Michelle Elman on how to learn to ask for help
Why do we feel so much pressure to be self-reliant, and how come it is so hard to accept a helping hand? Columnist Michelle Elman delves into our curious obsession with independence, and the life-changing realisation that allowed her to welcome support
We live in a culture that encourages us to be strong and independent, but is it possible that we have gone too far? When there is so much pressure to do everything yourself, is it any wonder that we associate weakness with relying on other people?
Alongside the ‘strong independent woman’ trope that has been sold as an aspirational goal, I believe part of what has caused this is the fearmongering around being ‘codependent’. Codependency was defined by Melody Beattie, in her book Codependent No More, as “one who has let another person’s behaviour affect [them] and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behaviour.”
Of course, codependency brings its own set of problems, but have we run so far away from codependency that we are now on the opposite end of the spectrum: hyper independence?
Hyper independence is the belief that you are the only person you can rely on. It is often born out of a trauma where you have relied on someone in the past and been let down, so, as a result, you have a “if you want something done, you have to do it yourself” mentality. Consequently, instead of understanding that relying on others is not only normal, but necessary, you feel shame for not being strong enough to go it alone.
I used to be the same. The thinking behind my behaviour was that if I relied on someone, asked them for help or even just a favour, that made me vulnerable, and when you are vulnerable you are exposing yourself to being hurt. What I ignored was that the immense pressure I put on myself to do everything alone was incredibly isolating and, in fact, blocking me from forming genuine and intimate connections, because in order to ask for help, you need to allow yourself to trust others and let them in. And yes, that’s scary! But it’s worth it.
I tell the story in which I learned this myself in my new book, The Selfish Romantic. I had just come back from a funeral when the guy I had been on three dates with checked up on me to see how I was. Being so used to being single, and very hyper independent at that point, I shut down the conversation and said he didn’t need to worry, to go out with his friends, and I’d speak to him the next day. Hours later, he turned up at my door simply saying: “I thought you might want a hug,” and he was right. I really did.
Later that night, I said to him that it was really kind of him, but he didn’t have to come over and that I would have been fine. His response? “I know you would have been fine, but just because you can do it alone doesn’t mean you have to.” It taught me a valuable lesson to not only ask for what you need, but it was actually OK to ask if you didn’t need it, but you simply wanted it. I didn’t need a hug, I would have survived without one, but I sure did want one!
Letting someone in is terrifying. I was right, letting people in gives them potential to hurt you and use your vulnerability against you. But living a life where you don’t give anyone a chance to be there for you is incredibly lonely, and not the solution. Humans are sociable creatures. With our communities getting smaller and smaller, and our reliance on primary partners becoming greater, it can be really easy to feel alone. The way we counter this is by reaching out anyway.
When you feel like no one cares, text someone who you love. Remind yourself that if they sent the same text to you, you’d be there for them, and even if you feel like no one loves you, they do, and if you are hurting or just want some company, they would want to know. They can’t help you if they don’t know you need help. The more you give them a roadmap on how to help you, the more they can, so feel free to get as specific as possible. Tell them if you need a hug. Tell them if you need to hear a specific sentence that always makes you feel better. Tell people how to help you, and you’ll be shocked by how many people turn up.
When we ask for help, we risk rejection, but the rejection is still better than building a wall around us so that no one can access us at all. It is often the harder, braver and more vulnerable thing to ask someone for support, and it is so worth it.
Love, Michelle x
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