Listen to this story
I’ve been leading support groups for a while now, and one of the more interesting themes I’ve noticed is a DIY (“do-it-yourself”) attitude toward our mental health work. Overall, this is healthy and true. We are each responsible for our own emotional experience, and activities such as journaling, meditation, and mindfulness are typically solitary experiences.
In truth, these more solitary activities are foundations for the bigger work that comes down the road for us. As we start to heal our little wounds, we gain confidence in the process and the capacity to approach some of our deeper hurts. (I like to use the onion analogy: We start by handling all the surface layers, and as we make our way through each layer, we get closer and closer to the central issues of our lives.)
Eventually, we start to see outward evidence of our healing. Maybe we begin to engage with our friends more frequently, or perhaps we start looking for a new job. Inevitably, someone who knows us is encouraged by the progress we are making and offers a helping hand. “Hey, I know someone who is hiring; want me to make a recommendation?”
For the emotionally healthy, the default response here would probably be, “yes, please.”
But those of us in a storm might kindly refuse.
I’ve crossed paths with this specific scenario multiple times, both in my work and my personal life. Those who refuse the help will typically explain the decision with something like, “I want to know I did it on my own.”
I think this is, at least partially, a cultural response: Here in the United States, we worship at the altars of Ayn Rand and the proverbial bootstraps. We adore the self-made success story, holding them up as examples of what a little hard work and determination can achieve.
We rely on societal structures to help protect us, guide us, and meet our fundamental needs.
But no one succeeds in a vacuum. We are all inter-reliant upon each other. To deny this core truth is to deny our essential humanity.
Humans, like primates, great cats, and elephants (among others), are social creatures. We rely on societal structures to help protect us, guide us, and meet our fundamental needs. Homo sapiens is not designed to be a solitary, solely self-reliant creature. We are not commonly found in the middle of forests, individually foraging and making hunting tools while constructing shelter and fending off predators. We don’t come together solely for the purpose of propagating our species.
So why do we insist that our success is only valid if we achieve it without any aid?
For those of us living with a mental illness, this philosophy feeds into the already-broken record playing in our brains. The same way one small piece of criticism outweighs a mountain of praise, the idea of accepting help inflames the sense of inadequacy that our disorders have implanted deep within our psyches.
Our minds tell us “everyone else is handling it,” and “I should be able to do this alone.” In this distorted mirror of reality, accepting any help is an admission of failure, rather than a recognition that we are human and interdependent upon each other. Sometimes, we need to accept help, just like anyone else.
Beyond feeding into our sense of inadequacy, many of us worry that achieving our goal with assistance means we won’t feel the same sense of accomplishment we would feel if we’d gone it alone. We discount our success when we see it as group collaboration, instead of taking pride in the piece of the puzzle we contributed.
I’ve witnessed people — men and women, although mostly women — defer congratulations and praise by pointing out all the ways they got help along the way. One example that commonly pops up in my groups is this gem: “I wouldn’t have gotten the promotion if Dave hadn’t spoken up for me.” This is a common and insidious way to discount our own success. We forget that, to receive this help, we had to impress Dave in the first place. Would Dave speak up for us if he thought we weren’t qualified? Wouldn’t he endorse a different candidate if he thought we weren’t up to snuff?
Underlying all of this is a cultural celebration of humility and self-deprecation. While being boastful or arrogant isn’t a good look on anyone, too often we lean in the opposite direction. We don’t say, “I’m a great writer” or “I have a gift for public speaking.” Instead, we say, “I like writing,” or, “I’m not sure what audiences like about me, but I appreciate it.”
While being boastful or arrogant isn’t a good look on anyone, too often we lean in the opposite direction.
When we deny our gifts and strengths, we also deny that we have areas of weakness. We can’t be amazing at everything — that’s simply not how we’re designed — but we can improve if we’re realistic about where we fall short. One thing I’ve learned is that acknowledging my strengths allows me to acknowledge my weaknesses. And in recognizing those deficits, I can pinpoint where, and how, I need help.
Here’s a good example: I am pretty good in a one-on-one situation with a stranger or friend, and I handle myself reasonably well in groups of up to eight or so people — when I already know most of them. Meanwhile, networking events are my kryptonite. I am extremely uncomfortable with walking up to a stranger and introducing myself. This is a limiting weakness, and one I’ve worked on with little improvement.
Does my weakness mean that I don’t deserve help?
My girlfriend, however, shines at these events. Knowing that I struggle, she pulls me along in her wake. I meet the people she meets, and she carefully weaves me into the conversation. Once engaged with the new person, I am able to appropriately participate and establish a new relationship. She provides me an anchor of comfort and stability in what is, for me, a chaotic and overwhelming environment.
So, does my weakness mean that I don’t deserve help? Does it mean that I should just focus on making it all better myself? Or should I allow my friend to use her strengths to lift me up?
When I’ve attended these events on my own, she’s expressed frustration with me. “Teresa, I love doing this stuff. I had nothing going on that night. Why didn’t you invite me?” When I don’t include her, when I don’t ask for her help, I deny her the opportunity to use her gifts and strengths.
What kind of friend is that?
I’m not saying that asking for help is easy. I’m not saying there isn’t merit to striking out on our own and learning to improve our areas of weakness. I’m merely saying that we all have gifts, we all have strengths, and the more we focus on improving and operating within them, the happier and more effective we will be. And that leaves room for others to step into our lives and contribute in a meaningful manner.
In asking for help, in understanding that we are not meant to live this life alone, we build stronger relationships. Paradoxically, in allowing others to bolster our weaknesses, we gain confidence as we’re now free to operate in our areas of strength. That confidence is important in helping us feel better and progress on our road to mental health.
So the next time you find yourself pursuing a DIY path to success, I encourage you to step back and examine your reasons. Regardless of whether you decide to continue on as is or invite someone else to assist, at least it becomes a decision — not a default mode of operation.
These are the decisions that lead to mental health. These are the decisions that lead to freedom.