Here’s an example of a conversation I’ve had too many times:
Me: Hi, friend! How are you?
Friend: I’m sort of upset about something, but it’s pretty stupid…
Me: Nothing you’re feeling is stupid and I’m here to listen. Talking about it will make you feel better! Tell me, what’s bothering you?
Friend: OK, you’re right. [Vents about what is wrong.]
Me: [Listens and provides helpful, sympathetic advice.]
Friend: I feel better! Thank you. What about you? How’s it going?
Me: [Freaks out deep down about a number of things and desperately needs to let it all out.] Oh, me? I’m great! Chilling.
Though I urge my loved ones to flood me with details about everything happening in their day-to-day lives, I find it tremendously difficult to be as open about myself. I used to think I was too independent and emotionally mature to need anybody else to “fix me.” I didn’t know that confiding in someone wasn’t the same as asking to be saved. Any time I had a problem, I would completely isolate myself from others until I had found a solution or at least until I felt better. I only trusted myself to help me get up again.
In addition to my pride, I was afraid of imposing on my loved ones. I thought telling my friends and family about everything that was wrong with me was not only unnecessary but egotistical. I felt I didn’t really have the right to burden them with my seemingly meaningless issues because everyone’s going through something at some point.
This impulse is not only irrational–it’s dangerous. My periods of isolation began to last longer and longer, until I was unable to function. Sometimes I would spend days without answering my phone or leaving the house. And the lack of human contact made everything worse. My sorrows persisted, and my stability deteriorated.
I had to go through a lengthy process to internalize the notion that I am not an inconvenience and I am not disturbing my loved ones by opting to find solace outside myself. By accepting that I don’t have all the answers and that sometimes I need a little push, I’ve come to see that I have an attentive support system of people who appreciate me and are always willing to help. I’ve also discovered that help can come from different sources, like literature, safe spaces on the internet, and therapy.
But today we’re going to focus on the task itself: asking for help from a friend, family member, teacher, or other human being. If you’re like me, you may not even know you needed this guide! So let’s start there–with the acknowledgment that you need counsel, and that that’s OK. In fact, it’s completely normal.
(This guide focuses on non-urgent emotional issues, but if you feel suicidal, please call a suicide hotline, a crisis center, or a hospital. 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is available 24 hours a day, from anywhere in the U.S., and suicide.org has a list of resources for outside the U.S. When someone answers, just say, “I’m having an emergency and I need help.” The Trevor Project also has a 24/7 crisis hotline, for LGBTQ+ youth: 1-866-488-7386.)
1. Have a conversation with yourself.
Sometimes we need to convince ourselves that we’re doing the right thing–the necessary thing–by asking for help. My strategy is to imagine myself offering help instead of receiving it. How would you react if one of your closest friends were going through a similar issue? Would you think they were being ridiculous/melodramatic/self-centered/irritating for coming to you for help? The answer is probably no, and your loved ones would probably agree.
Pain makes it hard to see clearly. Remember this when you start to feel guilty or like your problems are too minor for a friend to care about. The instinct to talk to someone is always worth trusting. Don’t neglect your own well-being because a voice inside you keeps saying to just get over it. You’re a human being who needs other human beings–the most natural thing in the world.
2. Identify your source of help.
Certain issues call for certain solutions. Maybe you can instantly think of a friend or a parent who has experience with your present situation. That’s great! You’ve identified someone who will gladly offer their support and advice.
But sometimes we don’t know what type of help we need or where to find it. That, too, is a problem you can ask for help with. Ask someone you trust if they know of a good resource, or you can look it up for yourself. In “How to Sympathize When You Can’t Empathize”–a guide for friends on the other end of this guide–we listed a handful of online resources for a range of emotional and medical issues. Some are hotlines you can call to talk to a real person.
3. Prepare what you want to say ahead of time.
The idea of scripting your ask may seem daunting, but it means that you won’t have to figure it out in the moment. It’ll be one less thing to worry about; plus, clear, coherent information will also make the other person better equipped to help you. If you don’t fully understand what you’re feeling and can’t put it into words, even saying that–“I can’t identify what’s wrong but I know I’m in pain”–will help your friend to help you.
This is especially useful if the person you need help from tends to be emotionally unreceptive or unpredictable, but is the most technically equipped to help you right now, like a parent. You can’t know how they will react, but you can think in advance about what you need to communicate. That sense of control will also help them see that you’re serious about what you need.
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, nor does it require great strength, reserved exclusively for the emotionally evolved. It’s just about knowing that we can’t do it all alone and we’re not supposed to. It’s possible to function in isolation, but reaching out becomes necessary, and even enriching–deepening your relationships to others, and to yourself. You can do this! ♦