A View From the Watchroom
Barry K. Wyrick, MS, MBA
Chief Operating Officer
Why I Can’t Ask For Help (6/8/14)
This post is a significant departure from what I have written about in my previous posts. In it, I describe one of my own deepest personal conflicts. I wish that I could say that I have this figured out—I don’t. I hope that my sharing of my own experiences and my thoughts may help you if you struggle with a similar difficulty.
We have had several situations at our agency over the past couple of weeks where we were working with people who had gotten themselves into bad situations but were unable to stop and ask for help. If we are not careful, it is very easy to become judgmental in these situations and say to the person, “Why didn’t you just ask me for help?” And the answer to that question is far more complex than the observed behavior of men who will drive around lost for an hour rather than stop and ask for directions.
As I was thinking over the past week about this particular post, I did some self-observation—after all, I need to take inventory at home before I say anything about anyone else. And in all honesty with you and with myself, I would rather take a beating from you than ask you for help. And not just about personal problems—last summer I built a shed at my house, where the siding was composed of fiber boards that were 12 feet long, and broke very easily if you turned them the wrong way. Rather than ask anyone for help putting these up, I fashioned a jig that would hold one end of the board while I attached the other. OK, so maybe I am writing this post for me rather than anyone else (I did title the post “Why I Can’t Ask for Help), but as I have processed this idea, two huge self-statements came to my awareness (don’t hear me saying I am proud of these things—but they are things that I tell myself). First, I believe that I should be able to take care of everything in my life. I work, I cook, I clean, I do laundry, I do yard work, I am a sufficient electrician and plumber, I am a very good carpenter—there is not much that I run across that I can’t take care of myself (besides my car—I am a horrible mechanic). But the underlying belief in this statement is that I can do it alone. I don’t need any help. And if I believe that I don’t need help with these concrete things, imagine if you will my response to personal or emotional problems! The second self-statement is similar to the first, but contains that judgment that I mentioned in the first paragraph. I believe that if I am not able to take care of everything in my life, then there must be something wrong with me. Please understand that the conclusion that there is something wrong with me is completely self-inflicted. No one in my life expects me to be able to take care of everything, and I have people in my life who would be willing to help me. But my expectations coupled with my self-criticism leads to the conclusion that I am somehow faulty. Worse than the self-criticism is the next conclusion that I draw—if the problem is somehow with me, then I do not deserve help. This conclusion is bad enough if I am dealing with a bad toilet or some siding that needs attached, but this conclusion completely isolates me when I am dealing with some kind of personal or emotional issue.
I would like to take some distance from myself, and talk more generally about these two self-statements, especially as they apply to personal or emotional difficulties. First, I should be able to take care of everything in my life. I think that we grow to believe this statement from two experiences in our lives. The first experience is that independence is highly valued (and rewarded) in our culture. From the time that we make #2 in the right place until we are finally forced to move into a home by our kids, our ability to do things by ourselves is praised. In our adult work environments, we are often reminded about teamwork, but the person that can be relied upon to get the job done is the one who will be recognized and promoted. We’ve all seen the slogan, “There is no ‘I’ in ‘Team’.” But some individually driven people (like me) will always add, “Yes, but there are two of them in ‘Winning’.” We stop being evaluated on our ability to “work and play well with others” sometime in elementary school, and are then evaluated on our individual achievements. None of us know the names of the engineers at Volkswagen who designed the “Beetle,” but all of us know who Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are. I could go on, but I don’t think that I need to. The second experience that reinforces the belief that we should be able to take care of everything in our lives is the profound disappointment that we have experienced when we have asked for help, and it has not been forthcoming. Think about a time in your life when you have asked someone for help, and what happened was that you were told what to do or felt attacked or criticized. We don’t have to have that happen very often to learn that we need to take care of these things ourselves. I am not saying that the others from whom we asked help were in any way malicious—they were probably well-intentioned. It can be a simple off-hand comment like “What were you thinking?” or “How did you end up here?”. It can be the preachy, “Well, if I were you, I would…..” (you’re not me). Or it could be as bad as I fondly recall my father saying, “Damn it Barry! You couldn’t shove your thumb up your ass if you used both hands.” Fairly soon we learn to take care of it ourselves.
The second self-statement is that if I am not able to take care of it myself, then there must be something wrong with me. I understand how powerfully independence is valued in our society, and I understand how frustrating and disappointing asking for help and not getting it is, but the conclusion that we are the problem absolutely guarantees an inability to ask for help. If we can be honest with ourselves, all of us can identify what we have done to get ourselves into our current personal or emotional predicament. How we got here is usually not a mystery. The conclusion that the fault lies in us paralyzes us with self-loathing, shame and humiliation. When we see ourselves as somehow to blame, it becomes hard to admit to ourselves what we have done, nonetheless to admit it to someone else so that we can ask for help. And what is worse is that the shame and humiliation are likely to drive us deeper into whatever the problem is rather than to help us get out of it.
OK, so this is going to be the hard part for me to write. As Jesus said as he prepared to return to Nazareth (as told in the Gospel of Luke), quoting a proverb of his time, “Physician, heal thyself.” I can recognize all of the above in myself. I can even admit to myself that this issue creates a problem for me. Now I have to be honest enough with myself to look at solutions. Allow me to argue with myself about the first statement. Who said that I have to take care of everything myself? Where did I learn that? I work as a counselor, and my job is to help people who are experiencing problems. Barry, isn’t is just a wee bit hypocritical to think that asking for help is OK for the people that you work with, but it is not OK for you? I can freely admit that for everyone else, asking for help is a strength. Recognizing when we are experiencing difficulties and seeking the aid and comfort of loved ones is an essential life skill. Working through these difficult times together creates deeper intimacy in a relationship. Aye, (perhaps) there’s the rub. For in deepening the intimacy of a relationship, we expose ourselves to the risk of deeper hurt. If I don’t need anyone else, then no one can hurt me. And so asking for help is an emotional risk. And I (and all of us) must decide if the risk is worth the benefit.
Now for the second statement. How in the world does getting into a personal or emotional problem mean that there is something wrong with me? Is anyone perfect? Doesn’t everyone have problems at some time in their lives? You certainly don’t criticize anyone else for experiencing these problems, so how can you criticize yourself? And how in the world can you be ashamed for being like everyone else? I believe that the source of the shame is actually fear—fear that others will see our weaknesses and imperfections, and then not like us. And as I think of fear, I am reminded of an incredible insight on fear, written by Frank Herbert, in his novel, Dune. In the novel, the Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear is, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Remember that—Fear is the mind-killer; it is the little-death that brings total obliteration. Fear is the thief in the night that steals joy. Fear of what others may think of us can do nothing but isolate us. And so I (and all of us) must face my fear that others will see me as I truly am—human, just paddling this big boat as fast as I can. I will face my fear.