When you make chili, and your mom suggests a better way to slice the onion, are you open to her tip, or do you sigh with frustration? When your teenage daughter defies curfew again, are you interested in parenting advice, or do you double down on yelling? Most importantly, when your heart is beating erratically, will you consult your doctor, or tell yourself it’s just stress?
There are many behavioral aspects to resiliency. One of the most important is the ability to ask for help. Resilient folks seek feedback and guidance. They accept they can’t possibly know everything, and that’s ok with them. Because they choose to seek help, they can heal and learn from trusted advisors, and their own set of coping skills expands as a result. Brene Brown, noted author, talks eloquently on how being vulnerable and open to help is paradoxically related to great courage and strength. (You can see her famous TEDx video here: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability)
I am usually open to help. I think this is because I experienced complete helplessness at an early age. Severely burned at the age of four, I spent months in the hospital, flat on my back, mostly alone. Bandaged all over my body, I was unable to move. I couldn’t go to the bathroom. I couldn’t reach a glass of water. Everything I needed, I had to ring the bell for the nurse.
After a minute, the nurse would respond, “Yes?”
“Could you please scratch my nose? I’m sorry. I’m so itchy.”
Silence…perhaps a sigh… “Yes, Lise, I’m coming”
I spent month after month depending on strangers for everything. The nurse might be rushed or patient. She might be detached or sweet. But almost always, the nurse helped me when I asked. My injuries were so monstrous and extreme that I needed help from specialists of all kinds. Plastic surgeons, physical therapists, psychologists, nurses; they all came to my aid, and still do, 50 years later. My plastic surgeon was as much a father figure as my own father.
My life experience taught me that I do not need to rely just on my family, or on myself. There are many kind and wise people in the world. Without the help of all these doctors, nurses and therapists, I would not be living the healthy happy life that I currently enjoy.
So, what holds us back from asking for help? Sometimes it is fear. People worry that if they admit their weakness and vulnerability, they will be shamed. This is particularly true for American men, who are raised in a society which proclaims that real men are self-reliant. I have had many male clients slink into my office, feeling defeated and worthless because they can no longer handle their problems on their own. Still, at the end of the session, I can see their shoulders squaring back again. They found help. Someone is going to guide them in a better direction. Their problems can be understood, improved, and maybe even fixed. Now, they are glad they came.
Although I am usually open to help, I hit my own road block recently. Over the past two years, I have written my memoir. I slaved over this book; working feverishly. To my delight, I landed a wonderful literary agent. I crafted a book proposal, and my agent sent it out to publishers. I waited for contracts to pour in.
I got lots of feedback that my story was incredible! Amazing! But, no contract. After a few months, my wonderful agent gently proposed that perhaps my writing could be improved. A number of the publishers had suggested that my writing was good but not yet great, not great enough to publish a memoir of an unknown author.
I was aghast. I felt humiliated. I feared that if anyone knew that I had to hire professional writers to punch up my work, I would be seen as a failure. People would mock me. “Poor Lise, she thought she was all that but then she had to hire a ghost writer.”
Flush with shame, I shared these thoughts with close friends. Their reaction was always the same: “What? Why would anyone think that?”
“Because I can’t do it on my own. I thought I could but I can’t.”
“You have done a great job so far. You are a psychologist, not a professional writer, so of course you could use some help. It’s wonderful that an expert will work with you.”
“Hmm. Do you think?””
Reluctantly, I agreed to meet with a writing team, who couldn’t have been nicer. They liked what I had done and had about 50 suggestions of how to improve my book proposal. “You are a good writer. We can make it better!”
Months later, I have an improved proposal, made better by the wisdom of experienced writers. I wanted to do it myself. But I realized I wanted to do it myself because of my own ego. I wanted to be able to say to the world, “Look what I did! Just me!”
Instead, I now proclaim to the world, “Look what we did! Me and this fabulous team of skilled writers, who agreed to help me, who helped hone my message, who offered me support and encouragement. We accomplished this together.”
Which message do you like better? Which message do you think is healthier?
Being open to help requires vulnerability and courage. Being open to help means sometimes people will disappoint you, and you will have to be brave and ask someone else. You might even be humiliated now and then. I doubt it, but it could happen.
Being open to help will tune you into the kindness and generosity that live in many hearts. There are many loving and caring people in this world and there are also people who know a lot more than you. Perhaps their expertise is medical or educational, artistic or practical. Whatever you need, there is probably someone out there who has expertise or a good heart, who can help you, if you are brave enough to ask.
Give it a try.