Most people have a really hard time asking for help. I was one of these people. It was far more natural to be in a position to helping others, than to ask for help myself. I was a lifelong chronic caregiver. This all changed after a breast cancer diagnosis when I was 33 years old, and struggled to balance surgery, treatment and healing while mothering a small child and staying afloat financially.
The first reason it’s so hard to ask for help is that we have deep seated SHAME around the idea of needing help. Being vulnerable and needy is generally looked down upon, while independence, strength, stamina and stoicism have been more highly valued in our society. The message is overt in how we reward leadership, ingenuity, courage, competition and stamina in sports, education and industry. When in a time of crisis or need, we are afraid of what this says about us as members of society, that we are somehow flawed if we appear fragile or vulnerable.
Author and Social Work researcher, Dr. Brené Brown, in her work on Shame Resilience Theory wrote, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnect.”
The reality is that most of us will at one time or another be faced with some kind of trial, a period of darkness where the body or the mind will fail us. Accidents happen. Illness happens. We have family members and friends who may experience their own hardships, and require us to step up as caregivers. You might have a child who gets sick or is born with special needs. You might find yourself caring for an aging parent who becomes ill. Even in the well adjusted adult, unmanaged stress can lead to anxiety and depression. Turn on the news or the weather channel and you realize there are endless ways for us to unexpectedly find ourselves in a time of crisis.
Another reason people don’t want to reach out for help is that there is a fear of rejection, or concern that they will be a burden on others. Inside the mind is that alarming question, “What if they say no?” Before even asking for help, the brain throws up screeching brakes, offering up a convincing story about what will happen if we do ask for help. The ancient fight-or-flight limbic system of the brain has us hard wired for a negativity bias. We survived and evolved through generations by storing negative events and experiences. Psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson writes, “To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.”
The thing is, just because we think it, doesn’t make it TRUE! We cannot assume to know the response we will illicit by asking for help. There is an art and a science to making a request, but in starts from within us, being willing to ask for help, getting clear on what we need and resourcefully building out circles of support.
Finding yourself in an unexpected spiritual, physical, emotional or financial crisis is shocking and identity altering. It may be hard to even accept that help is needed. If like me, you were accustomed to being an energetic doer and go-getter, if you were always the supportive one and the caregiver, it takes a moment to adjust and be honest with yourself about where you are at this particular moment. Being in a place of need is a scary reckoning with the things that feel out of control in your life.
Self-acceptance, being with the fact that you are in some strange new, vulnerable territory is step one. Coming to terms with how you view the idea of receiving help, and finding new perspectives to what it means to be supported is vital to making that leap. Knowing what you need in terms of support, what kinds of qualities to look for and the specific supportive roles that will help you at this time in your life is the next important step.
If you have made it this far and would like my top tips on how to build out circles of support, please email me here.