As I said at the end of my last post, it is my firm belief that connection to others is the single most important issue in most peoples’ lives – this should come as no surprise if we remember that it is very often because of problems in our relationships with those closest to us in our early lives that we are struggling in the first place, particularly those of us whose lives are blighted by core shame. Thus it makes sense that we will find the solution to our problems in the place where they were created – in relationships with others.
I am reminded of this issue constantly – every time I hear about someone with mental health problems whose needs are not being adequately met by the system – and the more I hear about it, the more frustrated, and despairing I get. IT IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE! As human beings, we need other human beings to help us. When we’re feeling sad, lonely, abandoned, agitated, anxious, wanting to self-harm, suicidal, or any of the unmanageable feelings that a suffering person might experience, we need someone to be there for us – not just anyone (as Professor Louis Appleby makes clear in his recent research on mental health inpatient suicide), but someone who knows how best to meet our needs, someone who genuinely cares for us, above all, someone with whom we feel SAFE.
This would ideally be someone to whom we are close, who knows us personally, and who can be there for us as often, and as much, as is necessary, but sadly, for many of us, this is not always possible, and we are forced to rely on professionals to fulfil that role. At present, mental health services are at breaking point, which means that staff cannot provide the interpersonal support that patients so desperately need. All the more reason then to encourage everyone to reach out – we must learn to ask for help (the very difficult bit for many of us), and we must help each other.
Asking for help – why is it so hard?
For those of us who have grown up poorly connected to those around us, asking for help is what I call a ‘foreign country’ – we are not used to getting our needs met, and have learnt from a very early age never to ask anyone for anything, because our requests for help have been met with either disinterest or displeasure. In my experience (both personal and professional), this is extremely hard to change, and will take some time, and a lot of patience and self-compassion, to overcome. We either fear rejection – our request will fall on deaf ears – or an angry response, and in either case, we have learnt to keep our needs to ourselves – in fact, we may no longer even be aware that we have needs, so successfully have we repressed them.
Those of us who have blocked out our needs become experts at not having any, and we expect to manage everything by ourselves – it simply would not occur to us to ask anyone for help if we were struggling, nor even to let anyone know that we were struggling. We’re the people who, when asked how we are by friends, always say that we’re ‘fine’, and quickly ask how they are – we are much happier talking about someone else’s needs than our own, because to express needs ourselves makes us feel weak and vulnerable, and therefore unsafe.
Asking for anything makes us feel needy (as I always say, if someone is ‘needy’, it’s because they have needs [!]), and this is not a pleasant feeling – I remember someone once saying that asking a parent for even the smallest, and most reasonable thing (like £2 for lunch), made her feel ‘like a leech’, because she felt that she had no right to ask, and it took many, many months to begin to change this.
As I write this, I briefly check my Twitter, and once again, I find that Emma Seppala has something to offer – this time on the subject of babies and their needs. I remember when my children were young, some parents praised the virtues of ‘controlled crying’, and couldn’t understand why I was spending so much time helping my children to get to sleep without tears (I learnt the importance of this from my mum). I never believed in leaving my children to cry, and I’m thrilled that neuroscience has now proved that it isn’t a good idea. Is it any wonder that so many of us find it hard to ask for help when we need it – we were probably subjected to the controlled crying regime!
Time for a change
Not having needs may have been an excellent coping mechanism in our family of origin, and may have served us very well for many years, but there comes a point in our lives where we begin to realise that it is no longer serving us very well at all – we find ourselves struggling, but totally unable to ask for help. We may have unconsciously surrounded ourselves with friends who don’t help us – despite the fact that we help them – and we feel isolated, unhappy and unsupported. We come to realise that what was once a survival strategy has become the thing that is now standing in the way of our recovery – it is time for a change, even though we may still be very resistant to that idea, and we have to take our courage in both hands, and start somewhere.
