I know.  I hate it myself.

But the only way through it is through.  Anything else—avoidance, denial, minimization–is just going to come back to bite us later.

So we grieve it.

What does that mean, exactly?

The best description I know of grief is what Anne Lamott says in Traveling Mercies:

I was terribly erratic: feeling so holy and serene some moments that I was sure I was going to end up dating the Dalai Lama. Then the grief and craziness would hit again, and I would be in Broken Mind, back in the howl.

The depth of the feeling continued to surprise and threaten me, but each time it hit again and I bore it, like a nicotine craving, I would discover that it hadn’t washed me away. After a while it was like an inside shower, washing off some of the rust and calcification in my pipes. It was like giving a dry garden a good watering. Don’t get me wrong: grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit. Mostly I have tried to avoid it by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible. You can often avoid the pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession. Martyrdom can’t be beat. While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn’t for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering. But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart. But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illu­sion won’t hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: soft­ness and illumination.

A few tips for processing emotions during transition, loss, and grief:

  • Be gentle with yourself. You are wounded.
  • Allow yourself extra time for rest as you work through the loss. Grief is hard work.
  • Spend time with friends and family. Don’t isolate.
  • Get out into the sunshine for a few minutes each day, if possible.
  • Do something fun/enjoyable/creative every single day.
  • Watch funny movies, TV shows, YouTube videos.  Read some P.G. Wodehouse.  Listen to comedian Brian Regan, who is hilarious with no cuss words.
  • Journal, 20 minutes each day.

When do you need to seek help for processing through grief?

  • You’re not bouncing back. Every loss feels like a terrible blow.
  • You’re experiencing a decline in functioning—it’s hard to do what you need to do.
  • You feel exhausted or emotionless for extended periods of time.
  • You can’t think of anything fun or creative that you’d like to do.
  • You’re angry, especially at people who are leaving.
  • You cry a lot, and can’t seem to stop.
  • Your appetite has changed: you binge-eat, or you have no appetite.
  • Sleep is a problem. Either you have trouble falling asleep, or you wake up at night with racing thoughts and can’t go back to sleep.

Helpful resources

Check our resource tab, which includes counseling resources for expats.

The Way of Transition, William Bridges (If you’ve read his first book, Transitions, you’ve got to read this one, which he wrote after his wife died.  It’s beautiful and painful and amazing.)

Recent series at Velvet Ashes on Leaving and Staying 

Podcast on loss from Dan Allender

 Photo Credit (changes made)

Ask a Counselor: How much abuse is too much abuse?

smashed glass

After last month’s column addressing the question of domestic violence, a reader asked these questions in the comments section:

How much abuse is too much abuse?

How much abuse constitutes grounds for divorce?

My quick answer was:  ANY abuse is too much abuse, and ANY abuse constitutes grounds for divorce.

The reasons I think this?

  1. Abuse doesn’t happen outside of an abusive system.

By the time we have overt behavior that we can recognize as abuse, there is probably a whole world of covert abuse under the surface that has to be addressed with very serious boundaries.  This often includes separation, as a time for the two parties to work on their individual issues (Batterer’s Intervention or other therapy for the abuser, trauma recovery and healing for the victim) and to decide what is to be done about the marriage.

  1. When there is abuse, the marriage contract is broken and the victim of the abuse gets to choose what happens next.

In the interest of justice and mercy, we have to allow for those choices to include separation, divorce, reconciliation–whatever the victim, after adequate time for recovery–feels is appropriate.  When we limit the victim’s options, we end up like the Pharisees, weighing out our dill and mint and cumin, and laying heavy burdens on people that we’d be unwilling to bear ourselves.  When abuse is in the picture, the rest of us need to step off and support the victim to choose what is safe for her. 

Having said those things, let’s back up a little bit and address this question:

What’s the difference between a “normal” conflict, a “normal” hurt, that can occur in a healthy relationship, and actual abuse that occurs in an abusive relationship?

The first factor that you need to construct an abusive relationship is power.

The person with power can be someone who is physically bigger or stronger:  a parent, a husband, an older sibling.

The person with power could also be someone who is emotionally or spiritually bigger or stronger:  a boss, a husband, a pastor, a counselor.

