Kicking Off Those Ill-Fitting Shoes

I feel like everyone is watching me.

It is as if every area of my life has now become a topic for judgement. What stores do I shop at? Wouldn’t it be better to shop at the open market? My parenting, my language, my cooking (I mean, do you eat the national food or not and how often?), my furniture, my pets and whether or not I have AC units in my home have all become added pressures that leave me feeling like a failure.

I am having to re-learn who I am in this new context, with these new pressures, as my foundation shakes beneath me.

Am I doing this right?

Am I hardcore enough?

Am I failing?

I am finding that this pursuit and need I have for acceptance leads me to hide myself. I don’t want to talk too much or reveal too much to those around me, whether to teammates, nationals or fellow expats, in fear of rejection and disapproval, I try to hide my opinions and feelings, even from myself, and it has left me asking the question:

Who am I?

Who we are matters! It matters because God has chosen to use our lives, as unique and different as they are, to reveal himself to the world. God has given to us a history, he has given to us a story, he has given to us conviction, he has given to us personality and who we are is so intrinsically tied to his purposes.

Yet here on the field, it becomes easy to believe that there is the perfect way to live and reach people in our unique contexts. We either believe that we hold the key to cultural contextualization or we attempt to alter our life to fit into another expat’s mold. One size fits all. But if we spend our lives trying to fit into someone else’s ill-fitting shoes we will be disappointed because God didn’t make us someone we are not.

We are to be a witness of Christ in the truth of who we are. It is through the revelation of God’s grace and work in us, that others see Christ Jesus for what he brings. Much like the woman at the well in John 4, whose city believed because of her personal interaction with Christ’s grace, we also must bear witness to Christ for what grace we have experienced first-hand. It wasn’t in spite of who she was that her testimony bore witness to Christ but because of who she was that her testimony bore such a powerful witness of grace and love.

Don’t hide yourself like I have, if you hide yourself, you hide Christ also. Remember, your life is not your own, it belongs to Christ to use as he designed it. He doesn’t expect you to be someone you are not, in fact, he loves you to be exactly as he made you.

I’m finding that the only way that I can release myself from the pressure of living in and for the expectations of others is by accepting who I am, as I am, as a woman that God has made and chosen for a specific purpose. I am to be just as he has created me and chosen me to be.

In this process of accepting myself for who God made me to be, I can then extend acceptance and affirmation to those around me whose ideas, convictions and personalities differ (or conflict) with mine. It’s not a competition. We each have our part to play in God’s work to bring his own to himself. It is an essential part, one that he chose us to play, and built us to accomplish.

Have you found yourself hiding bits of who you are to fit in?

What do we do or say to others that perpetuates the judgement cycle?

How can we break that cycle?


  1. Laura July 13, 2016

    Joy, I can relate. In fact, even in reentry, I find myself hiding aspects of who I am in order for others to like me. Thanks so much for this great post!

    1. Joy Smalley July 14, 2016

      Hi Laura, I’m so glad that it resonated with you. It’s always nice to know I am not alone!

  2. elizabeth July 14, 2016

    “the pressure of living in and for the expectations of others”
    “I feel like everyone is watching me.”

    Joy, the above quotes reflect our perceptions of others that may or may not be actual facts. In my experience with ill-fitting shoes, it has been my own false expectations and fears that have stopped me from kicking them off, not the expectations of others (particularly my overseas worker colleagues).

    Thank you for your thought-provoking article.

    1. Joy Smalley July 14, 2016

      Hi Elizabeth, I totally agree that I often struggle to meet the expectations that I perceive others to have of me as opposed to those that have actually been spoken (although some are). I think the expectations that I place on myself are the hardest for me to throw off because they are based on what I actually believe a “good” wife, mother, woman etc. ought to be and the expectations are so ingrained in me….it’s hard.

  3. Kim July 14, 2016

    Hi Joy- I definitely can relate to what you are saying. And really, your words trudge up so many thoughts, feelings, and emotions I had our first two years in India. I already had a lot of baggage in the “who am I?” department before we arrived, and the move overseas only intensified things. And I’m sure I did myself no favors verbally processing those stressful first years with practically everyone I met. Seriously. What was I thinking? It has taken me years to realize who is safe and who isn’t and that I am always in process, so what works one day may not work the next and that’s totally ok.

    Thanks you for sharing this today 🙂

    1. Joy Smalley July 14, 2016

      Hi Kim!
      I have so much “who am I” baggage too! I was a little relieved to hear that you also struggled with these issues your first two years in India. I’m still a relative newbie to living overseas as an adult and am really striving to embrace who I am . We are all indeed in process 🙂 I like what you said, that what may work one day may not work the next, it allows for so much grace, no just for ourselves, but for others too.

