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Author Archives: Carrie Talbott

Corner Office Syndrome: Lonely at the Top

A few years ago I reported the results of a missionary survey I did and was surprised by their answers. (Especially when they matched mine.)

With global loneliness at an all-time high, I thought I’d take a closer look into the phenomenon where some people might not look.

The old cliché, “It’s lonely at the top” rings loud and true… 92% of missionaries I interviewed said yes to this question:

Do you ever suffer from Corner Office Syndrome? (Knowing a ton of people but not having any real friends.)

Photo by Britain Eriksen on Unsplash


“Totally. I have lots of friends on Facebook, but nobody checks on me; I always have to reach out. It’s hard to converse about life since my life looks so different now.”

“Yes. I often feel like I don’t fit anywhere.”

“Didn’t even know it had a name, but it’s something I’ve struggled with ever since being on the field.”

“Yes! The highest price I paid in becoming a missionary was in relationships. That surprised me.”

“Our ministry houses 1,000 short-term mission trip visitors annually. That’s 1,000 times you meet someone, answer the same questions, hear the same jokes, and tell the same story. It’s exhausting and lonely sometimes. I almost feel like I live in a petting zoo.”

———

Since Corner Office Syndrome does not discriminate, plenty of other people can fall into this category too: pastors, pastors’ wives, CEOs, principals, founders, celebrities, etc.

My husband and I dealt with this over the years, but in two different directions. The first came when Americans in our ministry said they were intimidated by me the first time we met. I cringed at the idea, so I asked, “Why? What did I do to make you feel that way?”

“Nothing—it’s just because you were the director’s wife.”

Felt pretty unfair to me. They didn’t even give me a chance to not be intimidating. Then I realized I did that to pastors’ wives all the time. I did it to speakers too. And worship leaders. And directors. And founders. I always thought, “Oh, I don’t want to bother her.” “He seems really busy.” “They already juggle a million people; I’m sure they don’t need another friend.”

But if everyone thought that, then no one would ever say hi to her. No one would ask how he’s doing. No one would give the compliment they’re thinking, or share what something they heard meant to them. 

And those bosses, leaders, and captains might continue feeling lonely at the top, all because of their stupid titles. 

Caste Aside

It’s not a secret there’s a caste system in India. I couldn’t believe an unspoken one existed in Mexico too. In my naivety, I assumed skin color didn’t matter, but when we moved to Baja, a few major differences became clear.

In Mexico, the lighter your skin, the more you’re revered. Those who had the darkest skin usually came from lower-class towns. Most only went through the 6th grade, and they worked in the fields like their parents and grandparents. Growers, harvesters, pickers, farmers… even if everyone agreed they were crucial to the economy, most also agreed they were looked down upon by society. 

Missionaries from different countries become part of this societal makeup too. Being some of the only Americans in the area caused us to feel like plugs to resources instead of normal people with relational needs and wants. We were ostracized because of our status.

But not in a terrible way like the field workers—more like a subtle ignored way from the masses. I am well aware these are not equal, and I would never compare our situation of being ignored to someone being shunned because of skin color. 

But being ostracized because people think you’re too wealthy, too American, and too educated can sideline you before you even try. In a similar way, this meant we were constantly asked for money, resources, time, etc., but rarely ever got invited to birthday parties or into people’s homes just to hang out. 

In twelve years of living there, our family was never asked out to a restaurant. But we quickly learned why: doesn’t matter where you’re from or who you are… in Mexico, you invite, you pay. 

Much to our surprise, we became lonely because of our status. It didn’t make any sense to me at the time, but I finally figured it out.

If Bono moved in next door, I wouldn’t run over and try to be friends. Politely waving from the front yard and saying hi at the mailbox seems appropriate; any more might feel intrusive. I would assume he already had an arsenal of friends, a jam-packed schedule, and no need for more small talk.

But what if Bono was lonely? What if Robin Williams was lonely? Can you imagine if all they wanted was a friend to ask them how they were doing instead of asking for a photo, or an autograph, or tickets?

Friends?

Most missionaries we know tend to have a large number of contacts. They also tend to be looked up to, often in unhealthy ways. Unfortunately, especially where we lived, Americans visiting from the States meant one thing: donations arrived. But Americans who lived in Mexico meant some locals had a constant connection to the perceived wealth of the good ‘ole U.S. of A. They had an inroads to more help, larger donations, paid bills, etc. 

Sadly, this meant we wondered if friendships were legit. A few genuine people came around on a regular basis and we became true friends. They never asked us for anything, and we never felt used. 

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash


But a large majority only came around when they had a need. Which seems like it would be an acceptable relationship if we were there as typical missionaries, but our Gap-year ministry wasn’t typical. And at the end of long days with college freshmen, broken water pumps, and stolen catalytic converters, it would have been nice to have people knock on the gate merely to say hi. 

Wah. Get over yourself, gringa. 