Now, in a healthy system, a more powerful person could inadvertently hurt a weaker person.  A counselor could make a remark that hurts her client’s feelings.   A dad could turn around quickly and step on his daughter’s foot.  Apologies would be spoken; amends would be made; the relationship might even be stronger afterward.

So, getting hurt by a powerful person isn’t enough, in and of itself, to constitute abuse.

You need one more set of connected factors:  an abuser who fails to take responsibility, and a victim who carries the blame.

“There is no such thing as a perfect family or church where people don’t ever get hurt.  But the difference between an abusive and non-abusive system is that while hurtful behaviors might happen in both, it is not permissible to talk about problems, hurts, and abuses in an abusive system.  Hence, there is no healing and restoration after the wound has occurred, and the victim is made to feel at fault for questioning or pointing out the problem.”  Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (emphasis mine)

In an abusive system, when a client brings up problems in the counseling relationship, the abusive counselor makes excuses and places blame on the client, stating that her method has worked for lots of other people.  An abusive father steps on his daughter’s foot and then yells at her for being in the way all the time.

In a non-abusive relationship, hurts may occur, but they can be worked out. 

In an abusive relationship, the abuser does not admit fault or make amends, but instead blames the victim.

One final question:  if you are being hurt in a relationship, what should you do?

BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING, consider whether you feel safe talking to the person about your hurt. 

IF YOU SUSPECT YOU WILL BE UNSAFE AT ANY TIME, make a safety plan and execute it when necessary.   Read more about safety plans here

If you have already endured physical violence from the person, the sad reality is that talking about problems is unlikely to solve them.  The abuser needs intervention from an outside agency, possibly law enforcement.  The victim needs safety.

However, if you feel that you are physically safe to have a conversation with the person, you might try something like this.

Step One:  Bring up the problem with the person, and see how they respond.  Are they able to own their part of the problem and work toward healthy solutions?   Or do you get blamed for having the problem in the first place?  Does talking about the problem cause more drama, blaming, and escalation rather than resolution?

Step Two:  Be honest with yourself about whether the relationship is healthy, or if the other person is more interested in power and control than a real relationship.  Remember that behavior is a very important language!  An abusive person may speak all sorts of charming, sorrowful, even spiritual-sounding words, but you have to measure the ACTIONS against the WORDS.  Does the person actually DO the right thing, or do they just SAY the right words to keep you engaged in their craziness?

Step Three:  Consider your boundaries.  What do you want in your life?  What is unacceptable in your life?  What steps will you take to remove things that are unwanted?  What steps will you take to bring healthy habits and healing behaviors into your life?  Boundaries will never control another person; they will only help us take control of ourselves.

Think about the relationships and systems you’re a part of. 

What power dynamics do you observe?

Are you in systems where you can’t speak up about problems and hurts?

Are other people able to speak to you about hurts and problems they have with you?

How much voice and value do you feel that you have in your relationships?

What boundaries do you need to draw in relationships that leave you voiceless and valueless?

 Photo Credit (changes made)

Ask A Counselor: Can We Talk About Domestic Violence?

suitcase“Would you talk about domestic violence on the mission field?”  That’s the question I got last month.  “Wow,” I replied, “I sure would.”  And then, my friend shared the story that follows.  I’m passing it along with her permission, and with a few changes made to protect identities.


There is a suitcase in my home where my dear friend, a fellow missionary, puts items she has sneaked out of her house in case she needs to initiate her “safety plan” and leave with her two small children, escaping her abusive husband.

From the time they moved to this area, I could see things going on that indicated probable relational problems. The wife had little freedom to make decisions, even little ones. The husband restricted her finances and her activities. There was significant imbalance in the weight of responsibilities. All the housework, taking care of and disciplining the kids fell to her. He was free to come and go and had copious leisure time and she had very little. He would often interrupt what she was doing and her conversations with others, causing her to stop what she was doing to do what he was asking her to do.

These would have been red flags in my American culture, but these folks aren’t American. I don’t speak their mother-language tongue to know what was being said. And of course, as missionaries, we’re taught to not judge cultural differences too quickly. My husband and I considered that their culture may have distinctly different gender-roles than those we are familiar with. But something felt wrong.

In time my relationship with the wife deepened. I began to see signs that she may, in fact, be being abused. She lived as if she was unworthy of having any wants, desires, or needs of her own. She blamed herself for their marital difficulties; she sincerely believed that if she could fix herself or God would do a work in her life (to change her), then their marriage problems would be resolved. She defended her husband and protected him, at times taking responsibility for his shortcomings and bad choices. She was afraid of displeasing him, and so on.

