Everyone Needs Help from Time to Time—Therapists Included

troubled person sitting on sofa“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.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lillian Rozin, LCSW, MFA, RYT, Aging and Geriatric Issues Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Sommer

    November 26th, 2014 at 2:23 PM

    Even when I know that I need some help and could really benefit with a little hand from friends I am still very wary of asking.

    I guess I just don’t want to make anyone feel like I am putting them out or that they are having to do too much. I would most of the time rather just tough it out on my own.

  • jo

    November 26th, 2014 at 3:31 PM

    I guess you all do such a super human job with helping others that I rarely think about the fact that those in your profession need some help as well.

  • maury

    November 27th, 2014 at 8:15 AM

    I can definitely see how someone in the role of the therapist could almost feel embarrassed or ashamed to have to ask for help. I don’ really understand why because i know that there are probably days when this is all that you tell your patients, that they must learn to delegate and ask for help and yet for some reason it is that much harder when you have to apply the same rules to your own life. Am I right?

  • jon

    November 27th, 2014 at 1:32 PM

    You think of your therapist as this rock who has it all together and has all of the answers when very often they could be looking for direction just in the same way that we are.

    I can imagine that it would be hard to be a therapist and then to have to seek help from others but at the same time I would hope that they can more easily recognize when they do need help and be more willing to ask for it than some of us who are not in this field would be.

  • Alec

    November 28th, 2014 at 8:52 AM

    There will always be those days in life where we need a little bit of an extra hand.
    There have been times for sure that I never would have made it through something without the help of others and I know that I am not unique in this situation.
    No matter how knowledgeable we are or how strong we are, there will always come a time when it is nice to have a little helping hand from a friend.

  • Janelle

    November 29th, 2014 at 10:58 AM

    One of the hardest things in the world for me has always been admitting that I feel a little weak and that I could use some help. I don’t really know what instilled this attitude in me but I know that there have been times that I would have rather dies over asking someone for some help no matter how big or small it was.
    I am trying very hard to get out of some of that because I know that it is not healthy and that a time will come when I need that help from others or that they will need that help from me and I do not need to make them feel bad or feel bad myself when I am the one having to do the asking.

  • kyla

    November 30th, 2014 at 10:58 AM

    I have always had this sense that therapists go into their field not only with a desire to help others but maybe because they are also looking for new and better ways to help themselves. Not in a selfish way, that is not what I mean, but by continuing to learn and grow so that they can share all of this with the people with whom they get to work. I think that this is a great thing, to work and practice way to help others but by also continuing to expand yourself as a person as well.

  • Amanda

    February 15th, 2015 at 3:41 PM

    Kyla, love your statement. I’m a therapist, and couldn’t agree more.

  • neha

    March 23rd, 2015 at 10:38 AM

    Well somehow it got instilled in me that asking for help is showing oneself as incapable….. which somehow triggers low self esteem.
    I have tried to get into self- therapy especially when I see my own clients fighting same demons as mine…. and at that I want to be fit enough to enable them not disable them with my clouded view….
    it’s like one needs to be shattered and reunited and remolded with other piecesto form a new multicoloured vase.

  • Jay

    March 23rd, 2015 at 8:56 PM

    I fully agree that therapists need support just as much as the rest of us. Therapist have many resources to help themselves but especially with the emotional work they do it is helpful to have somewhere to sort it all out. Another benefit I have found in going to therapy (as a graduate student in marriage and family therapy and a helping professional) is that learning more about how to view or manage your own problems gives you new material to use with clients. This is extremely beneficial as you will never exhaust resources with your clients this way.

  • Andre

    March 24th, 2015 at 6:35 AM

    We put people on these imaginary pedestals and in some way expect those people to be perfect, flawless. The minute they fall short of our expectations, we begin to dismiss them. The image of their perfection is burst and a lot of people can’t handle that. People do this with pastors, public figures and unfortunately therapists. As a student, I am becoming more and more cognizant of the stigmas surrounding mental health and differing cultural perspectives.

    I will never be a perfect person, but I hope to be as excellent a therapist as I can for my clients.

  • Janne't

    October 30th, 2016 at 9:05 AM

    I am studying for my Masters Degree in Professional Counseling and I have come to feeling the way my clients will inevitably feel. I asked for help from a friend when I was going into the hospital. I needed her to bring me home after discharge. The thing is, she wasn’t there and I stayed another night until another arrangement could be found. Since experiencing this, I have rearranged my priorities to “be there” for other people in my life and my clients. Their fears of not having a support system are real and should be validated.

  • Paige

    February 18th, 2017 at 5:08 PM

    As a therapy client, I feel that some of the best therapists out there are ones who have taken the time to do their own deep work in healing and understanding themselves. I feel it makes them more capable of helping their own clients on several levels.

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