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The Lost Art of Asking for Help

Growing up I had really ‘on it’ parents. They were dependable and proactive, always there for me and my sister and skilled at many things.  My dad had a thriving and busy medical practice but was always someone I could count on when I needed him or his talents.  My mother’s work was primarily within our home and with volunteer roles. She was physically around a lot.

My mother is a doer. She doesn’t sit still often.  Maybe when she is reading a book?  The house was always clean and organized.  Our meals were planned and on time.  She had it handled.  She was ‘ultra parent’ in many ways. Mom was and is a protective bear mama.  She isn’t going to let anything happen, she isn’t going to sit on a problem and she isn’t going to let things go idle. She is your best ride and die, CIA agent, ultimate taskmaster, make shit happen kind of mom.

All of the things she and my father provided were incredible. I couldn’t be more grateful.  I try and rarely measure up to providing this or even a tenth of this level for my own kids. I was blessed. I knew it and I know it.  Okay, one particularly rude day my teenage self wanted more freedom and less eyes on me and horribly told my mom to get a job (Can I EVER APOLOGIZE enough for that bullshit Mom?).   Except for that less than banner day…I knew I had it good.  Knew I had won the parent lottery and I still know it and experience it today.

As with everything amazing and good, there is often a flip side to it.  The double-edged side of the sword.  With all of that doing for me and all of their quick- to- action response in small and big crises…..I was given a solid basis of safety and dependability and cared–for-it-ness that is incredibly invaluable but I wasn’t given a lot of room to fail.  And more importantly, given the room to learn how to be comfortable with how to ask for help. Of course I failed (ask any high school friend of mine my senior year) and of course I asked for help and received help.  They didn’t do EVERYTHING for me and I achieved small and big things on my own with my own will and drive.  BUT….I never did grow comfortable with asking for help.  When to ask, how to ask, how to accept, how to not feel guilt for needing help, how to react when help is needed and not given. Especially outside of my family.

If you’ve been following me over the past few years, you undoubtedly picked up on a dynamic of my life…I was going through a really rough divorce from an abusive marriage. I call affectionately it the ‘Lifetime Movie Marriage/Divorce’.  Thankfully I am on the other side of it now but in the almost 5 years it took to get on the other side of it, I learned a lot.  A lot about asking for help.

I learned I had no idea to ask for it when I REALLY needed it.  I learned it is a whole other ball game when you are desperate and lonely and you’ve lost faith in yourself and feel like all your talents and skills are tapped out.  When you are mentally, physically and spiritually exhausted.  When you’ve lost faith in about everything.

That level of vulnerability was excruciatingly painful to me.  Foreign. Terrifying.

I’m not sure I ever felt more exposed.

And I didn’t like it. Or know what to do about it.

God bless the moments and people who stepped up and stepped in and helped without me having to ask or ask for something specific. Those moments and people are ones I will never forget and never be able to thank deeply enough.  Lifesavers.  Angels on Earth. Soul sisters and brothers.

Here a few of the many examples:  A family friend who randomly but always at the right time sent me snail mail and wrote in the return address “Fan Mail”, my mother knowing that something was really off with me when I dropped off my daughter and wouldn’t leave my side until I promised I would be okay and it took hours, a dear guy friend driving 8 hours to watch my daughter and hang with my dad while in court so I didn’t have to worry about them while in the midst of my trial, my ‘amen choir’ as my lawyer termed them- a fierce group of women who sat in the court room with me, supported me in group texts and made me laugh with ideas of signs to hold up outside the court room and within it, my on-line business group of friends and colleagues who kept reminding me my work mattered and I couldn’t give up even on the days I could shower for our meetings and sat with tears streaming down my face as we met, my dad grabbing my hand at just the right time and saying ‘We won’t let that son of a bitch hurt you anymore. Whatever it takes.’, my friend who sat with me in a NYC copy center helping me copy pictures of my bruises as I went to talk to police officers about one horrific abuse incident and then taking me out and making me laugh endlessly, my sister dropping everything and flying up to be by my side and not letting me sugar coat what was happening to the victim’s advocate.

People showed up for me. In spades.

I had fearless and unsolicited help. I was INCREDIBLY lucky and they quite literally saved my life over and over.  That is just a touch of  the help I received without asking. Or asking with much effort.

So what is the problem then? I mean how much help did you need???

Short answer:   A LOT.  More than I knew and much more than I felt comfortable with.  I needed logistic help.  Child care help.  Financial help. Spiritual help.