My husband and I read the book Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. It gave us invaluable insight into what was going on, and we knew that she was being abused. Eventually, I was able to suggest that my friend read the book. She did, and she began to recognize the abuse for herself. That was the beginning of something new. So very hard, but good.

I’m going over and over the events that have transpired, and aside from all the grief I feel for my friend and the sadness at the likelihood of her leaving, I’m struggling with guilt that I didn’t say something or do something sooner. I feel this huge weight that there are probably other missionary women out there in abusive situations and other friends like me who don’t recognize abuse, who don’t do something about it for a long time, and who may have even enabled the abuse!

These are some of the things that I think would be helpful for missionaries to be aware of:

  • Abuse can be hidden behind culture and language. We’ve got to trust the voice of the Holy Spirit when He prods us with the sense that “something is wrong here.” Even if certain cultural norms are generally accepted, practices that oppress women or other societal groups should absolutely be questioned and measured against Scripture.
  • Abuse hides and even thrives behind Christian doctrine on gender roles. This topic is a mine-field, isn’t it?
  • Abusers are masters of maintaining their public reputation. Likeable men who contribute to ministry can be abusers. So we all need to be able to recognize the signs of abuse and be familiar with different kinds of abuse. *
  • On the mission field, abused women have little access to resources. In their home countries, they could flee to a family member or friend’s home. Overseas, escape can be very difficult, especially if a woman is financially dependent on her husband.
  • There is one thing I should have realized a long, long time ago. If I (and others in the missionary community) are tip-toeing around a man, expending effort to avoid any kind of disagreement or confrontation with him because I am afraid of inciting an angry or unpleasant response, there is a good chance that his wife and children are afraid of his responses too.
  • We are concerned with justice for those we are ministering to, but can so easily miss (or ignore) the injustice happening right under our noses. By not addressing, questioning, or confronting the abuser for injustices carried out in public, we have been enabling the abuse to continue.

I am so thankful we’ve been able to receive some help from an American counselor with extensive experience working with abusers and the abused. He and his wife were able to spend some time with my friend (but not her husband). We learned from him that this is not the first case of domestic abuse that he has encountered in our organization in this region.

The story continues to play out. The family is returning to their home country; the elder board of their home church is calling them back. They don’t see or acknowledge that there is abuse going on; they only see my friend’s emotional instability. Our hope and prayer had been that the husband would agree to work with the counselor I mentioned, but he refused.


*For more information on the signs of abuse, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Here is a resource that identifies how power and control contribute to various types of abuse.

Here’s a Mud Stories podcast from a woman who survived domestic violence overseas.


Let me just share a few notes with you on how domestic violence is usually treated in the States.

  • Domestic violence may include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. Economic abuse is often a factor in these scenarios, when a woman is not allowed the financial independence that might lead to her escape.
  • It’s extremely important to understand that issues of abuse are NOT conceptualized as “marital problems.”
  • While we understand that the victim of the abuse is not a perfect person, abuse is never an acceptable response to any provocation whatsoever.
  • Abuse is something for which the abusive person needs to take responsibility and seek treatment.
  • Therefore, abuse is not primarily treated in couples counseling.
  • If someone recommends couples counseling when abuse is part of the relationship, this is not best practice.  Seek help elsewhere.
  • The abuser would usually attend a Batterer’s Intervention Program.
  • The victim would benefit from attending a group for battered women (often offered at local woman’s shelters) and personal counseling for trauma recovery.
  • Women’s shelters are available in many communities, and many shelters provide services for accompanying children as well.
  • Separation is a very common and healthy boundary during treatment.

I have been asked by clients if I believe that domestic violence is grounds for divorce, and my answer to that is yes.

I do believe that domestic violence is grounds for divorce.

While divorce is never what we hope for, sometimes it is the most just and merciful outcome we can humanly facilitate.

The church has been careful to tell people that the only ground for divorce is adultery, and I am aware that this is the boundary stated in Mosaic law.

While the Mosaic law may be well-meant as a deterrent to divorce, to abusive people it becomes a boundary that allows them to skate on the side of “righteousness” while perpetrating all kinds of sin and abuse on their families.

