"Help", said the horse.
There are some themes which emerge from coaching clients that transcend the boundaries of gender, class and origin – imposter syndrome, fear, not being good enough, low self-esteem…yet there is one theme that has emerged more strongly than any other in my work over the past year – that of not being able to be helped. This is more than not being able to ask for help, as so beautifully illustrated by Charlie Mackesy in his quite wonderful book 'The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse' (2019). It is also about not being able to accept help when it is offered by those that love us.
Some people describe themselves as ‘impossible to help’, or visibly shudder when asked to consider accepting help, and it’s not just clients. I see it in my family life, at work, with my friends and peers. In a peer coaching context just this week it again arose – an almost visceral reaction to the concept of needing help. So what does it mean to ask for and accept help? For some it is seen as a weakness, a burden, a forfeit of independence.. Why do I need help? I’m strong, capable – even invincible surely? If I ask for help that means I’m a failure, I’ll have to expose my vulnerabilities (that’s a blog in itself), I’ll feel guilty for imposing et cetera et cetera. For others they may have asked for help in the past, been refused, felt shame, vowed never to experience that again - regardless of current circumstances that may be very different.
Additionally social media perpetuates the myth of perfect and easy lives of others, and despite knowing that #facebooklife is far from representative of reality, it becomes ever more challenging to admit that you can’t do it all by yourself. There are feelings of embarrassment, imposition, inadequacy. Everybody else is pasting on their veneer of coping, so why can’t I? We know that this is a myth, but we choose to believe it because it feeds our societally imposed narrative of strength and success through individualism.
The flip side of this, is that the other one singular desire I have observed from every client this past year, is the desire to help others, to give back, to find meaning, and contribute to society in both local terms, and also as part of the bigger picture. We have created a paradox where we want to give help but refuse to accept it. One cannot happen without the other. It’s time to reframe how we think of accepting help, to think of it as a kindness to others. By refusing help, we deny those that love us the opportunity to give back to us, we deny them their opportunity to contribute to something of great importance to them. Consider how it feels to be asked for help - what that means to you when a loved one comes to you. In turn, ask yourself: ‘am I difficult to help?’… and if so, ask a loved one ‘what would it mean to you if I let you help me?’, ‘how would it make you feel?’.
It does indeed take great courage to ask for help, but there is such strength in this vulnerability. It allows others to connect and relate to us. Not knowing how to do everything makes us real to others and receiving support actually helps our own self-care and growth as well as theirs. This article in Psyched online reminds us that 'others are often more compassionate and forgiving towards us than we are to ourselves' (which probably comes as no great surprise). What is interesting to reflect on, however, is what is means to someone when you let yourself receive their support, and how a relationship can flourish in 'these tender spaces of interdependence' - whether that's at work, family or with friends.
So next time you feel overwhelmed, scared, stuck, alone or just a bit unsure, try accepting some help. As you have the desire to help others, perhaps let someone help you. The benefits might just surprise you.
[illustrations from (Mackesy, C., 2019) "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" published by Ebury Press, London.]