Soul help.

The work for me was really in the times when no one knew I needed help. No one knew I was lost because I was good at hiding that part of me. I’m good at overcoming. I’m wired to not burden others with my problems and can talk myself out of why I should tell someone this thing or ask for help with this. I thought that it was polite and kind and a good friend or family member to keep those burdens from others. I told myself that I got myself into that mess by my own choices so the responsibility was on me to get through it.  On my own

Resolve. Resourcefulness. Resiliency.

And that worked. Until it didn’t.

When those things were tapped out and not enough, I was left.  Left hopeless and helpless and desperate.  Even if I didn’t show it. Even if I didn’t face it.

This is how I (poorly) handled some of those times:

I kept it all hidden and suffered immensely.

I would emotion dump to family or friends and my helplessness would overwhelm and leave me and them paralyzed.

I would describe how terrible things were but wouldn’t ask for specific help.

I would only ask someone one time like I had used up all of my favors with them.

I would overly thank them and feel like I needed to give gifts and thank you texts and hire a sky writer and throw a parage which would make them feel awkward that I was so overly grateful. (and because I didn’t have the energy to write a thank you not after, I wouldn’t even ask because it would be rude.)

I would avoid people because I knew they had compassion fatigue and had their own problems.

My stress and overwhelm would come out in other ways like irritability and avoidance.

As you can see, this wasn’t the way to handle needing help.  It didn’t get me help. It didn’t make things or myself better. It didn’t give my friends and even strangers the chance to feel good in helping me.

There were times I did it ‘right’. There were times I did ask, I did receive and I did accept it. But then I felt terrible guilt. And I felt terrible about myself for needing help-especially for as long and as much as I needed it.  As a therapist and in just my personality, I like helping. I’m good at it.  I feel comfortable in that role and feel good there. Receiving, not so much.  It was quite foreign to me.

I’m not alone in this. A lot of people have a hard time asking for help.

In a period of time when I attending Al Anon meetings (support group for those who love someone dealing with addiction), my Al Anon  sponsor told me not asking for help was arrogant.  Selfish.  Nothing to be proud of. No badge for it. No martyr award.  Just plain dumb. Nothing she admired. That barrage of opinionated truth hit me.  But not enough at that point to make me change.

The seed had been planted however.

Is this a sob story of first world problems—“boo hoo you don’t feel comfortable asking for help? Wish that was my biggest problem…”? Maybe. To be frank.

When I was in the thick of it I would hear people talk about problems and think I WISH I had the luxury of being upset about that “small thing”. I’m actually worried I may be killed or lose everything financially.  I get it.  But I believe that not asking for help is a chronic problem that has far reaching consequences individually and in our society as a whole.

Pain is pain. Small and large.  And we all need help. In small and big ways.

I believe this issue is deeper than just a surface problem. Our country has BIG issues going on. There are seriously troubled people, there are serious situations that leave many beyond desperate for help.  Most of us won’t experience that kind of extreme need beyond watching the news or knowing someone who knows someone who….

We don’t live in a societal atmosphere of helping.  We say it takes a village but for how many of us is that ACTUALLY true?  How many of us help foster that kind of environment for ourselves, our families, our friends?

But we ALL have times when we need help.

Soul help.  Logistic help. Financial help.  Spiritual help. Childcare help.  Faith in yourself help.  You name it. You have and will need it.

And we all have times we need help, need someone to read our minds and just DO IT FOR US.

And we all have times we just HAVE TO ASK FOR HELP because the process of asking for help is actually has important as the help itself.

I got myself in some dark and scary places because I didn’t know how to ask, didn’t know who to ask, didn’t know how to accept it and didn’t know how to let it go and not internalize shame after receiving it.

Shame. It got in my way so many times. The biggest hurdle for me was reframing the shame part of needing help.  Feeling like a burden or lesser than.  Feeling unskilled. An imposter.  I was so good at helping others and was actively seeing and helping clients and doing a damn good job but myself? Not so much.  I wrestled with feeling like a fraud.

When I boil it down for me….the first step in shame impeding me getting help was this:  to ask for help meant I needed to admit  ‘my shit’ in the first place.  The position I put myself in.  The mistake on my part.  The problems I got myself into.  I needed to own it. I needed to say it out loud.  I needed to make it become real. It was going to have to get to a place where it transitioned from being my own private nightmare to no-going-back-zone. It took me awhile to get there.