I believe that we are held to a higher standard than the Mosaic law.  We are held to the standard of justice and mercy, as Jesus warned:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”  Matthew 23:23

“And you experts of the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”  Luke 11:46

Justice and mercy matter most.

May we never forget.

Photo Credit (changes made) 

Ask A Counselor: How do I Cope with Difficult Emotions?


What do I do if I feel like I am struggling with cynicism and hardheartedness?

Also, where is the balance between finding your voice in the hard stuff and not developing tunnel vision for it? For instance, I have been recently being more open about how often I take all the advice to be brave and step out in obedience to God and then feel like he pulls the rug out from under me. It is hard not to feel angry and frustrated about it. But as I try to be honest about that, it can also be that I begin to filter everything through that lens and see it happening in places where it might not be.

The question I’m hearing here is:  what am I supposed to do with difficult emotions?

Many of us grew up thinking that emotions are problems we should get rid of.

Instead, I want to offer you this idea:  emotions are indicators.

Like the flashing red lights on your dashboard–“Empty” or “High Heat” or “Maintenance Required”—your emotions are telling you something is wrong.

So what should we do with our emotional indicators?

I think we always have two choices:  assimilation or accommodation.

These terms come out of the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget.

Assimilation means that I have a framework, and everything has to fit into that framework.

Accommodation means that I will adapt my ideas and practices to new information I receive.

A young child assimilates when he learns the word “dog” and then calls every animal a dog.  He has one category for animal, and everything fits into that category.

The child accommodates when he learns that there are also cats, horses, elephants, and charging rhinos.  He learns that you can pet some animals, and that you should run from others.

As adults, we still have our frames of reference, our expectations.  As long as we live, we’ll be receiving new information and deciding what to do with it:  assimilate or accommodate?

In the world of missions, our framework includes expected difficulties:  separation, inconvenience, language-learning, culture acquisition.  You know there will be challenges.  That’s all part of the deal.

We also have expectations about how we’re going to deal with those challenges:  well!

Right?  We’ve read the books, we’ve taken the training, we’ve got the information, and we’re going to deal with this stuff well.  Other people haven’t, but we will!  That expectation is a huge part of our framework.

But then reality hits, and here it is:  you don’t know if your framework is going to work long term, until you test it.

You don’t know how heat and dengue fever and interminable nights of barking dogs are going to impact your mental health.  You don’t know that your parents will get sick at home or that your child will turn out to have learning disabilities or that your teammates will struggle and bring their struggles down on you.  You don’t know that your husband will become addicted to porn or to his work.  You don’t know what kinds of difficulties are going to come, and what those difficulties might mean in the real world.

Our normal response is to keep assimilating as long as we can, because our framework feels safe.  We’ve built our lives on this framework and dismantling threatens us, and often times, many other people who are heavily invested in the status quo.

Like Cinderella’s stepsisters, we keep trying to cram our foot into the glass slipper, because there’s only one prince and the only way to get him is with this one glass slipper.

We don’t think about the fact that there may be other stories, other possibilities, other things just as good or even better out there for us.  (Why Disney doesn’t do that story, instead of putting out that same old worn out Cinderella thing over and over and over?  As a matter of fact, why don’t WE?  But I digress.)

When the indicators of cynicism and anger and depression and anxiety and frustration start flashing, it may be tempting to yank the lights out of the dashboard and throw them away, but that’s not really a solution.

Instead, let’s honor the signals, and accommodate to challenging circumstances with appropriate new responses.

To get started, assume that emotions are saying something important, and listen to them:

  • Identify the feelings: sad, mad, scared.
  • Write them down. Journal them out.
  • Don’t judge the emotions. Just listen to them.
  • You’re not going to be ruled by your emotions. You’re going to understand them as legitimate indicators of a problem.
  • What other symptoms am I seeing in myself:  sleeplessness, agitation, distractability, intrusive or obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, loss of appetite, loss of interest in normal things, fatigue, social isolation, high levels of conflict with others?  Those are important indicators as well.

Then, get all the other pieces of information out into the open:

  • What are the stressors?
  • Who are the stressors?
  • How long has the stressful situation been in progress?
  • What solutions have I tried, and how have those attempts impacted the situation?
  • What am I afraid to try? Why?
  • Am I in the right job?  Am I in the right place?  Am I with the right organization?
  • Be brutally honest.  You need to know.

