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Normalize Asking For Help
*Especially* when you could get by without it
Previously, I asked you about ways that hearing people say, “Well, babies/college/marriage/etc. is hard for everyone…” discouraged you from asking for help. I’m sharing your personal stories, and your ideas for how to do better today. Next week, I’ll share highlights from our conversation about when women disappear from “neutral” language.
A number of you gave concrete examples of being discouraged from seeking help by this kind of well-meaning commiseration. Elena gave one good example:
This reminds me a lot of realizing (as an adult) that I have ADHD. People always said things like “studying is hard” or “staying focused is difficult” and I didn’t realize that what they meant by hard and what I was experiencing were not the same. I have since been able to improve my coping mechanisms and now that I’m done with school I have a lot more freedom to arrange my life in a way likely to lead to success. If I had known sooner that my experience wasn’t normal I might have been able to do a lot of this sooner.
And Colin gave another:
This really strikes a chord with my experience with depression, especially in the couple of years before I got a proper diagnosis.
I would occasionally tell people about mornings where “I just had so little motivation to get up,” and they'd nod and say :I feel that!” or “Ugh I hate that!” and I think all of us thought we were describing the same experience. But of course “I'm sleepy and want to stay in bed” and “I will literally lie here motionless and miserable for hours because I can't find the willpower even just to sit up” are not quite the same feeling.
I'm not really sure what could have been done differently. Maybe making it normal to invite people to share specifics of problems they describe to you, even if you think you understand what they're talking about? It seems rough to put the onus of change on the person struggling to get through the experience they think is normal, especially if they have any sort of “you're just making this all about you” inner voice adding guilt to it all.
I’m glad that the comment thread was a space for commiseration, and even more appreciative of some of your ideas for how to make it easier to ask for help.
Jessica suggested expanding the wedding/baby shower model:
In a life-event shower, the community around a person all chip in to purchase a lot of stuff that the person may suddenly need (this is less obvious nowadays for weddings, when couples often already have a home together that is more or less furnished, but it’s VERY obvious for babies). As a participant, you observe these natural life events of your friends by paying out $30 here, $50 there, and then suddenly when it’s your turn, you don’t have to spend hundreds or thousands all at once, because everyone else is chipping in for you! And you don’t feel guilty, because it is an expected benefit/expense model that we all are used to. So if we expand this model, we would naturally expect to help out our friends and family with the normal difficulties of life (a meal delivered here, a load of laundry there, flowers watered when they’re on vacation, an errand run on a busy day), and then, because we have happily chipped in for others over time, we don't feel guilty or inadequate by allowing for help when it’s our turn, even if our “difficult situation” is completely within the range of normal life—just like weddings and babies, which so many people experience. Lower the bar of “need.” Help in small ways as often as possible. Offer assistance cheerfully and don’t let people wave you off. Normalize service!
Rosemary shared a personal story about abuse within marriage, and being led astray by the refrain she heard, “Well, marriage is a cross….” It made it very hard for her to believe something was really wrong and that it was a good idea to bring it up to others.
None of us had a perfect solution to this problem, but a lot of the ensuing discussion was about making sure that when you tell those kinds of “Everyone goes through some rough times,” stories, you also pair them with some kind of acknowledgment that abuse is different, and that you’re open to listen.
Here’s how I approach that when I try to make it clear to my friends that they can talk to me about post-partum depression and anxiety. My goal is to send out a strong signal, not just to the people who worry me, that I’m a safe harbor.
I talk about knowing people personally who had it, some of what they experienced, and how grateful I am that they trusted me with their worry. It’s not done in a big “hint hint” way.
When I think about adapting some of those approaches for abuse, I think of talking about the line between hard times and abuse (particularly in novels and other at-a-distance stories), expressing clear disagreement with a homily that references an abused saint and treats the abuse lightly, etc. I want to make it clear that I see a difference between hard times and abuse, that that difference exists before your life is in danger, and I’m up to talk if you’re trying to weigh which side of the line you fall on.
The other advice I’ve heard is not to pressure someone to leave (even if they really really should). Don’t make someone feel like they’re failing for not being ready to do that yet. But make sure they know you’ll show up within an hour with a uhaul if they ask.
I want us to have more stories of giving and asking for help; more stories of asking for help we technically could have done without, for needs that didn’t count as emergencies; more stories we tell openly about being wrong that our suffering was normal or undeserving of help.
Please let me know if you find an opportunity to tell a friend one of these stories in the next week. What do they tell you in return?