I was raised as an athlete, independent, courageous and able to achieve things that other people couldn’t do, like dance gracefully on the tips of my toes and hold the choreography of twenty or more ballets in my head at one time. Over time, I trained myself to watch a sequence of dance steps once and be able to instantly recreate them. I learned how to keep my balance on a raked stage with a slanted floor and to perform when I was tired, hungry and sick. I could hold my own in the company of royalty and pop culture icons, but I never learned to ask for help.
God knows I needed it, but having as an up and coming ballerina was dangerous. I lived in a world where nothing was ever good enough so I learned to fake it. If I appeared vulnerable or weak, my understudy just might take my place so I performed on blisters and injuries and kept smiling. There was very little encouragement, a dancer only gets called out when she’s doing something wrong, so I couldn’t look to other people to boost me up. I couldn’t complain when someone else got a role I wanted and I couldn’t crow when I got that desired role because everyone else was going through the same disappointments and victories. We were all cogs in a wheel of forty dancers, blending into the whole like dutiful soldiers and when we needed emotional support, we didn’t know how to ask for it or receive it when it came our way.
This is true for so many people, not just athletes. Have you noticed that when someone begins to cry or becomes emotional, the first thing they do is apologize? For what? Why would we have tear ducts if we weren’t supposed to cry? I have a friend who broke out into sobs when she was on a first date. Her partner was mortified. “Stop it,” he whispered. “You can’t cry here. We’re in a fancy restaurant.”
“I’ve cried in better places than this,” she quipped.
Asking for help takes compassion for ourselves and a large dose of forgiveness – for being human and having human needs. So many of us are programmed to believe that self-sufficiency is the only way to be and if we have needs, we’ll push people away. But if we don’t learn to accept our needs, reveal who we are and ask for help, life is going to be a painful and lonely place.
Admitting to our human vulnerabilities not only helps us feel better. It also gives other people permission to admit to theirs. When we understand that we are not alone, that there are people out there who are able and willing to help us get through something difficult, it eases our suffering. It’s important to remember that we all go through the same stuff – shame, loss of control, neediness and self-hatred – and we can start by being there for someone else. When you soothe another person’s pain and help them get what they need, you can turn it around and do the same thing for yourself.
President Barak Obama said, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit you don’t know something and to learn something new.”
Are you able to ask for help? How do you do it?