“You are never strong enough that you don’t need help.” ―César Chávez
My first assignment in graduate school was to write an essay about my experiences in life of asking for help. As I was there to become a therapist, I could easily identify a million ways I had helped others. But as I tried to think about my own experiences of being in need of help, I realized I felt uncomfortable.
As a helper, I was supposed to focus on being there for others. I expected myself to have it all together and not need help. I stared bluntly at this assumption and realized that I felt embarrassed—ashamed, even—at the thought of needing help. I wondered if people seeking my services would expect me to be self-sufficient, and assumed that it would be disappointing to them to learn that I, too, was sometimes a mess! The exercise was a wonderful introduction to the subject of attitudes toward asking for help. And it wasn’t surprising that almost all of my classmates also struggled with this notion that being a helping person and needing help were mutually exclusive.
Recently, a friend who has been actively dating brought this point home. As she recounted her latest frustrations, she told me about one guy who she liked in every way, but who had told her he was recovered from alcohol abuse (24 years!) and still went to Alcoholics Anonymous. My friend scoffed as she told me this, dismissing him as “still needing that kind of help.” She decided to stop seeing him based on this fact alone.
Yet another friend who was in therapy told me that she had discontinued her treatment after learning that her therapist was in therapy herself. How, she wondered, could someone who needed help be of any use to another?
What does this all say about us? In our culture of individualism and separatism, it is still a deeply held value that we need to be strong, self-sufficient, and handle our own problems. Some of this may also be rooted in our cultural and religious backgrounds, as well as our individual upbringings. If we have to ask for help, then we must be out of control, so we should feel embarrassed—even ashamed.
We wouldn’t even consider feeling ashamed if we had a kidney stone or a toothache. It’s really about mental health that we have so much judgment. It doesn’t help that there is a huge stigma attached to mental health issues: it is often only when someone we love dearly goes through a major depression or we experience a panic attack that we recognize that most of us need help in this area at some point.
Even those of us who choose a helping profession can internalize this idea that we are somehow weak if we succumb to asking others for help. Because of this, we often wait until long after we should have asked, and we have completely depleted our resources and burnt ourselves out.
Knowing when you need to ask for help suggests that you are grounded, self-aware, and know your own limitations. My friend’s date who continues to go to AA so many years after his recovery probably knows that he could easily go back to using if he doesn’t keep it in the forefront of his attention. This is likely a person who understands his vulnerability, and builds in supports to help him be his best self.
And what of the therapist in therapy? This, too, should not be a deal-breaker. We know that we are often better at giving advice than following our own. Sometimes we can all benefit from an unbiased and skilled professional, someone who can help us navigate our personal struggles with some objectivity.
I believe that both of these people’s reactions reflect their own judgments about themselves and others. But they may not be aware of those judgments. We all have them; but when they are unexamined, they can rule us and cause us to make choices that may not be in our best self-interests.
So, although you may not now be motivated to sit down and write an essay on your attitudes toward accepting help, I invite you to shake up your beliefs about this topic. We all have strengths as well as areas where we struggle more and can sometimes use some help.
When did it become so distasteful to care for yourself as you would for others? To be our best, we need to become as adept at accepting help as we are at giving it. It truly does take a village.
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