Karen Kleiman MSW, LCSW

This Isn't What I Expected

Why Women Should Learn to Ask For Help

It may help you get better sooner.

Posted Sep 29, 2011

This is a topic I have addressed previously on PT. But today when I read Katherine Stone's post about asking for help, it reinforced how significant this issue continues to be. For those women who have been fortunate enough to have found Katherine and her blog, she has proven to be a source of enduring support and reliable information. Her article is titled, "5 Reasons Why Asking for Help Sucks". When you read it, you will find the voices of many women who share a common concern. They are women who, by and large, prefer to take care of things themselves and often perceive asking for help as a personal failing or an admission of weakness.  

This is not a new concept, but it's particularly interesting to me when I think about how many postpartum women I treat and how universal this mind-set seems to be. As a result I began to think about my own inclinations, as I often to do when something strikes me as so relevant to the work I do.

It's not difficult for me to ask for help.  You see, I have a low tolerance for discomfort. (I firmly believe this was etched into my infant brain as the incubator protected my preemie self from acute respiratory distress. But that's another story.) Either because, or in spite of my predisposition to high levels of distress, I quickly found myself unable (unwilling?) to successfully manage stress on my own (Um, perhaps... EID = early incubator dependence or something like that?) Although we teach the benefits of a more mindful response to stress and the development of self-regulatory skills, I believe there should be a realistic balance between monitoring your own (body/mind) response to stress and reaching out for support. 

Despite my exposure to generations of strong, independent women who rarely asked for help with any obstacle, I learned, early on, that my asking for help would be a quicker? better? easier? way to relieve my unease at any given moment. So as a child, I learned to go to my parents, my friends, and my teachers. I went to my principal, school newspaper, or store management to complain when things didn't settle the way I wanted them to. I found that when I expressed what I needed with the self-esteem to back it up, I would increase the likelihood that I would get what I needed.  Or wanted. Later in life, I learned to express myself to my boss, to my doctor or other people of authority, when I felt dissatisfied.  During that time, I was simultaneously learning skills to take care of myself and understanding the merit of taking advantage of the resources available to me. There is great power to be gained from combining those two forces.

Throughout the course of my life, I have managed to embarrass by children by asking for help with anxious situations in a number of very public places. Here are a couple of examples:

• I asked my dentist to sit and hold my hand and tell me a story before he tortured me by inserting a dental impression tray into my mouth for a full six minutes (back in those days). He skeptically complied and took me on an imaginary trip to Bermuda, complete with martinis on the beach, much to the astonishment of his dutiful staff who preferred he be somewhere else at that time!

• I told a 20-something yr old precious blonde airline attendant that I was on my way to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show and I wasn't a fan of flying and both of those things were making me a nervous wreck. She promised she would "take care of everything" and seated me in the front row so she could "keep her eyes on" me. When I heard the gentleman behind me say something about being a pulmonologist, I turned behind me and said, "Oh good, then you can resuscitate me if I stop breathing?" He smiled and asked if I wanted him to sit next to me. I said YES, please, and he's still a dear friend of mine today, 25 years later.

I do not believe it diminishes what we are good at, if we let someone (or many) know we are also not good at something else.  I think it takes strength to let others know we have weaknesses.

Readers of Katherine's blog should be reassured to find scores of women who share their reluctance to ask for help. I understand their hesitation. I understand their desire to clutch tightly to their own resources without exposing vulnerabilities. But what I'm not so sure of is whether this resistance, in fact, is making some women sicker, or even predisposing them to getting sick in the first place. 

Of course it's easier to ask for help when one is feeling generally healthy and it is a far different experience when one is ill or silenced by symptoms of depression. But I can't help but wonder whether a woman's predisposition toward asking for or not asking for help can directly influence the course of her illness. We know that early intervention augments recovery. It leads me to believe, therefore, that whether this is something that is easy for you or not, it is certainly something you must do. It's right up there with, take your medication, get your sleep, eat your food. When symptoms pull you down and make it hard to breathe, asking for help is the first (best) thing you can do.

Let me be clear about this: there is no shame in asking for help. It is what strong women do to engage the support of others in order to maximize their own resources. In good times, we ask for help to share in the glory of our success. In difficult times, we ask for help to get us back on our natural track. No one is judging because they are doing it too. The failure to ask for help is a guaranteed impediment to progress.

Do not let symptoms get in your way of taking care of yourself.  Find your own strength.  Ask for help.

copyright 2011 Karen Kleiman, LCSW   postpartumstress.com

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