I do not have a problem with making a mistake or admitting it in most circumstances.  Mistakes aren’t typically embarrassing to me and I’ve had a lot of practice making them. But my marriage for the second time?  This was in my top 5 worst nightmares and some days my number two after a child dying.  I had to admit out loud I stayed a long time in an abusive marriage and at the same time was a therapist and teaching others how to be empowered.  Ugh.  Juliana meet the mirror.  It wasn’t pretty.

Shame was the driver of that bus most days. Until it wasn’t.

I needed to turn things around.  I needed to get out of my situation. I needed to take control of my life. I needed action and I knew I couldn’t do it alone

I needed to feel more connected. I needed the secret over and I needed help.

I needed to get through my messy situation intact, healthy and eventually thriving. I couldn’t exist with that level of pain any longer. So I started to ask.  I started with the trusted few.  I got more comfortable with hearing the words come out of my mouth.

I got used to the reaction-the words and the silences.

I grew my circle.  I asked for small bits of help. I asked for bigger ones.

“Would you help me pack boxes?”  “Would you call me tomorrow and check in on me?”  “Would you go with me to my daughter’s dance recital?”  “Would you give me a discount on that service?” “Would you show me how to change the alarm system?”  “ Would you take my daughter to the park?”  “Do you know this legal question or know someone who does?”

“Would you…?” “Could you….?” “I need help with…”

I wrote for help on social media, I called people, I wrote group texts, I met up with people in person. For those who know me, my introverted- I GOT THIS- self struggled.  But I did it. Perfectly imperfectly.

I needed to reframe what help meant about me.  Needing help with —— didn’t mean I was worthless or inept. It meant I needed help putting the wheel back on my daughter’s bike.  The fact that I needed help in getting out of my marriage didn’t mean I couldn’t help others.  In fact, it gave me A LOT more understanding to what many of my client’s were going through even if the details were different. It was all about perspective. And letting go of my ego. And what others may or may not think of me.

I then stopped over apologizing for needing help.  I asked and waited for their response.  I thanked them either way.  Once when they replied and once more after the help was received or if they couldn’t do it, I thanked them later for considering it.

I felt grateful if they did help and I learned to feel grateful if they couldn’t or didn’t.  I had one friend tell me no to something I needed desperately and was really hard for me to ask her. It was rough.  We had a tough discussion about it. We had distance from each other for a while.  And then we revisited, both owned our shit with it and moved on from it. I was filled with gratefulness for the ability for us both to speak our needs and for having a friendship where we could have boundaries, speak respectfully to each other and it wasn’t the end of the world.  Was it perfect? No. Was it awesome? Yes. I thanked her for the lesson in asking and not getting what you think you need and want. I thanked her for speaking to me respectfully. I thanked her for having a loving and frank conversation.  I thanked her for being my friend.

And I meant every damn word.

I was told no.  I had people not show up for me.  I had times when people absolutely let me down.

And I got over it. Because sometimes people can’t help. Because sometimes it is the wrong time, the wrong ask, the wrong everything. And that can hurt and feel terrible but it has to be okay.  Because you are ASKING for help and not demanding it.

I also started acknowledging it when someone had the courage to ask me for help. I gave a shout out and thanked them for reaching out and told them it makes it easier for me to ask next time I need to ask for help.

I forced myself to look at it differently until I actually FELT it differently. I saw it as strength. I saw it as walking the talk I taught others. I saw it as growing connection. I saw it as a gift of showing others I valued them/their skill/their relationship with me.  I saw it as a way to relieve stress. I saw it as self care. I saw it as a way to better myself and my children’s lives.  I saw it as a normal.

I saw it as a positive, essential part of existing on this planet and it was about time I started doing it well.

It is a lot easier for me now to ask for help. It is much more comfortable for me to sit with the help during and after it arrives. I don’t feel as badly for needing it. I still catch myself shouldering more than I can do by myself but it is a lot less than what I used to do.  I still sit with finding the words for help sometimes. I still sit with waiting too long to ask.  But I’m better.

But the shame? It ALMOST doesn’t exist anymore.

So what that I need help? We all do.  I’m going to help you when I am walking through fire and I’m going to help you put out your fire when my fire is extinguished by coming back with buckets of water to help put out yours.

Asking for help is beautiful and real and normal and healthy and necessary and really really really HUMAN.   And that’s the good news.

x oh, Dr. Juliana

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