As a teacher, I spend most of my day helping students, and if I’ve learned anything in over 20 years in this profession, it’s been that the most effective way to help someone is not by spoon feeding information, but by directing the person inward for the answer. There are definite times in our lives when we have no shame asking for help—in fact, it’s expected of us. If you really think about, everything we are proficient at today is directly, or indirectly, credited to someone else’s time and effort.
We are the most connected society in human evolution—smartphones, video conferencing, and the web tether us, like never before, to our work, friends, and family. That being said, in the midst of this digital connectivity comes a strange dichotomy that impedes our desire to reach out and ask for help when we need it most. Somewhere along the line, help has become a four-letter word synonymous with weakness or incompetence. I’m not certain why this has occurred, but it may be linked to our belief that our access to a sea of online information has made us more inclined to being self-sufficient, especially when this is coupled with our fear of public weakness or failure under the spotlight of such global scrutiny. For whatever reason, as individuals, as communities, and even as nations, we are not very good at asking for help. We internalize our pain, our fears, and our doubts for far too long instead of sharing our burden and lightening our load. As the motivational guru Lori Deschene points out: “Pain is not a sign of weakness, but bearing it alone is a choice to grow weak.”
This past year has been challenging to say the least, as I’ve had to learn to be “comfortable” asking for help—be it from professionals or from family and friends. More recently, I have been trying to figure out how to respond to other recovering addicts and to fellow survivors of childhood sexual abuse who have turned to me for help. I thought I’d share with you a few things I’ve discovered throughout this process.
1. What prevents people from asking for help?
Without a doubt, the biggest obstacle in the way of people asking for help is PRIDE. We are terrified of looking incompetent or weak, so we seldom ask for help at the point when we could use it most. In fact, at an organizational level, this can lead to a culture of mediocracy because employees become so risk averse that they limit any chance of innovation that may be a by-product of lessons learned from mistakes or growth potential when employees seek out help in the form of collaboration.
2. How can people help you if they don’t understand what you want?
When it comes to asking for help, most of us have a lot to learn. As a teacher and a parent, I witness this all the time when I hear: “I’m confused.” “I don’t understand.” “I’m worried.” In order for people to help us, we need to express our needs in tangible, actionable language. Instead of simply saying, “I feel anxious”, you could expect a better response were you to say, “I feel anxious because I’m not sure I want to stay in a relationship with someone who takes me for granted.”
3. Do you see help as an ongoing dialogue?
I know from personal experience that when people say to me, “Let me know if you need any help”, I typically respond “I’ll be fine.” The reality is that I desperately want their help, but I’m uncomfortable articulating what I really feel. If you’re the person who’s offering to help, the best thing you can do to avoid this dynamic from playing out is to follow-up with the person later that day, or week, to see if your assistance may be welcome. It’s quite a wake-up call to think about it like this because it really makes me think twice before offering those empty promises of help that I secretly hope the person won’t take me up on.
4. Do you weasel your way out of a yes?
In treatment programs, participants talk a lot about learning how to establish appropriate boundaries in relationships. It’s hard for me to admit this, but when I let my ego get the best of me, I’m often too quick to say “yes” to every request for my help. Although I love the “drug” of feeling needed, it’s quickly tainted with an overwhelming sense of dread and over-commitment. I spend far too much of my time trying to gracefully back-out of things I’ve committed to. I’ve had to admit to myself that many of my relationships have collapsed boundaries because there is no synergy of give-and-take. A relationship in which you're either doing all the “giving” or all the “taking” is a toxic relationship entrenched in resentment and inferiority.
5. Do you view help as a living entity?
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned in Alcoholics Anonymous is that sobriety is a “gift” that was freely given to me, and it must be given away in order for me to keep it.—I am beginning to view all forms of “help” in the same light. When we accept someone’s help, we also assume a mantle of responsibility. We give the gift of help the respect it deserves by paying it forward to others in need. Most of all, remember “You may be only one person in this world, but to one person at a time, you are the world.”