One of my fellow counselling students, looking back on the course, said to me she thought the main reason she undertook five arduous years of study and self-reflection was because she needed an excuse to receive counselling. As the course requirements included over 40 hours of therapy there was no need for her to justify her counselling either to her family or to herself. This is perhaps an extreme way to organise counselling, but it does raise a question.
Why is it so hard to ask for the help we need?
Why do we struggle on, hoping for the best, but fearing the worst? What is it about asking that we find so difficult?
The act of asking for help exposes that we are vulnerable in the following ways:
- Asking shows we can’t cope
When we have to ask for help we are admitting - both to ourselves and to others - that we can’t manage on our own. Cultural influences (e.g., for men: “toxic masculinity”) may be telling us that asking for help means we’re weak. Alternatively there could be influences from childhood where we’ve had to learn to look after ourselves and to meet our own needs. As a result we may be carrying a burdensome belief that we have to “be strong”.
This means we feel bad if we admit we don’t know, we don’t understand, or we’re upset. We tell ourselves we should be more capable, we should have worked it out, we should have got it right by now. Essentially we are too ashamed to seek help.
When I’m working with people in the counselling room it is sometimes very difficult for them to disclose their feelings. The “be strong” imperative is so deep set, so taken for granted, that sometimes it is difficult to acknowledge their feelings to themselves, let alone to another person.
- Asking implies we’re stupid
If we believe that we should be able to solve our problems, then asking for help exposes us to the possibility of being embarrassed. We fear that we will be laughed at. We imagine a sneer on the GP’s face. We feel a hot flush of self-exposure by wasting someone’s time with something that is too trivial for professional help.
One of the ways that people show me their fear is they may joke about their difficulty. The humour is a way of testing out my response. If I don’t hear them well enough, they can laugh it off and pretend it was a joke. I try to let them know that I have heard them by being honest in my reaction. This may mean I’ll respond seriously to a joke which could expose me to ridicule. I can take it though. Sometimes it’s necessary to take the lead.
- Asking suggests we’re presumptuous
Who am I, we ask ourselves, to assume that I can waste someone’s valuable time? This is a belief that we’re simply not important enough to merit anyone’s attention. In the past, when we sought to have our needs met, we may have been told to be quiet and not to be selfish. The result can be a sense of unworthiness.
I notice this in people when they apologise for taking up my time. They might suggest that I have more difficult cases to work with. In fact counselling is about the everyday struggles that many of us experience such as sadness, loss, heartache, and fear. People who have waited to come to counselling have usually been very resourceful in trying to resolve their problems. They perhaps just need to work out a different approach and be supported as they make changes.
- Asking will open a can of worms
There can be a fear of what will result from asking for help. We can fear anything from a cancer diagnosis to overwhelming grief. Sometimes it seems easier to carry on coping, to put up and shut up, than to take a chance.
An analogy I learned at college was that counselling is like walking down a corridor. There are various rooms to examine but an individual is in charge of opening the door. When they are ready to look, the counsellor is there ready to support them. In some cases, such as trauma, there needs to be extensive preparation before the door opens - before a story is shared.
- Asking commits us to change
If we carry on as normal there is no need to face change. We may fear failure and all that it entails. We fear that we will be laughed at for trying. We pressurise ourselves to get it right first time and therefore we are not prepared to try.
Asking means taking a risk. We fear exposing who we really are to others. We fear exposing who we really are to ourselves:
- What if I am weak?
- What if I am stupid?
- What if I am unimportant?
- What if I am arrogant?
- What if I can’t cope with what I find?
In allowing these fears to dominate we forget to look at alternative scenarios:
- What if others understand the struggle?
- What if others respect me as another human being, in all my imperfection, and want to stand alongside me as I try to work things out?
- What if others want to help, but I don’t ask?
- What if I am important, valuable, significant in my own right?
- What if I can cope when I have the right support?
- What if I am stronger than I think?
Unless we’re prepared to consider these alternative scenarios, we will never find out.
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My video this week was about barriers to listening. If you're reading this on email you can watch it at www.thegoodenoughmum/videos