Lately I have been thinking a lot about how we reach out and ask for support when we need it. Knowing what you need and asking for it are two things that a lot of people are surprisingly not very good at. These are not skills we are born with, nor are they emphasized at school. Unless you have parents or other adults in your life who modeled this behavior, it is totally possible to reach full adulthood with no idea how to tune in to what it is you need and how to communicate those needs to others. You may even feel like needing things from others is not ok, that it is better to be completely self-sufficient and able to handle things on your own.
Well, my friends, I am here to tell you that that is bullshit. I don’t care how mature or independent you think you are, at the end of the day, we all need help sometimes and learning to admit that is one of the strongest and most vulnerable acts there is. Whatever you are going through, you don’t have to go through it alone.
Look, I am all for being self-sufficient and independent. I personally have spent a lifetime learning to rely on myself and be comfortable on my own. But I have also spent that time learning what my limits are and knowing when I am in over my head and could use some support. Knowing yourself well enough to be able to admit that you can’t do something on your own is a valuable skill and one that has served me very well in these past few months, which have been some of the toughest in my life.
Born to be social
Humans were not made to be solitary creatures. Part of why we are so successful as a species is precisely because we are not solitary creatures.
We are born completely vulnerable and dependent and it takes years of child care before we are capable to venture into the world alone. On the flip side, animals like blue wildebeests are able to walk within thirty minutes of being born and most turtles never even meet their parents, who lay their eggs and are long gone by the time their little ones hatch. Compared to many other animals, humans are born highly underdeveloped.
This is partly due to the simple fact that if our brains and skulls were any larger in the womb, we would not be able to fit through our mother’s pelvis when we are born, so we have to do a lot of our growing and maturing out in the world. But it also has to do with how much we learn about behavior and social interaction from our parents. Humans are highly social creatures with complex communication skills that involve much more than just language abilities. We are not born with instincts that tell us how to build trust with someone or how to create a lasting friendship or build a strong community. We have to learn these skills through watching the adults in our lives interact and through our own trial and error with other people.
When we are little, we are pretty good at asking for help because we recognize that people who are bigger than us generally seem to know more than us and are physically capable of a lot more than we are. A big part of getting older is gaining independence and becoming able to do things on our own, as we develop our brains and our motor skills and explore the world around us. My little nephew Finn, who is fast approaching three years old, loves to hold the phone himself while video calling me, even though it usually ends up pointing at the ceiling, indignantly insisting “Finn do it!” if his mom tries to offer any kind of assistance.
This of course continues into teenage years as independence from one’s parents becomes more crucial than ever to developing one’s own identity and sense of self. And as we journey into adulthood, this independence is reinforced with messages to stand out from the crowd, forge your own path, and become a “self-made” person. Learning to be a self-sufficient individual is an important aspect of the human experience and everyone should have the chance to create their own authentic and unique identity.
But the truth is that humans are not made to be completely solo creatures and I think sometimes we forget that we can be independent individuals and still belong to and rely on a greater collective network. We did not evolve to live solitary lives and solve problems in isolation from others. We made the evolutionary trade-off that we would be born less developed so that, in the long run, we would have the benefit of bigger, more complex brains that allow us to form extensive social networks and highly specific communication.
Our biology is geared towards living and working in groups and that requires a certain amount of trust, support, communication, and love. We have the amazing ability to share both our joys and our sorrows, to rally around each other in both times of need and times of prosperity. We simply were not made to suffer through life’s challenges alone.
Yet sadly, many of us think that our struggles are ours alone to carry. We are afraid of being a burden to others, of bringing them down with our sadness. We do not want to ask for help because that shows vulnerability, which we often see as a weakness. Even if we want to ask for help, we may be so out of practice and so out of touch with our own needs that we have no idea how to ask or what to ask for.
Asking for what you need
In the first couple of weeks following my recent breakup, it was very hard for me to be by myself. At that time, the wound was too fresh and my mind too overwhelmed for me to be left alone for more than a few minutes with my own thoughts without spiraling into a deep despair. Fortunately, I have a pretty extensive support network of friends and family and I knew that this was the time to draw on them as much as I could.