Next, think about your boundaries:

  • What is your responsibility in this situation?
  • What is the responsibility of God in this situation?
  • What is the responsibility of others in this situation?
  • Where are you taking responsibility that belongs to God or to others?
  • How can you step back into your own realm of responsibility?
  • What consequences do you fear, when you stop taking responsibility for God and other people?
  • What would freedom look like for you in this situation?
  • Where have you abdicated your freedom in Christ to someone or something else in this situation?
  • What would this situation look like, if it were healthy for every single person involved? Men, women, children, colleagues of every nationality?

Finally, be open to what accommodation might mean in your particular situation:

  • Accommodation may mean recognizing that stress and perhaps even trauma have impacted you, and you need maintenance:  time away, a visit to your doctor, work with a therapist.
  • Accommodation may mean that you rearrange your work life:  reduce work hours, find help for tasks, accept that this job/location/organization/career is a bad fit.
  • Accommodation may mean that you create more margin:  say “no” to some things, keep a Sabbath, take more holiday time.
  • Accommodation may mean that you go for counseling to work through issues of addiction, depression, perfectionism, workaholism, or marital conflict.
  • Accommodation may mean experiencing that God loves you with an everlasting love, even when your framework has crashed and burned into oblivion and you have no idea what happens next.

Accommodation can be scary stuff, but:

Be strong and courageous.  The Lord your God is with you, wherever you go. 

Even way, way, way outside the box.

Photo Credit (changes made)

Ask A Counselor: How do we keep our marriage strong in strange circumstances?

holding hands

Reader Question:

How do we practically care for our marriage and stay connected when we are living in the rural bush in the middle of Africa? …very little privacy, no babysitter, no places to go for a “date”, homeschooling kids, daily life already takes so much energy, not a lot of things to do together that we used to enjoy in our life in our passport country…struggling with this one right now, especially as we are going through transition.

I think at least part of the answer to this lies in understanding what really makes marriages healthy, happy, and long-lasting.  Because–and I think we all know this–it’s not just going on dates that makes marriage work.

The habits of life, like dating, are just the container for what really matters, the actual contents, of the marriage.

Sometimes our routines of life in our home countries, our elaborate and enjoyable containers, disguise the fact that there’s not much content in our relationship.  And then we move overseas and subject a fragile relationship to a lot of stress, and then the cracks start to show.

This doesn’t mean your marriage is over.  It just means you have to work on the contents.

So the question becomes:

What are the actual contents of a successful marriage?

Let me tell you about the research of Dr. John Gottman.  Dr. Gottman is the pre-eminent relationship expert on earth today.  He’s studied literally thousands of couples to see what successful, happy couples do differently from couples who split up (or who stay together miserably, which is a life goal of zero people I know).

He’s narrowed it down to seven major behaviors which he writes about in his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.   Here are Gottman’s seven principles:

  • Principle 1: Enhance your love maps (know your partner’s world, internal and external)
  • Principle 2: Nurture your fondness and admiration (like the person you’re married to!)
  • Principle 3: Turn toward each other instead of away (bear each other’s emotional burdens)
  • Principle 4: Let your partner influence you (both partners are heard and valued)
  • Principle 5: Solve your solvable problems (not all problems will be solvable; fix what you can)
  • Principle 6: Overcome gridlock (be willing to make serious change as needed)
  • Principle 7: Create shared meaning (have a life that matters to both of you)

The book has quizzes and suggestions all along the way, and real guidance for solving problems and getting past gridlock.  If you only ever read one marriage book, make it this one!

During the course of his research, Gottman also got pretty good at noticing what makes marriages crash and burn.  He calls those things The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and they’re well worth knowing about.  I would say, if you find yourself doing these things regularly, you’re in need of a marriage therapist.  Now.

That’s the good, serious, long-term best answer I can give you:  get past the “dating container” that’s previously held your relationship, and make time to dig deeply into those critical contents that are going to nurture your relationship long-term.  

Also, educate yourself about the dangerous relationship habits that signal serious problems in a marriage, like the Four Horsemen.


Because, like Andy said earlier this month, your marriage will make or break you overseas.

But I also have a fun answer for you.  I ran across an article in the New York Times, called To Fall In Love with Anyone, Do This.

This is based out of research by psychologist Arthur Aron, who says that “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure.”

