Everyone experiences difficulties in life. Why is it that some people have no trouble asking for help to overcome these difficulties while others in the same situations would seemingly rather do anything than ask for help?
Through my work as a psychotherapist, I have come to realize that asking for help feels very different for each person and is coloured by our earlier experiences of need. When we were very young we needed help with almost everything we attempted to do. As babies we needed help just to survive each day.
A person who has not received enough help will be very badly off in most cases. The popular myth in western society of the rugged individualist, the lone cowboy, is just that, a myth. No one survives early childhood unless they receive at least some sort of care. No one thrives without a great deal of it.
Picture a baby in a crib. The baby starts crying. The parent is in the next room working and has one ear attuned to listen to the level of urgency in the baby’s cry. The parent knows from experience that, except during very early infancy, the world cannot completely revolve around the desires of the baby. Dinner must be made. Life must go on. The baby adapts to this, learning to trust that if a serious problem occurs the parent will help. The realization that he or she is safe but that not every whim or need will be instantly gratified is what helps the baby to develop a sense of self, as an individual in the context of the family.
Picture another baby in a crib. This baby is also crying, has been crying for a long time. The parent is not listening. Something in the parent’s life is preventing attunement to the needs of the baby. The baby is on his/her own. This happens to every baby occasionally. When it happens on a regular basis the child is likely to suffer serious psychological and emotional consequences.
Crying is tiring. The child cannot go on forever calling for help that does not come. Unable to endure the continuing anguish, desperate to restore some form of mental/emotional stability, the child will adopt some primitive psychological defense against the terror that threatens to engulf him/her.
One such defense is to split off from the suffering aspect of the psyche by pushing it out of awareness into unconsciousness. This primitive denial works quite well in the moment but the suffering aspect of the self, pushed out of awareness, is now more alone than ever. Even if help should appear the baby no longer realizes the need for help and is unable to use it. The suffering part of the self, once denied, is beyond the reach of help. Babies who have experienced severe neglect often no longer cry and have difficulty responding to interaction with adults.
The adult who has survived this experience as a child is likely to avoid asking for help or even realizing that help is needed in any situation. The natural ability to ask for and receive what is needed has not been cultivated. The possibility of not being heard and responded to, of reliving that early anguish of painful abandonment is too great for this person to take the risk of even considering that they might need help.
It is an enormous act of faith for this person to take the risk of asking for help from another person. Whether they ask a therapist, a friend or family member, daring to hope that this time they will be helped when all their primitive fears are telling them that there is danger in even becoming aware of their need is no small act of courage.
Yet in that act lie the seeds of potential change.
For in daring to hope that our request for help will be heard and responded to with respect and compassion we allow for a new possibility. We can come to realize that while we may have to face certain problems ourselves that does not mean we have to face them in isolation.