All You Gotta Do Is Ask
My eyes would say -- "Thank you. I see you." And their eyes would say -- "Nobody ever sees me. Thank you."
Over the summer, during lockdown, I got into playing this online game, “Township”. You start with a little farmstead, and you invest time and sometimes money into developing your place into a thriving metropolitan economy. You grow produce, which you sell on to customers, or process into more sophisticated goods. (Township doesn’t seem to have a service economy, so there are no therapists here). To encourage and facilitate community spirit, there is also an “ask for help” feature – if you lack the goods to fulfil an order, you can ask the Township-playing community to supply the shortfall.
It seems that, unchecked, I am a compulsive helper; and if I didn’t know that before, I would surely have noticed playing this game. I can actually feel the jolt of feel-good brain chemicals when a request comes in that I can fulfil. And the disappointment if I can’t.
What took longer to compute is that in the architecture of the game, if no-one asks, I can’t give. If I don’t ask, others can’t give. This is was hard for me to notice, because I grew up with an understanding that giving and helping should happen proactively and without an invitation. I explicitly learned, “If I have to ask for it, it’s not a gift. It’s not worth having.” If you are a compulsive giver/helper yourself, think about that. Does any aspect of it resonate?
Why on earth is it so hard to ask for help? This is a question clients generally don’t ask me… the prohibition on asking in our culture is so embedded that it’s rarely visible enough to challenge. Clients do ask me though why no-one is there in their lives to help them? Or they complain about the selfishness of others who seem to get provided with support that they themselves lack. Asking for help though, is commonly perceived particularly by the potential asker as selfish, or weak, or impossibly shameful. This is true of self-described “people pleasers,” but in my experience it’s endemic in our culture. Conversely, the minority who can and do ask effortlessly and shamelessly are then often labelled exploitative, manipulative or lazy.
I watched a great TED talk yesterday on an aspect of this theme – musician Amanda Palmer talks from experience of the joy of what happens when you ask – what happens for you, for the person you ask, and for the bonds between us.
And the media asked, "Amanda, the music business is tanking and you encourage piracy. How did you make all these people pay for music?" And the real answer is, I didn't make them. I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I'd connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you.
I’m not saying for a minute that problematic beliefs about asking and giving and helping are some crazy shit dreamt up by people pleasers. Humans learn what they learn in the reality of the environment around them when they’re little, and even in a generous, loving, supportive environment it’s not possible to have every single one of our wants and needs met as soon as we voice them. If we’re unlucky to be born into a family where people are stressed, or ill, or poor, then the number of occasions when as children we ask and we don’t receive, they are probably going to be higher. And if that family is situated in a culture that endorses and values individualism, self-determination, and independence, then of course it becomes painful and shaming to have to ask.
That doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t though. An important part of growing up, emotionally and socially, is learning to test and re-test the internal guidelines we laid down for ourselves as youngsters, to make sure they are still appropriate and effective in dealing with the world currently around us, and not creating more problems than they solve! This is important for all our core beliefs, but I think it’s especially vital for this one, because, frankly, life is hard enough without believing we have to struggle through it on our own. It may be literally true that when we asked for things when we were little, what we got was disappointment, or derision, or punishment. How do we know that’s still what would happen? The only rational way is to conduct the experiment and see.
I’m still an apprentice in the world of asking, finding out what I will let myself ask for and what I won’t. It’s a world of wonder though, because being able to ask for myself also opens me up to be able to appreciate when I see others do it (I don’t have to be envious and hostile about others’ asking). As a striking example, a dear friend of mine received over $16,000 to help pay his medical costs in the US – that’s just amazing. He (not without difficulty and apprehension) asked, and people gave.
I’m really lucky in my work that the nature of the situation means that the people I work with have all, somehow, managed to reach out for help - often expecting not to get help. They may contact a therapist because they know that the offer of help (or something) is built into the understanding of what I do, so in a way they don’t explicitly have to ask. Or they may believe they can’t get help from friends and family, so it’s better – safer – to pay a professional. I think the first time I contacted a therapist, both of those things were true. But in any case, they’ve reached out. That’s a great place to start the work from.