Asking For Help: Risk and Reward

Many of us have a difficult time asking for help in a general sense, but when it comes to reaching out to a counsellor, it can feel like an especially vulnerable undertaking. Many folks seek counselling when they have exhausted other forms of help or tried to manage things independently, and often valiantly.

Counselling may be seen as a “last ditch” option and while it may seem like a lot of unnecessary suffering to go through before reaching out to a therapist, I also respect people’s resourcefulness; while new counselling clients are often in a tough spot when they meet a counsellor for the first time, situations may have often been worse if it hadn’t been for their coping efforts up unto that point.

Barriers to Seeking Help

My general philosophy is that if seeking help were easy, people would just do it; it takes a lot of fortitude to reach out to a therapist. 

Many reasons may be fuelling a reluctance to ask for help, either from a counsellor, or more informally, from friends, family or co-workers or others:

We’re Just “Not Ready” To Ask For Help

This is perhaps the most frequently cited reason for why people do not seek help. Looking beyond the stereotype of the person who is not ready to reach out, there may be valid reasons for this. Seeking help, and in the process making changes, may create responsibilities that the person may not feel prepared to undertake. Further, there may not be a practical, social or emotional infrastructure in place that would make such changes feasible. For others, even the thought of reaching out brings up strong emotions, as in some of the examples below.

Asking for Help Makes Us Feel Vulnerable

Whether it’s the way we’ve grown up or attitudes we’ve picked up along the way, asking for help can make us feel that we now “owe” someone else for the help we’re received and we may not be able to tolerate that idea, even if the helper is honourable and there is no expectations of payback.  Feelings of vulnerability may also cause us to feel less “in control” and perhaps even needy, especially hard if we are used to taking care of everything ourselves and being, or feeling, independent.

Vulnerability may also be related to a pattern of people-pleasing and asking for help may feel in conflict with the desire to please others.

Asking for Help May Be Stigmatized or Stigmatizing

For those of us living in the Western world, independence and individualism are lauded and applauded. Societally, we are exposed to messages of “self made” individuals and the idea that anything is possible if you try hard enough and summon the will to do it.  Greeting cards congratulate us on our accomplishments, not the strength it took to reach out and ask for help. We may feel that something is wrong with us when we reach out, that this is “not normal.”

Asking for Help May be Seen as Weakness

Similar to vulnerability, with an extra dash of stigma mixed in, we may believe that reaching out represents a “failure” in coping and that somehow only “weak” people reach out.

Asking for Help Bruises Our Ego

This is often fuelled by deeper, unresolved insecurities and beliefs that we must be emotionally “strong,” even when this is not reasonable. We may feel insulted when someone suggests that we are in need of help.

It Was Unsafe to Ask for Help

If you have grown up in a traumatic family situation, asking for help was likely emotionally or physically unsafe.  Such requests may have been punished, ignored or used against you emotionally. Such childhood experiences make asking for help as an adult particularly difficult or even seemingly impossible.

Help Was Not Available Growing Up

Related to the last point, you may not have witnessed people helping one another and have no healthy examples to draw upon. Also, help may not have been available, common in situations of childhood neglect, leading to the development of learned helplessness — the accumulated knowledge that asking for help is futile since no help will ever be given.

Asking for Help Makes us Feel Anxious

Thinking about approaching a counsellor can be nerve-racking, even if we don’t suffer from anxiety. When you think about it logically, speaking to a stranger about sensitive topics can feel odd and can raise anxiety significantly, and if social anxiety  a problem, we may feel overwhelmed. There is the additional factor of fearing judgement from the counsellor, a common concern for first-time counselling clients.

Asking for Help, Particularly Counselling, is Something That Doesn’t Jive on Any Level

I’ve written previously about the fact that counselling is not for everyone, nor should it be. In such situations, if the person is open to other forms of help, this can still be very beneficial, or even better than counselling.

Too Much Life Chaos

Sometimes counselling just isn’t a realistic choice at a particular point in time. If you have too many commitments, no time for yourself, or life pressures to the extent that even keeping a counselling appointment is impossible, it may be more practical to delay this choice.

Benefits to Seeking Help

It’s Honest

Humans have a natural need for support–we are an interdependent species. We cannot actually survive without the help of others: it can be a neat exercise to reflect on where our food comes from, the roadways or bicycles we use, or even who picks up our recycling each week.

Connection and attachment to others is key for the survival of our species. Infants raised in orphanages without physical touch or affection have been shown to experience physical and emotional deficits, even death in some cases.

Has the Potential to Increase Emotional Connection With Others

Sometimes it’s when we ask someone to lend us a hand that we make a new friend or gain a new perspective. When our contact with others increases, we may feel less alone or unique, realizing that we are all connected as human beings. This can be hard to see when we’re isolating ourselves.

Relieves Mental and Practical Burdens

When we feel like we’re running on the hamster wheel of life, it can be a relief  to ask others to lend a hand. Sometimes it’s even that little bit of help that makes things manageable, reduces the sense of helplessness, jumpstarts problem solving or helps us know we’re not alone. And in crisis situations, support can be particularly helpful.

We Learn New Things

Many people seek help in counselling because they want to learn new skills and be exposed to different perspectives and ways of doing things. Challenging ourselves by asking for help with something that we have limited knowledge about, can ultimately improved our abilities and confidence.

Improves Efficiency

If we’re on a time schedule or feeling stressed, getting help can be the most direct way of getting a problem resolved. I breathed a sigh of relief when I YouTubed a particular bread- making technique that I could not understand. Five minutes later, I had a much better handle on things.

Allows Others to Give

Many times people want to know how they can help, particularly if they know you’re having a hard time; asking for their support can be a relief to the person who wants to be there for you. This can also increase emotional connection and make it more likely that they will ask for help from you in the future. Of course, there is such thing as asking for too much help. But this is another topic altogether!

Asking for Help Benefits Others

My last point is perhaps the most under-appreciated and least obvious. When we look after our needs, the world benefits. This, at some point along the way, involves asking for help. When we are looking after ourselves, we are often more patient, helpful, joyful, energetic, calm and centred. Realizing this was one of the key points for me that made reaching out to others ultimately possible.