Aron’s research involved bringing couples—strangers to each other–into a research lab.  For 45 minutes, the research subjects would ask a list of 36 questions to one another.  Once the subjects had asked each other all the questions (and answered them!), then they’d gaze into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes.  People reported that at the end of the experiment, they felt as close to the stranger in the lab as they did to their family and closest friends.

Now, Aron says that “the goal of our procedure was to develop a temporary feeling of closeness, not an actual ongoing relationship.”  However, one of the couples who met in the lab married a year later, and so the legendary status of this list of questions was born!

You’ve already got an actual, ongoing relationship, so I just wonder what it would be like if you tried the same list of questions in that context?

I don’t think it would hurt, and it seems like the questions might fit with several of Gottman’s principles like shared love maps, turning toward, and shared meaning.  #22 might even help with fondness and admiration.  Who knows?  It’s just an experiment!  Try it and see!

Here are Aron’s 36 original questions.

Set I

  1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
  3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
  4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
  5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
  6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
  7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
  8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
  9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
  10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
  11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
  12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

Set II

  1. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
  2. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  3. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  4. What do you value most in a friendship?
  5. What is your most treasured memory?
  6. What is your most terrible memory?
  7. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
  8. What does friendship mean to you?
  9. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
  10. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
  11. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
  12. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?


  1. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
  2. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
  3. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
  4. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
  5. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
  6. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
  7. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
  8. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
  9. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
  10. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
  11. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
  12. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

Once you’ve asked and answered all the questions, don’t forget to gaze into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes.

And, for good measure, there’s one more Gottman technique:  the six-second kiss!

Give all that a try, and let me know what you think!

Photo Credit (changes made)

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

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)



Let Earth Receive


Let’s just go ahead and say this right out loud:  when you live overseas, Christmas can be really hard.

It’s hard to be away from family and friends.  That’s the big one.  It’s the season of Together, and you’re not.

In addition, the carols are sung to the wrong tune, spiral-sliced honey ham does not exist, and the advent candles melted into a puddle.

Our family has been reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever for 14 straight years now.  Wherever we’ve been–beach, mountains, home, abroad—we’ve read aloud the story of the craziest kids on earth who infiltrate the local church’s Christmas pageant and turn it on its head.

I think the reason our family loves this story so much is that it’s about outsiders, and expectations, and about how it feels to have everything be all wrong for Christmas, only to have it turn out to be all right.

Which is, when you think about it, the real story anyway:  everything is so wrong, and we are in so much trouble.  We can’t save ourselves, so Love is coming to do the job for us.

That’s why I think it’s okay for us to just tell the truth this holiday season.

Whatever the sadness, the failure, the disappointment, the loss:  we don’t need to pretend, because Love is coming to be with us, to comfort us, to keep us all through the night.

The whole point of Christmas is this:  Emmanuel.  God with us.

God with us, not just with other people—the people who are poorer, needier, more messed up.

I think us do-gooder types are great minimizers of our own pain and needs.

God wants to be with us, and we’re immediately pointing out all the places where he’s more necessary than with us

But here’s the deal.

God is with us, because he loves us with an everlasting love and our names are written in the palms of his hands.  Because even if a nursing mother could forget her child, He cannot forget us.

Emmanuel–God with us–because we need him so very badly, and he loves us so very much.

And unless we allow God to be profoundly with us, we will have nothing of value to share with anyone else.

We have to fully receive before we can freely give.

And this is the gift:  God with us.

For the failures, mistakes, and regrets of this past year:  God with us. 

For the uncertainty, anxiety, and mountains to be climbed ahead:  God with us.

For the limits we will reach, and the wandering we will endure:  God with us.

For the rest that we need, for the restoration that can’t come fast enough:  God with us.

For the tears and the trials, for the comfort and the carrying:  God with us.

This is the green pasture.

This is the cool water.

This is the rest for all of our souls:  God with us.

Receive and receive and receive, my friends.

There is no limit.  There is no end.

There is this fountain, always enough:  God with us.

Three simple steps toward receiving

  1. Take time: 20 minutes per day to journal
  2. Identify the need: name emotions (sad, mad, scared, glad), events, worries, etc.
  3. Invite God in: ask for healing, comfort, strength, wisdom, provision, change, redemption

Journaling doesn’t have to be well-thought-out paragraphs.  It can be just words, ideas, phrases—whatever comes to mind.  Check out for ideas.

