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  • Stephen Scott Johnson

How to ask for help in troubled times (and why it is so hard)

Over the past few months and throughout this seemingly never-ending lockdown, I’ve been so inspired by people’s kindness and generosity. I’ve also become aware of a different and more complex issue that is strangely uncomfortable for people – asking for help. Why is it so hard for us to admit we are struggling and need support? One reason is biological – a self-preservation instinct – and because as humans we are hardwired to be independent. Notwithstanding, we invest a tonne of time and energy in the pursuit of goals and dreams – of creating and establishing wealth, identities of success, and of becoming self-made – then living into these expressions. I think part of being human is the innate sense of wonder we possess and predisposition to get caught up in the euphoria of plans. Hence, when the unfathomable happens, like the 2020 we are currently living through, we are shocked from our comfort zones and left wondering what happened and if we will ever recover. Such events are a great equalizer and catalyst to collaboration on a global scale for survival. On the other hand, it is a stark reminder of the fragility of life and importance of our unity as a species, and reprioritisation towards that which is truly essential. Another common reason is that we feel ashamed of our circumstances – as though our misfortune is a sign we can’t look after ourselves – and for fear of being perceived as weak, desperate, or needy. This is particularly evident of autonomous characters whose identity is based largely upon what they do. Hence, when a pandemic destroys lives and livelihoods – dissolving everything that provides a sense of purpose and fulfilment – they either implode or lash out. Sadly, we are conditioned to blame others rather than admit we are desperate and don’t have our situation under control. Be kind to one another, and especially yourself. In a global pandemic everyone needs help.

Asking for help is hard because it involves surrendering control to someone else – which is especially difficult at times when life seems so uncertain and out-of-control.

During a recent resilience and wellbeing workshop I facilitated, our focus was honest communication and how to avoid burnout. I run these sessions with clients frequently, and this year I’ve started to notice a recurring narrative whereby people downplay their fears and the significance of their struggles. In other words, they aren’t coping, but instead of asking for help they deflect and say things like: “this is just how it is, I need to toughen up”; “there are people with way bigger problems than mine”; and somewhat braver and more vulnerable, “I’m worried that my anxieties make me look incompetent”. But the big one that I hear most often is: “If I drop the ball, I’ll let down my team, or lose my job”. Can you see the pattern? Most of this dialog is fear-based assumption and a reaction to circumstances outside of one’s control. People are on the brink of burnout – yet they feel obligated to push-through at the expense of well being because they are the lucky ones who still have a job. Sadly, this doesn’t end well. The ensuing mental health crises and escalating suicide rate is a sure sign something needs to give. Don’t let this be your life. If you’re someone who needs help but struggles to ask:

  • It’s time to get clear about the people in your life who can support you – parents, friends, colleagues, teachers – and literally ask if you can rely on them to help during this difficult time. People are more willing help than we often realise (or that our egos let us see).

  • Try reframing. It’s a simple technique that shifts the focus of asking for help from a transaction to a conversation, which is more respectful and creates a meaningful connection with the recipient. For example, “I’ve got this challenge and I could really use your help. Let’s brainstorm it together and see what solutions we can come up with.” Boom!

If you’re someone who wants to help others: Be a better listener. Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that deep listening can help relieve the suffering of another person. He calls it compassionate listening. “You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don't interrupt. You don't argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.” This is not to say we can’t help people in more practical ways – just don’t go in ‘guns blazing’ offering advice ;) Right now, many people feel as though their dreams have died – that they have lost everything they've worked so hard for – and can’t see beyond the eclipse of Covid-19 to more positive days. Whatever your situation is, don’t go it alone. There are people all around who are willing to help – all you need to do is ask. Until next time...


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