  4. Sarah Crickenberger July 14, 2016

    This is exactly what God has been teaching me this year and is so appropriately-worded. When I first came to Honduras five years ago, because I was so young and came by myself as a single person and not part of even any team, it was so easy to just discard much of my passport country identity and jump in to be the most Honduran I could. I don’t regret that because it’s given me a depth of understanding of and function in the culture that I may not have had otherwise. But, over the past couple years, especially in realizing a desperate need for real, deep relationships, God’s really been dealing with me on the concept that for anyone to be fully loved, he/she must be fully known. I definitely identify with hiding parts of myself to better fit in–mainly just because I didn’t want to risk rejection (again) or challenge many religious/cultural viewpoints. But, in losing myself completely through assimilation, I also was losing the very message that God sent me to be. And what it all boils down to is that security in who we are in Him–not through what we do, how well we assimilate or speak the language, etc. For the first time in a long time, I finally feel like I have something unique to offer those around me, and while they may not understand parts of me or accept all of my message at first, even just the bravery to challenge them is work that God is doing in their hearts. I live in a country where no one trusts anyone because of many social issues–gang violence, corruption, drug problems, etc. And, I am finding that in being the most transparent, real, and secure person I can be, God is actually unlocking secret places in people’s hearts and memories, places where the enemy has placed many lies about their self-worth, and is restoring them by giving them an example of the freedom they can have in just being known completely. As cross-cultural workers, we often have no problems taking big risks in terms of language, safety, travel, etc. But, I think the greatest risk that actually also gives the greatest reward is when we lay down our agenda of what we think our ministry is and just allow who we are–flaws and all–to be the ministry.

    1. Joy Smalley July 15, 2016

      I loved reading your story Sarah, it is so encouraging to see how God has revealed himself to others through your transparency. So cool! I like what you said about how to be fully loved we need to be fully known…that is such a good word for me, I appreciate that a lot. Thank you!

  5. Ruth July 15, 2016

    This is so good. So very true.
    I fall into both dangers, putting my expectations on others and at the same time feeling the pressure of people judging my choices.
    So glad there’s always more grace, for all of us.t
    Thanks so much!

    1. Joy Smalley July 15, 2016

      Hi Ruth,
      I fall into both those categories too and am also so grateful that God’s grace never runs out!

  6. Laura r July 15, 2016

    Oh my heart.
    Like Laura I am finding this to be a struggle in re-entry as well. I’m finding myself in a place where I’m needing healing as a result of how damaging hiding major parts of myself has been.
    Another component (maybe?) I am working through as well is the thought of submitting/coming under the authority of leadership vs people pleasing. I suppose what I’m trying to say is something along the lines of learning to live out what I belive to be my unique calling from God – and not needing to feel shame or ‘bad’ when that does not or cannot line up with the calling others would like me to have, perceived or verbalized.
    As I’m moving forward I find myself wanting to ask other peoples’ permission for each step; struggling greatly with walking into things based only on the facts that i have some inkling of the natural step and, perhaps even more importantly that I have been given the PERMISSION TO LOVE. Knowing that even in these steps I will get somethings wrong (everyone does,right?) and in that I will still display a need for mercy and grace.
    I’m sometimes so surprised by my own need for the gospel. Oh, the pride! Yet,again this is linked to my need to people please- if I’d just get it right in the first place I’d please people. However life has taught me that it’s not possible to please everyone all of the time. *sigh*
    So for me I’m finding that the need to please others is so deeply linked to some other beliefs I have held (perhaps subconciously) for quite some time. Opening myself up to have these false beliefs rooted out feels so arduous at times but the freedom that it has brought is full of BEAUTY.

    1. Joy Smalley July 16, 2016

      Hi Laura,

      Shame is so convoluted, isn’t it? It can be consuming. I resonated with what you said about having to ask permission before making decisions, I tend to do the same and, in this quest I am on to define myself, I am trying to make those decisions on my own. Easier said than done but I’m learning 🙂 It is a huge grace that we have the gospel as our foundation to rest on as we move forward. Blessings!

  7. Elise July 15, 2016

    This is so good. It is right where I am right now and it was so nice to be able to read about someone else walking this and knowing I’m not alone, or crazy. Thank you for putting words to this. I will keep it to read and re-read.

    1. Joy Smalley July 16, 2016

      Thank you Elise! You are definitely not alone in this and I am blessed to hear that it resonated with you.

  8. Anna August 11, 2016

    I can relate to the struggle you describe. I love the analogy of ill-fitting shoes. How often do I look at other people, and think I need to be more like them? Too often. It can be a balancing act to respect cultural differences, but still be who God wants us to be. I constantly remind myself that no culture is perfect, and we wouldn’t be where we are if that culture was right about everything. The brokenness is the reason they need God as a culture. But on the other hand, my brokenness makes me need God, so I have to stay open to areas where I might be wrong.

    I have gone to an extreme of withdrawing (hiding) from the subculture of an overseas worker team, but that’s not healthy either. Slowly, I’m learning to navigate all of this. I think a big part for me is keeping my identity rooted in God. It’s too easy to let other’s approval- or lack thereof- influence the way I see myself.. I remember that I am a dearly loved daughter of God through all of it. 🙂

    1. Joy Smalley August 11, 2016

      Hi Anna,

      I agree that it is a balancing act as we learn to differentiate between losing who we are and adapting to our environment and no culture (or person) is perfect. One of the things that I love about living cross-culturally is the opportunity to have our foundation shaken to the point where we are forced to ask the question, “who am I?”, and it is an answer that only God can give. For me it has been an opportunity to see myself in a more pure or base form as I remove myself from the cultural expectations of others.

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