What’s the truth for you this holiday season?

What are the real emotions, the deep needs, the heart-felt longings?

Where do you need Emmanuel more than ever before?

What stops you from receiving what you need?


Ask A Counselor: Do I need counseling?

photo credit: eflon

Welcome to the first in a new series here at A Life Overseas:  Ask A Counselor!

(It sounds kind of like a game show title.  I feel like there should be flashing lights and funky music.)

Let me tell you just a little bit about myself before we get started this first time.  I’m 48 and have been married to my husband Andy for 27 years.  We have four children, a daughter (25), and three sons (23, 20, 18).  Andy and I are both Third Culture Kids.  Andy was raised in Nepal, Papua New Guinea, and the wilds of North Carolina, while I’ve got Brasil, Nigeria, and Kentucky in my blood.  We met in college, got married, and hot-footed it back overseas as fast as we could go.

We worked on a New Testament translation in the Solomon Islands from 1993-2005.  During those years, Andy medicated his stress with a pornography habit while I suffered from severe anxiety and depression.  I’ve written about this in a memoir called As Soon As I Fell.  After recovery, we lived in Papua New Guinea for a couple of years, and now we’re in the Dallas area.

When we moved back to Dallas, I went back to school for a Masters in counseling.   These days, I’m in private practice.  I really enjoy working with adolescents as well as adults, but if you need couples counseling, I’ll refer you to someone else.  “One at a time, please” is my counseling mantra.

(Here’s a link to my website, where you can read more if you like.)

A while back, some of you wrote in with questions, and I thought I would start with a cluster of questions about counseling in general.

Missionary friends have been asking me this question for years:  “Do I need counseling?”

After hearing this question repeatedly and answering it repeatedly, I finally realized this.

If you’re asking this question, the answer is always YES.

Here’s why:  if you’re just going through life and everything’s dandy, you won’t be asking this question.  It won’t cross your mind!  It’s only when things start to get hairy that you realize (rightly so) that you might need help.

Now, maybe you can wait until your next scheduled visit to your passport country.  Or maybe you need to get help sooner, rather than later.

Here’s the next question: how do you know WHEN you need help?

That decision, I think, is based on your level of FUNCTIONING.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • How are my relationships? 
    • Causes for concern:  lots of conflict, ongoing isolation, a sense of disconnection from others
  • How am I functioning at work?
    • Causes for concern:  frustration, boredom, over-work, putting work above family needs
  • How am I sleeping?
    • Causes for concern:  sleeping too much or too little, insomnia, waking at night, nightmares
  • How am I eating?
    • Causes for concern:  eating too much or too little, being obsessed with food or exercise
  • How is my mood?
    • Causes for concern:  outbursts of emotion (anger, crying, anxiety), numb or shut down
  • How functional is my daily life?
    • Causes for concern:  unwanted habits or addictions, inability to accomplish normal tasks

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, ask a friend.  (See, told you it was like a game show!)  Get feedback.  And listen to the feedback.  It’s not easy to say hard things to other people, so if somebody cares enough to tell you hard things, pay attention.

Now, everybody can have a bad day.  I myself, living in suburbia, have bad days.  The problem is, if all the bad days are getting strung together without a lot of good days in between, that might be a problem.

So if I’m having trouble sleeping, I’m drinking 5 Cokes a day to stay awake, if my marriage is unhappy, if my children are not doing well, if I’m spending 50-plus hours a week working while feeling like nothing is ever good enough for my supporters who don’t pay me enough of a salary to live off of anyway—then I’d say functioning is on the decline.

If you’re not functioning well, you’ll probably be asking this question:

How do I get counseling overseas?

I personally think that it’s hard to get good counseling overseas.  Your options are limited. Even if you have a local counselor, that person may or may not be a good fit for you.

(How do you know if the counselor is a good fit?  You’ll LIKE the person and feel SAFE with them.  It’s really just that simple.)

You can try Skype or phone counseling, but I find that dynamic to be more a consultation than therapy.  You may get good direction and find good resources via distance counseling, but there’s something healing about being in a room with the real, live person.  Just think about how different it is to talk with your mom on the phone vs. seeing her in person after years away.  Therapy is like that, too.  At its best, it should be a very personal, intimate relationship, which I think is best accomplished face-to-face.

