Thursday, February 16, 2023

Help You Help Me

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the struggles of asking for help.  For many people, the idea of asking for help is just common sense.  Teachers say there is no such thing as a stupid question.  Friends say "let me know how I can help" when a loved one dies or some other life crisis hits.  Most of us are happy to help others when given the opportunity.  Many of us, in fact, will happily go overboard for someone else.  What, then, gets in the way of asking for help when we need it?

There are multiple facets, I believe, to this question.  As I have considered this in the past, I have tended to focus on life experience. If we have spent much of our time feeling unseen or unheard, the idea of asking for help would seem a waste of energy.  Better to focus on managing it yourself.   If help is unavailable or unreliable, there may be more trouble in asking for help and waiting for people to keep their promises than simply marshaling their own resources to solve the problem.  Consider people in Louisiana or Puerto Rico in the wake of those devastating hurricanes.  Waiting for outside assistance could lead to even more overwhelming losses. American culture, in general, also tends to value and reward independence rather than interdependence, in part out of a desire to avoid the dreaded co-dependence.  This particularly applies to men, who are socially expected to be invulnerable and unemotional.  Similarly, Black and African-American people are very often socialized not to need or to ask for help.  There is a strong expectation of independence and invulnerability. Already we are at a loss to reach out to others.

Trauma survivors, in particular, may struggle with the idea of help being either possible or probable.  Where was help when the trauma happened?  Why did no one interfere with the trauma?  Relational trauma (being trauma that happens between people in some level of relationship rather than as result of weather or other impersonal means), in particular, adds its own complications.  Pleas for help may have been not just ignored but mocked or used against the victim.  They may have been shamed for their attempts.  Victims may also have been threatened with harm to loved ones or other important people if they asked for help. If they did ask for help, those they asked may have been dismissive, preoccupied, or overwhelmed. They may have promised help that never came. In some situations, abusers may have been confronted, arrested, or removed but then come back to inflict more and worse pain. Certainly, this would be a deterrent to asking for help in future.

What I have been considering more recently is the question of how we know to ask for help.  One of the hallmarks of relational trauma, especially, is that abusers do not take responsibility for their choices.  Frequently, those abused are blamed for their own abuse or even for the abuse of others. "If you hadn't done X, I would not have had to do Y."  "I don't understand why you make me hurt you." "Why are you so stupid?"  The implication of this is that the trauma is their own fault.  Their problems are of their own creation.

Here's where the logic becomes difficult.  If my problems are my own fault, why would I think to ask for help?  If it's a problem I should be able to manage on my own, it does not make sense for me to seek help for something that is my responsibility. Trauma survivors, in general, tend to be hyper-responsible, and their sense of what is and is not reasonable to expect of themselves may be skewed. Survivors of emotional neglect will struggle to identify and to set boundaries because those were ignored or crossed frequently by the neglectors.  The whole concept of asking for help may seem purely ridiculous.

So, where do we go from here?  How do we challenge our fears and reluctance of asking for help?  To be fair, I don't have a definitive answer.  I still struggle with it. Why is it okay to need a mechanic, a doctor, or a plumber, but it is not okay to need emotional support or financial support?  How do I know what to ask for?  What do I do if I know I need something, but I don't know what?

Sometimes, it can be useful to reframe asking for help as giving others the opportunity to support you.  Paying attention to people's responses to our requests can help us understand them better and make better decisions about our future relationships.  Furthermore, when we allow ourselves to have needs in our relationships, we reduce the risk of being put in the position of being caregivers for everyone else and having our needs neglected.  Who leaves gifts for Santa Claus?  Nobody, because that is not how the relationship was established.  When we do not ask for help, others begin to assume we do not need it, so they do not offer.  Also, I think about Brene Brown's research where she states that we build connection through vulnerability rather than perfection.  If I reach out to safe people and ask for help, I could find a deeper, more satisfying connection.

Determining who is safe is a different blog post, as is what appropriate boundaries are around asking for help.  However, if there is someone in your life who seems reliable and supportive, who makes you feel more yourself rather than less, I wonder how it might be to risk asking for help or support around something you need?  Maybe something small?  How would it be to experiment with that idea?  It's just a thought.  What if you are worth love and care?  What if others might actually enjoy being there for you?  Could you ask someone just to listen and let you vent?  Could you ask for a hug? Could you share with someone that you don't know what you need, but you would like some support?  Those are hard questions.  I don't expect you to have an answer right now.

It is okay to need help.  This is normal and human.  We all need help from time to time.  It is okay not to know what you need.  That can be a real challenge when you were not allowed to have or acknowledge needs before.  It is okay to be afraid to ask.  It's not courage if you are not scared.  Should you decide to ask for help, I hope you can give yourself credit for your courage.  When you do ask for help, you are letting yourself know that you are worth the effort and the risk.  You are not responsible for the outcome, only the effort.

If this is something you might like to explore further, perhaps you might reach out to me and see if I could offer some help?  That would be a risk, but, what if you were worth it?

Be good to you.

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