One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on "going it alone." Somehow we've come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we're very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It's as if we've divided the world into "those who offer help" and "those who need help." The truth is that we are both.
There is a widespread myth in our culture that suggests that asking for help means that we are needy, weak and powerless. I propose that a shift needs to be made in how we perceive asking for help and what it really means for us to receive support. A few years ago I had the good fortune of spending a weekend with poet and teacher Mark Nepo to explore some of the teachings in his book called The Endless Practice: Becoming Who You Were Born To Be. One of the paradoxes that we explored was the challenge to “have the courage to ask for what we need, only to practice accepting what we’re given.”
It’s relatively easy to ask for help when our problem is physically or externally related. If our car isn’t running well, for example, we take it to a mechanic or if our teeth are bothering us, we pay a visit to the dentist. It gets more tricky when we are struggling with an emotional, psychological or even spiritual challenge. We can feel scared, lost, confused or overwhelmed and in need of help to honor the inner work that we are being called toward. When dealing with the uncertainty of personal challenge and life transition it can be difficult to clearly understand exactly what we need; thus making it impossible to ask for specific help.
When working with clients in my coaching practice, I first help them with this process of clarifying their needs. Here are a few questions to ask in order to identify the particular kind of support that would be most helpful:
Where am I right now?
When we consider our lives as a series of cycles, we are better able to recognize which season we are currently experiencing. We all live through periods of loss, regeneration and new growth. This is a common phenomenon that relates not only to the natural world, but to our own growth process as well. What season do you currently find yourself in? Have you recently suffered a loss of some kind such as death, divorce or illness? Perhaps you are in the early stages of a relationship or project? Maybe you are traversing "the Middleland" --the desert of transition between loss and new growth where nothing seems to be happening either outwardly or inwardly. Simply recognizing where we are in the cycle can offer some perspective to where we are headed and the kind of support that will be required.
What’s the problem?
Once we identify which season we are in, our attention can shift to the particular challenge or difficulty that we are facing. Every problem has a purpose. Our personal work is to uncover the deeper calling. In a season of loss, for example, we may be experiencing anger or grief that surfaces when we lose something that has been important to us. Vulnerability, excitement and fear may arise when we are beginning a new project or relationship. Confusion, loss of hope or lack of clear vision may envelop us when we are in the desert phase of transition. We may find ourselves in different phases of the cycle as we consider the various aspects of our lives. Depending on where we are in any given area of our lives, we will be experiencing some particular flavor of blessing/challenge along with specific needs that arise. The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says, “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” So which is true for you now--are you falling apart or together?
What do I need?
When you have a sense of where you are and the specific nature of your difficulty or challenge, you can ask the question--what do I really need now? Aside from more severe psychological disturbances that may require medical treatment options, a few responses might be:
Witnessing--One of the most powerful things we do for one another is to simply “hold space” and listen. Witnessing involves showing up with our full presence and opening to meet another exactly as they are. The one holding space brings compassion and empathy to the relationship. Without a need to fix or change anything, witnessing honors the ability of another to engage in their own process fully and develops trust in allowing their experience to lead the way forward. Most importantly it provides permission for both people to honor whatever the experience holds without expectation or attachment to a certain outcome.
Acknowledgment and reflection--It is tremendously helpful to hear our own thoughts, words and feelings mirrored back to us. Active listening involves both witnessing and reflecting back what we have heard. Again, the intention is not to change the other person, but rather to hold up their truth with empathy and allow them to witness it from the vantage point of another human being. Often it feels like enough to be seen and heard in this way and fulfills an emotional connection that we need during both exciting and difficult times of change.
Feedback--Sometimes we not only want to be witnessed and acknowledged, but also given feedback on our situation or life circumstance. Giving feedback is different from giving advice in that it involves the skill and experience of both the giver and receiver. Feedback might involve asking questions to help clarify the situation and provide a space for the one giving feedback to share their unique perspective when appropriate. There is no “right or wrong” when it comes to giving feedback--just that it is relevant to the one asking and authentic to the one giving. Ultimately the one asking is responsible in discerning what fits for them.
Guidance--Guidance is similar to feedback in that it requires a mutually respectful relationship between two people. Like a teacher/student partnership, one is in search of some particular understanding or experience and relies on the expertise and knowledge of the other to move toward that desired end. This type of alliance requires both safety and trust and is one of the most delicate relationships. It is important that when seeking guidance you always check it with your own heart. I am in favor of helping others connect to their own inner guidance rather than relying totally on another human being. In this way, the one helping relies on the natural ability of the one asking to find their own answers. At the deepest level every “problem” also contains its own “answer.” Directing someone to their own heart and intuitive guidance is both extremely effective and empowering. All of the best teachers and guides really only open the way to our own deep inner knowing.
Accountability--In order to follow through on what is most important to us, sometimes it’s helpful to step into the framework of accountability. Knowing that we are ultimately responsible for taking the action in our lives that will move us forward, it's too easy to let ourselves off the hook when left to our own devices. However, when we have someone to check-in with regularly, it is much easier to stay on track. Having someone that we are accountable to keeps us honest and aligned with our greatest values and visions.
Who can best help me?
Now that you have a better sense of where you are, what your problem is, and what, specifically, you need, you can turn to the question of who can best help? If what you need is someone to just listen, then maybe a close friend or therapist is the answer. Maybe you are needing some clarity, guidance or direction, in which case a life coach, spiritual guide or teacher may best serve you. Depending on your situation any combination of counselors, ministers, therapists, healers, teachers, coaches, partners, mentors, friends, animals, the natural world, solitude, books, workshops/retreats, classes, etc. can all provide a great amount of support. Keep seeking out what you need until you find it--sometimes it takes a fair amount of experimentation before we find the right combination of support.
The truth is that we ALL need help and cannot do this life alone. The wondrous alchemy of asking is that, as Mark Nepo taught, through the courageous act of asking itself we are often shown what we are made of. That kind of courage is its own reward. What we receive is not always as important as what we gain from becoming aware of what we need and then making a request. Also, as I have personally witnessed, through the process of asking and receiving we get to discover things about ourselves that we may not learn in any other way. It pushes us toward cultivating relationships and into greater intimacy--not just with another person--but with ourselves through the very thing that we are needing. Our own need contains the exact ingredients for its fulfillment. Asking for help is nourishing for all involved when the giving and receiving can be seen as a life-affirming exchange of energy rather than a tit-for-tat transaction. It's time to see our needs as guides to our own self-empowerment through relationship rather than weaknesses that decrease our personal value as individuals. I believe that when you truly connect with people, they want to help you.
Take some time to answer these questions for yourself and then have the courage to ask for help in some way. Notice what you discover in the process and then be willing to accept what you are given!
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