Another complication with therapy overseas is that you’re still living in the stressful situation.  Nobody does therapy on the battlefield, because there’s a job that takes priority over the wellbeing of the soldier.  A counselor friend of mine who worked overseas for years said, “Really, the only thing I could do was triage.”

We tend to run on adrenaline, and to not feel how bad it is, while we’re in the situation. Then when we arrive in our passport countries, there are a million other things that take priority over recovery.  It seems like there’s never a time to treat the wounds until they are absolutely septic.

This is a sad, terrible, long-standing pattern in mission work that needs to CHANGE, but I believe that the only way it will change is when individual missionaries start taking responsibility for their own well-being.

It would be nice if your home church would take this on for you, but I don’t see it happening.  It would be nice if your mission board provided great services for you, but again, not a thing I see a lot of.  There are good intentions in lots of places, but extremely weak follow-through.

In the end, you will be responsible for locating and accessing the resources for your own emotional and spiritual care, and you need to be prepared to do so.

Here’s what I wish every missionary would do.

Establish a relationship with the counselor of your choice before going overseas.  Get some recommendations from your church or from friends.  Talk to a few counselors on the phone.  Go visit one or two, until you find someone you like.

Go to several (6-10?) counseling sessions, so that you and your therapist know each other well, and you feel like you’ve processed through your backlog of issues.

Stay in touch with your counselor while overseas, via Skype, phone, and/or email.

Go back to see your therapist every time you’re in your passport country.

Here’s a place you can check for counselors who get it:  International Therapist Directory

What challenges do you face when it comes to good self-care?

What resources have you found helpful?

What questions would you like to see addressed in future Ask A Counselor columns?

Photo credit: Eflon/Flickr/Creative Commons

the gift of a voice

“I feel awful.  Something inside me is squeezing me so bad I can hardly breathe.”

With those first words of Letters Never Sent, Ruth Van Reken spoke straight to my TCK heart.  It was 1988, I was a senior in college, the book was brand-new, and for the first time in my life, somebody besides me was willing to say that being a TCK was not all about climbing up sunshine mountain.

By the time I read Letters, I was already married to another TCK and we were well on our way to our own overseas career in Bible translation.  My own experience, confirmed by Letters and by the quiet conversations I had with other TCK’s I met, made me absolutely determined to care for my children and their emotions carefully and attentively, to minimize the damage that previous generations of TCK’s had endured.

When that great revelation of research by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, Third Culture Kids, was published in 1999, I practically memorized chapter 13 on transition.  I could recite the RAFT model for family transition in my sleep.  Over a 15-year period, we RAFTed religiously from the Solomon Islands to Papua New Guinea to America and back again.  In one particularly hellish phase, we moved internationally 5 times in 3 years, and two of those were crisis moves, as in, “You have 15 minutes to leave the country.  Go.”

I was trying so hard to make it okay for my kids, to support Andy in the translation project, to be the teacher to four grade levels and four temperaments, to be the family doctor, therapist, Sunday school teacher and chief logistics officer for whatever happened to be happening.

Meanwhile, I was spiraling down, down, down into depression, feeling like I was the only one struggling, because everybody else looked so happy on their prayer cards.  I didn’t know that Andy was addictively looking at pornography while we all smiled for our prayer cards.

The Big Crash came in 2003, with two years of intensive recovery following.  We went back overseas for a while, then moved back to Dallas permanently in 2007.  I went off to grad school for a masters in counseling, and started a little blog to pass the time during the never ending story of my internship.

On the blog, I started to put out little bits and pieces of our story, and every single time I did, someone would write to me and say, “Thank you for saying that!  I thought I was the only one!”

I started to realize that there was not really a voice for this story:  a story about depression and despair and recovery in a mission setting.  It was, however, a story that resonated with a lot of people, even people who weren’t missionaries.


This past year, I got my story into book form and self-published.

My intention in writing this book was to pass along the gift that Ruth Van Reken gave to me:  the gift of a voice, of community, of hope on the long road Home. 

So, if depression and despair and healing and redemption sound like things you’d be up for reading about, it’s your lucky day!  As Soon As I Fell is available in Kindle format and in paperback at Amazon, and if you buy the paperback, you get the Kindle version for free.  That’s so you can share and still have a copy to keep.  (p.s Did you know that you don’t have to own a Kindle to read Kindle ebooks? Amazon has free apps for smartphones and computers.)