Where to start – a textbook example
I want to give you an update on the friend that I mentioned in my last post, as to my utter delight, she has provided me with a text book example of how successful reaching out can be once we take our courage in both hands, and dare to do it. Once she began to realise what it was that had distorted her view of herself, and had made her feel so lacking in confidence (especially in an educational setting), with great trepidation, she decided to risk explaining how she felt to her training group during the check in – a nerve-wracking and very challenging experience for her. Imagine her relief when other members of the group showed empathy and understanding, shared their own vulnerability, and finally expressed enormous admiration for her bravery – as I said to her later, you get back what you put in. She was still getting phone calls on the way home, and arrived feeling very positive. She is now planning her next step.
Where to start – other options
This is just one way to start reaching out – there are many others, and we all have to find a way that feels comfortable for us. For those who are lucky enough to have one, this process may begin with a therapist – we tell our therapist something that we’ve never told anyone before, and having done this, and survived (we have hopefully received empathy and support), we then find (often without being consciously aware of it), that we can talk to others more easily. We gradually become more comfortable with talking about ourselves to someone else, and like anything that we practise, we get better at it.
However, we need to extend ourselves without frightening ourselves to death, as this will simply put us off, and we will retire into our shell again – I imagine this like a snail, who slithers boldly out, antennae in the air, and then quickly withdraws to safety when circumstances become too challenging. Watch Brene Brown on ‘vulnerability’ and ‘daring greatly’ for encouragement before you start, and be kind to yourself.
- Perhaps we invite someone that we don’t know very well at work or school to have a coffee or a sandwich with us at lunch time.
- Perhaps we suggest a brief drink after work with a colleague who we are drawn to.
- Maybe we invite someone to walk the dog with us – people who don’t have dogs are often delighted to be able to share the joy of someone else’s dog.
- Perhaps we discover a shared enthusiasm for something, and invite someone to a gig, a movie or the theatre – or ice skating, or Winter Wonderland, or a walk, or an art exhibition.
- Maybe we simply sit somewhere where we don’t usually sit, thus opening ourselves to meet new people – at the office, in our training group, in class, at school, in a cafe, pub or college.
- Perhaps we express an interest when we see someone reading a book or magazine that we have read and enjoyed.
- Maybe we get into conversation with someone who works at our favourite cafe, or bar.
- Maybe we begin to tell our story to someone at our club or church, like the wonderful Holocaust survivor Iby did in the Radio 4 program, The Listening Project.
- Perhaps we confide in an old friend, telling them something that we’ve never allowed them to know about us because of our shame.
- Perhaps we find the courage to talk to a parent or close relative about something that we’ve kept hidden for years.
- Perhaps there are things that even our partner doesn’t know about us because we’ve been too ashamed or afraid to admit to what we see as weakness, inadequacy, or failure.
- The internet, when used safely, can provide a less challenging way of reaching out, in that we don’t have to actually meet someone in person unless we’re certain that this is appropriate. We might try connecting with others via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr perhaps.
No man is an island
Once again, we have to think about the resources – in this case, human resources – that we have at our disposal. For some of us, these may be very scarce, and we may find it really hard to imagine sharing anything personal with anyone we know – we may not trust anyone, especially if we have experienced a lack of safety as a child. But no man is an island – being a loner isn’t healthy – so we have to start somewhere.
If we think about those who cross our path in life, and consider our feelings towards each of them – are they, on balance, safe, or unsafe? Are we drawn towards them, or inclined to keep away? If more safe than unsafe, how safe? How could we make a connection with them that would allow us to feel safe? What tiny step could we take to reach out to another member of the human race?
Loneliness is killing us
According to Philippa Perry, Mother Teresa once said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody.” Loneliness is now a serious problem, especially amongst the young – lonely people have more physical and mental health problems than those of us who have strong social connections – so we all need to learn to reach out, and to make connections with others, and we need to start now.
Like every journey, it begins when we take the first step………