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Psychologist Explains the RM "Awkward Phase"

Readjusting to Post-Mission Life

"She's still adjusting." "He's caught in that awkward, post-missionary phase." "She just needs a little more time to normalize."  We've all heard these comments about returned missionaries.  Many of us have probably made them.  And many of us were probably the missionaries being talked about.

There's no doubt about it, returned missionaries carry with them that lingering feeling of something being slightly askew--a post-mission "awkward factor" that friends and family can't help but notice.  While it's funny to tease or joke about, there's very little funny about actually experiencing these awkward and sometimes painful adjustments as a returned missionary.  

But, for future and current returned missionaries, it's important to realize that the post-mission "awkward factor" is quite normal.  Healthy even.

BYU Professor of Psychology, Dr. Ed Gantt, answered five crucial questions every returned missionary faces in this post-mission phase--answers that provide insight into the psychological and spiritual adjustments returned missionaries face and offer advice for how to emerge from these changes stronger than before.  Be sure to check out Dr. Gantt's inspiring insights below.

How does your mind cope with big life changes, like returning home from a mission? 

"Human beings like stability and routine.  Even the most adventurous and spontaneous of us still rely pretty heavily on having an ordered and structured life.  Serving as a full-time missionary involves a tremendous amount of routine and structure.  Having that structure dramatically and suddenly changed can be very disorienting.  In the midst of major life and lifestyle changes, we look for some stability, something firm or constant to hang on to.  Missionaries who come home and have nothing to “jump right into” that will provide some structure and direction, often experience the transition from missionary life to member life to be most difficult and confusing." 

What are some of the “side effects” or challenges missionaries can expect when they return home? 

"There are many challenges that missionaries face in coming home and making the transition to post-mission life.  For example, coming face-to-face with the sense that you’re not as important anymore as you used to be, that what you are doing is “ordinary” and not special.  Missionaries are repeatedly taught – and have been taught since they were small children – that being a missionary is one of the most important things they can do and that full-time commitment to the service of the Lord is the sort of thing that makes a huge difference in the lives of others.  Being a missionary often involves the sense that what one is doing from moment to moment, day to day has really profound eternal consequences, and that one is being counted on by the Lord to do the right thing all the time so that people’s lives can be changed and souls can be saved.  

'Once you get home, however, that sense that what you do has that level of importance in people’s lives and in the grand eternal scheme of things tends to pretty quickly fall away.  You no longer have a special title that everyone calls you by; you’re no longer wearing a suit and tie (or a dress) every day; there’s no name tag anymore.  It’s pretty easy to feel like you no longer matter very much.  Of course, it is not true that what you are doing in your post-mission life isn’t as important as what you were doing as a missionary, but it’s easy to be seduced into thinking this given that we as a Church often don’t do much to ensure that the transition is smooth and that returning missionaries develop a new sense of being needed to replace that they had as full-time missionaries." 

In your opinion, what is the best way to deal with these challenges? 

"I would say that it is absolutely vital that returned missionaries continue to keep routine and structure in their lives.  They need to be anxiously engaged in getting on with their new lives:  get a job, go to school, continue to be actively involved in your ward, etc.  

'Additionally, keep your mission standards – even if not the exact daily schedule and dress code.  That is, continue to study your scriptures daily, continue to pray, attend the temple as often as possible, do your home and visiting teaching with the same concern and desire you had working with investigators in the mission field.  There is a reason that missionaries feel such a spiritual high while serving missions, and there is also a very clear reason why that feeling diminishes or disappears once they return home and are released.  

'If you want to continue to experience the sorts of miracles and blessings and companionship of the Holy Ghost that you experienced as a missionary, you have to continue to do many of the things you did as a missionary.  Of course, it is important not to try to pretend you are still a full-time missionary, set apart for that purpose – that, too, can lead to frustration and confusion.  Nonetheless, you can continue to strive daily for the presence of the Spirit in your life even as you get about getting on with your life plan and a new set of daily challenges that come with being a member of the Church."

What (if any) psychological side effects could a missionary have after they return home?

"On the whole, it is normal to feel “out of sorts,” as well as to feel some “let down” – for some of the reasons I mentioned above.  It’s even normal to feel a little discouraged or disappointed – after all, missionaries often generate some really high (even unrealistic) expectations for what life is going to be like post-mission, only to find out that things don’t turn out quite like they thought they would – especially when they find themselves not feeling the spirit as much, or finding that they can’t share some of their sacred experiences with others as freely as they could in the mission field, or realizing that there isn’t always someone else there with you 24-7 to help you make decisions, cheer you up, remind you of common purpose, etc."

Is there any advice or anything else you would like to tell returned missionaries? 

"There are many things I would suggest, but I will try to keep it brief and focused.

'First, don’t be in such a hurry to reacquaint yourself with the world, to catch up on the latest music, see the latest movies, and so on.  You’ve spent 18-24 months fasting from such things, and the result has been a spiritual uplift and clarity of purpose you most likely have never experienced before.  Continue to do the sorts of things that helped you achieve that uplift, to feel the presence of the spirit and to know your standing before God.  

'It’s alright – even necessary – to work your way back into the world and resume hanging out with friends, going on dates, working at a job where you may be surrounded by those who do not share your values and standards, etc., but you don’t need to be in a hurry to do all of these things.  Continue to rise early, study the scriptures, practice your language (if you had to learn one on your mission), pray frequently, and search out opportunities for service.  

'You’re no longer a full-time missionary, so of course you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking you are one by continuing to spend every day going on splits with the missionaries in your hometown.  However, you also aren’t the same person you were before your mission, so don’t fool yourself into thinking you are by just returning to living the sort of lifestyle you did prior to your mission.  

'Second, and just as important, always remember that no transition in life is easy or without challenge.  As a missionary, the challenges you faced in the mission field (e.g., difficult investigators, troublesome companions, learning a difficult language, etc.) likely were actually blessings that helped you grow in your relationship with the Lord, especially as you sought Him out for guidance and strength.  Making the transition from full-time missionary to “ordinary” member of the Church is likely to present some real challenges.  You need to be ready for such challenges, and you need to use what you learned as a missionary about how best to face such challenges so that you can navigate them effectively and not lose heart or focus."

For more on this topic, check out "Especially for LDS Missionaries: How to Transition to Post-mission Life."