- Research reveals that seeking assistance in times of distress fosters resilience.
- There exist numerous personal and "cultural" prohibitions to seeking assistance.
- The first step in changing behavior is changing counterproductive beliefs about assistance when needed.
In times of distress, the wise accept strength from those around them. The unwise suffer alone. The wise are lifted upon the shoulders of others. The unwise fall deeper into the abyss.
Life is, and always has been, a struggle. We live in challenging times with economic uncertainty, social upheaval, changing weather patterns, increasing community violence, and international conflicts. Coincidentally, or as a result of these adversities, we are retreating into loneliness, alienation, and interpersonal disengagement. Some surveys indicate 20 percent or more of respondents report they have no close friends, and up to 60 percent of respondents say they are lonely or depressed.
Research tells us that interpersonal support is the greatest predictor of human resilience. However, there is a problem. A significant number of people simply resist seeking support from others. Furthermore, some occupational and community cultures view seeking assistance from others in times of distress as unacceptable. Asking for help in times of crisis and distress is not only OK, I believe it is an obligation you have to those who care for you and depend upon you. They deserve no less. It may even be an obligation you have to future generations.
Lessons From History
We are told by social anthropologists and psychologists that the advancement of Homo sapiens, and even their predecessors, was largely a function of the willingness to cooperate and accept assistance from others.
Evidence suggests that Homo heidelbergensis, who lived more than 300,000 years ago, relied upon and survived largely because of mutual aid—the willingness to offer and accept support from others when needed. It is believed that Homo heidelbergensis formed collaboratives to hunt large animals in very close proximity. The same was true for the Neanderthals who came after them and, of course, Homo sapiens.
Fast-forward to the 5th century B.C. and we find the legendary warriors of Sparta fighting in phalanx formations consisting of lines of warriors with overlapping shields such that the shield of one warrior protected the man next to him. The overlapping shield formation was not only a battlefield tactic; it was a metaphor for the Spartan community. The loss of a javelin or even a sword (xiphos) in battle was accepted, but losing one's shield was to lose one's honor as the warrior was no longer part of the protective collaborative formation and, by extension, no longer part of the community.
John Donne (1572-1631) was an English cleric, poet, and writer. In the wake of a serious illness, he began to explore his own humanity. His book Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624) was the result of that exploration. In "Meditation XVII," he eloquently asserts the interconnectedness of humankind by use of metaphor: "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the [funeral] bells tolls; it tolls for thee."
If teamwork can be described as selfless, coordinated engagement to achieve a common goal, then we quickly understand the team is only as strong as the weakest link. This understanding is imperative in that it is true for Navy SEALs, firefighters, sports teams, and workgroups within virtually all organizations. It is true for families, as well. If this is true, the natural corollary is that seeking assistance when needed is not only wise; it is imperative. The failure to seek assistance when others rely on you might be seen by some as an act of selfishness for which others may pay a hefty price.
In short, to employ the phrase used by Jonas Salk, the survival of the wisest is predicated upon the ability to recognize the need for and the willingness to accept assistance from others. Accepting such assistance in the wake of adversity not only fosters resilience but can also foster growth. Darwin's evolutionary notion of the survival of the "fittest" seems to support this assertion. It may be that the fittest, from an evolutionary point of view, are those who are not only willing to offer help but also willing to accept it.
On this, Darwin and others who have written on the psychology and sociology of mutual aid are abundantly clear. The most "fit" have not only a drive for self-preservation but a drive for the preservation of their families and communities. Thus, we see the "lone wolf" attitude and the refusal to accept assistance in times of need may be counterproductive in the short term and even a weakness from a long-term survival perspective.
Myths About Asking for Help
Perhaps the first step in change is overcoming inaccurate beliefs. Misconceptions about asking for assistance include the following:
- I should be able to solve all problems for myself.
- No one wants to hear about my problems.
- Accepting help is a sign of weakness.
- Asking for assistance burdens others.
- There is really nothing that anyone can do to help.
- No one else has problems.
- If I ask for help, no one will trust my ability anymore.
- Asking for help will worry those who care for me.
The Truth About Asking for Help
Rather than signaling weakness, asking for assistance in time of need...
- Is a sign of strength and courage.
- Shows you care about those who care about you.
- Shows you care about those who depend upon you.
- Can help you be resilient and grow stronger than ever before.
- Makes you more trustworthy.
Factors Predicting Post-Adversity Growth
Growth in the wake of adversity does not occur spontaneously. Rather, we have identified factors we believe can lift you from the abyss and propel you to happiness and success like never before. They include:
- The willingness to ask for or accept help.
- Supportive relationships with others.
- A Weltanschauung (worldview) that allows you to either "make sense" of adversities and even tragedies or to simply move on beyond them.
- An optimistic vision for the future.
In a world fraught with social disconnection, disappointment, alienation, tragedy, and trauma, nemo relictus must become the rallying cry. No one is an island. No one is ever alone.
© George S. Everly., Jr., Ph.D., 2023.
Darwin, C. (1871/2019). The Descent of Man. Chapel Hill, NC: Gutenberg Project.
Donne, J. (1625/1959). Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Goetz JL, Keltner D, Simon-Thomas E. (2010). Compassion: an evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, May;136(3):351-74. doi: 10.1037/a0018807. PMID: 20438142; PMCID: PMC2864937.
Wispé, L. (1991). Chapter Two - Sympathy in a Biological Context: Charles Darwin and William McDougall. The psychology of sympathy. Plenum Press.