So yes, our Friday nights usually involved just the four of us. And our Saturday nights did too. No biggie when our niños were young, but when our oldest became a teenager, his social life mostly revolved around school. So when some middle schoolers were roaming the streets late at night, ours was home playing Jenga. Or Uno Attack. Or poker with a chocolate chip payout. 

We made the most of it by bonding over board games and movie nights, grateful our kids didn’t notice too much, probably because they didn’t know the difference. When my husband and I reflect on our social life down there, especially during the last three years without students, the loneliness felt real. Sometimes it pushed us toward each other more, sometimes toward our relationship with the Lord, sometimes toward periods of rest. 

Based on our personal experience and my survey of fellow missionaries, I am more certain than ever that being a missionary comes with a social cost. Dealing with Corner Office Syndrome felt like a cross between annoying and disconcerting. Although our income fell below the poverty line in America, compared to most people in our area, we were wealthy. This privilege brought its own challenges, but we know God gave us that mission for a purpose. 

So even though we felt challenged by the social awkwardness, we reaped positive benefits we probably wouldn’t have experienced if we hadn’t left our cushy life in The States. The loneliness brought more quality time with our kids, and the inexpensive restaurants allowed for more date nights with amazing food. 

It also pushed us to look at how we saw ourselves as Americans. We couldn’t control the fact that we were born in the U.S. We walk through life with skin we didn’t choose either, and we make choices everyday about what we’re going to do with our privilege. 

Let’s take the focus off ourselves, shake the funk, and make 2021 a year of intentionality. I’m starting today by checking in on our missionaries. For you it could be your pastor, the director of a ministry, or a friend who’s a CEO. 

Leaders in corner offices get lonely too. Let’s be encouragers!

Talk to me. Have you gone beyond your comfort zone and reached out to someone in a higher position?

If you’re in a higher position, what have you done to break free from (or make the most of) your Corner Office Syndrome?

Tell me in the comments; I reply to every single one.

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All I Want for Christmas is a Book. And Baby Yoda.

If Christmas prep has you clicking your orders more than shopping in stores, this post is for you.  Check out these popular, high-ranking books for everyone on your mostly-always-nice list. Or buy them for yourself and call it a day. Merry Christmas to you! (Happy Reminder: when you purchase from my links, Amazon throws me… Continue Reading

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Simple Thanksgiving: Goodies to Keep it Basic

Raise your hand if you’re tired. Same here. And yet, most of us want a cozy space and a fun Turkey Day, so we press on. Here are a few items to bring the Thanksgiving spirit, help you keep the kids out of the kitchen while the goodness cooks, and usher in rad memories.  Click… Continue Reading

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Kicked Out of El Banco: When Rejection Strikes

A few years into Baja living, my husband learned to roll with the inconvenient punches, knew exactly how to pay all the bills in person, and understood the cultural norms.  But of all the places we visited in the city, going to a Mexican bank never felt fun.  Funky restaurants? Yes. The Italian gelato shop? Always. The… Continue Reading

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I Got Laid Off, He Got The Rona: 5 Things We Did to Recover

After a rough July and August, I put all my hope in the September basket that life would mellow out. But in the first week of the new month, I got laid off from my job and our oldest son got you-know-what. When he first came home from an afternoon of swimming, eating too much,… Continue Reading

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Optimists and Their Kryptonite: Why Blowing Sunshine Doesn’t Always Work

Just because I normally see my kombucha bottle as half full doesn’t mean I don’t get sad when it’s empty.  A large portion of optimists I know tend to be funny, super friendly, or both. One friend said she’s the funniest on social media when she’s depressed or going through muck.  Another posts closeup pics… Continue Reading

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Goin’ to the Marketplace to OfferUp Stuff: Tips for Selling Good Junk Online

“How much for this?” “Ten dollars. It’s real silver.” “Will you take two?” Garage sale offers like this always made me want to blurt, “Two what? Two goats? Two crates of eggs? Two dozen avocados? No. I said ten. Not ten shillings, not ten pesos, ten dollars.” “How about five?” And ‘round and ‘round we’d… Continue Reading

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Fun Mother’s Day Gift Ideas

Besides the fact that Mother’s Day is definitely not canceled this year, most moms I know need a little boost. From more cooking and creativity to more discipline and boredom busters, quarantine fatigue is real, y’all.  But just because our great-grandmas might have wanted rose perfume and lace aprons doesn’t mean we do. Fun gifts… Continue Reading

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Mexican Manna: Do You Know What You Need?

In case you’re considering launching a cross-cultural ministry, organic enterprise or local venture, here are two things I wish someone would have told me before our family took off for the great unknown.  Buckle up—they’re both extremely complex and ridiculously basic: Humans will disappoint you.God will provide for you. On some level, I already knew… Continue Reading

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Boring Testimonies: No Drama Necessary

My second boyfriend acted like a goody-two-shoes, but mostly wasn’t. My third boyfriend had a long scar on his face. I never asked why. My fifth boyfriend lived in a group home and wasn’t that into… talking.  My sixth got kicked out of school, but I don’t remember why. My husband tells stories of his… Continue Reading

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