Any time someone messaged or called with an offer such as “If there is anything you need, let me know” I decided that I would take them up on that offer. I scheduled video chats and movie nights with as many people as I possibly could. I called friends I hadn’t talked to in months and I shared that I was going through a rough time and could really use some company. When I found myself with a stretch of time during which I hadn’t managed to plan anything, I crossed the street to my friend Jessie’s house and asked if she wanted to go for a run, or if I could just come in and sit with her and her partner while they cooked breakfast.
Rather than closing down to the world around me and forcing myself to suffer through my pain on my own, I opened up as much as I could and asked my loved ones to share in my sadness with me, to support me in my time of need. I found the strength to be honest about how much I was hurting and I trusted others to be there for me, even if there was nothing they could do to fix it or make it better.
What I have found over the past two months is that most of the people in my life were willing and eager to be there for me – all I had to do was ask. It really was that simple.
The part of asking that is less simple is knowing exactly what it is that you need. Sometimes when we are deep in grief and sorrow, it is hard to know what our needs are and what we could ask for that might make us feel better. All of the offers of support in the world aren’t going to help if we don’t give people an idea of what they could do to support us.
For some of us, that support may mean asking others to cook us meals or take us grocery shopping. It may mean sitting together and watching a movie. It may mean being able to talk out loud and process every single detail of the thing that happened to you, or it may mean talking about anything other than your pain so you can have a few minutes of respite from thinking about it. It may mean simply sitting together in the same room while working on your computers or reading a book while saying nothing at all. It may mean asking someone to send you funny cat videos on a daily basis, or recommending a good podcast to listen to. It may even mean asking someone not to contact you so that you have time and space to heal on your own.
Whatever you feel like you need to get you through your grief, you must learn how to be comfortable asking those you love to give it. These needs may even change on a daily or weekly basis and that is ok too. I think that most of us really want to help those we love who are struggling and it is hard for us when we know someone is hurting but we don’t know how to help. Asking for something specific can not only be beneficial to the person who is hurting, but it can help their loved ones feel like they are able to help in some small way, even if all you need them to do is sit with you and allow you to cry.
I know that for me, the thing I needed most was company and compassion. I didn’t need anyone to give me super deep meaningful advice or to solve my problems for me. I knew that nothing could take away the pain of losing the most important romantic relationship I had ever had. Mostly I just needed people to be there with me in my sorrow and offer love and empathy for the pain I was going through.
My friends and my family have been absolutely amazing during this time and I am incredibly grateful for the support I have received. On nights when I couldn’t stop crying, I would call my mom and pour my heart out, sharing all of my deepest fears and vulnerabilities as they spilled out of me, threatening to overwhelm my entire being. My mom never tried to fix my problems or get me to stop being sad, she just listened and acted as a loving witness for my pain and I knew her heart was breaking for me. Eventually, the crying would cease, my breathing would slow, and, exhausted from the effort, I would be able to finally fall asleep.
Thankfully, as time has gone on, the need to fill every second of the day with diversions for my chaotic mind has lessened, but I still greatly appreciate any opportunity for distraction and connection. The sharp throbbing pain of heartbreak has gradually morphed into an underlying current of sadness that seems to have settled in for the long haul, like an unwanted guest who has long overstayed its welcome. And since it doesn’t seem to have plans to depart any time soon, I have learned to sit quietly with just myself and my pain for company, rather than doing everything I can not to be alone with it.
No quick fix
For a while, I was feeling very frustrated as the days went on and I was still feeling such intense sadness. In most of my previous breakups, I felt like I was able to heal and move on relatively quickly and I had been hoping that this would follow the same pattern. But this relationship wasn’t like all of those other relationships and neither is this breakup.
So, part of my healing process has been learning to accept that there is no quick fix and no predicting how long I will feel this way. I can continue to feel frustrated and wish for things to miraculously get better, or I can accept that this is a difficult time in my life, reach out for help when I need it, and know that even if it feels unending, it will not last forever.
In the meantime, I can continue to live my life and focus on the things I can control. I can see my friends, go hiking, write my blog, make music, and enjoy good food, even though I know that at the end of the day when I return home, that morose house guest will still be there waiting for me. When I crawl into bed after a long tiring day, it will curl up beside me, clutching at my tender heart as I shed a few tears, but I will not allow it to keep me from moving on with my life and doing the things that I know make me happy. I will continue to take it one day at a time, asking for help when I need it and surrendering to whatever else this crazy life has in store for me.