I was talking to someone recently who is fiercely independent, and very resistant to asking anyone for help.
She knows how she got like this: She had a difficult, chaotic childhood when there was never a caring, mature adult around to help her out of the myriad problems, fears and challenges that each of us goes through as a child.
So she learned: don’t ask for help, because it’s not going to be given anyway.
And that’s served her pretty well, up until this stage of life, when to cut a long story short, she’s cracking at the seams, and she can’t do everything by herself anymore. These days, she really needs to start asking for help, at least within her immediate family – but she still can’t.
This situation is starting to cause a lot of problems and tensions between my friend and her husband and grown-up kids, because they got used to the version of her that never needs any help. So now, even when she does ask, they aren’t really taking her requests so seriously, they aren’t ‘trained’ to respond, they forget, they get busy with other people, other priorities.
Which is reinforcing the mother’s existing belief system, namely: don’t ask for help, because it’s not going to be given anyway.
But now, she really needs help, so the resentment is rising and rising in the home.
I suggested she take a look at the Connection book by Efim Svirsky, and she came across an exercise that really spoke to her, about trying to connect to the ‘child who can’t question’.
That kid is so overwhelmed by fear, it can’t even frame the problem into words.
She did the exercise, and came up with a stunning insight as to where that inability to ask for help actually came from, which I have her permission to share with you.
As mentioned, she had a very chaotic childhood.
There was a lot of absentee parenting, a lot of emotional neglect, and also a heavy dose of verbal abuse that sometimes turned violent. It wasn’t really bad enough for social services to get involved – but it could have been. And as a young teen, my friend was old enough to be worrying about what would happen if ‘outsiders’ find out how crazy it really is in my home?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was struggling in school. There was no-one to encourage her to do her homework, no-one to get her to show up on time. Yet, whenever she was hauled into the principal’s office for a talking to, she always concocted a fantastic web of lies, to provide a diversion to what was really going on behind closed doors.
The dog she didn’t have was always eating her homework, the train was always late, the bus always developed a flat tyre….
Of course, the principal didn’t buy all this, but as my friend didn’t back down from her lies, she had no choice but to ‘go along’ with the deceit, and to try to relate to her from that place.
So, my friend was going through the Connection exercise, when suddenly that scene with the principal popped into her head, and she suddenly realized why she could never ask for help:
Because she could never truthfully describe what the real problem was.
The real problem was not that she was disorganized, didn’t care about her school work, lacked motivation, kept losing her travelcard. The real problem is that she came from a totally dysfunctional family that sapped all her energy and organization as soon as she stepped over the threshold of her house. And she wasn’t about to open that can of worms up to anyone, in case social services got involved.
So, she lied about her homework, lied about what happened to her PE kit, lied about all the emotional dysfunction and chaos swirling around at home. And the help that was offered to her was always dealing with the ‘lie’ of what the problem actually was, as opposed to the truth – so it was essentially worthless.
It wouldn’t solve the real problem, because my friend couldn’t express it.
In the exercise, she went back to that time in the principal’s office, and for the first time in her life, she told the truth. She wasn’t lazy, disorganized, rebellious – anything but! She was struggling to keep things together in some very challenging circumstances.
And there was no ‘help’ that the principal could give her, because that help ran the risk of getting social services involved, which was a massive childhood fear for my friend.
After she completed the exercise, she told me she felt a huge weight roll off her. Now, she finally understood why she has such a hard time really asking for help – because she can’t truthfully articulate her needs.
Telling the truth about what’s going wrong, what’s overwhelming, has always been too scary for her. But now, just maybe, the door has creaked open for that to start to change.
For more on Efim Svirksy and his excellent book Connection, go HERE.