This time of year, as the days grow shorter and holidays approach, can be challenging. In a good year, many of us struggle with gloom from less time in the sun, grief from celebrating holidays without the loved ones who couldn’t be there, and increased stress from navigating travels and family dynamics. In 2020… well, it’s certainly not a banner year for things going smoothly! We all carry grief from the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism. Millions of Americans are grieving loved ones who were lost to COVID-19, and many more are unable to celebrate with family due to travel restrictions or fear of spreading the virus. The divisive election (as well as relationships lost in the fallout), unknowns of winter during a pandemic, and record financial strains have added stress to all of our plates.
So, while we gear up for the season of holiday cheer, we will also need to recon with the parts of ourselves that hurt. We will get through this, especially if we turn to one another in our times of need. This month, we will feature a series of blogs about asking for, providing, and expressing gratitude for support.
Asking for help can feel very challenging. We live in a society that values independence, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. While this persistence and self-reliance can be a wonderful trait, it is not always enough. We all benefit when we pool our resources.
For patients and caregivers who face the added challenge of chronic illness and disability, asking for support can come with additional roadblocks. We may not feel comfortable sharing the conditions that require extra support. We may have lived a lifetime of messaging that by asking for help we are creating a “burden” for those around us. Yet those of us living with illness and disability are among those most impacted by the isolation and medical consequences of this pandemic.
Regardless of your health status, race, financial situation, or other challenges this year, remind yourself that it’s okay to ask for support. It will make things better for you, bring you closer to those who love you, and create a community of compassion.
Not sure how to begin asking? We’ve put together some tips for you:
set the stage
We’ve all been there, when a friend comes to us in a moment of distress, but we’re not in the right headspace to deal with it. We may want to help, but just don’t have the capacity to be a good listener. This does not make us a bad friend, but it may put a strain on the friendship. When we ask of others, it’s important to remember that — for their sake as well as ours — the way in which we ask can make a world of difference. Start with timing; when would be best to bring it up? Is there a time in which your support person is less stressed and will be able to listen more thoughtfully, bringing their whole self to the conversation? Try to find a place in which you both feel safe and comfortable, where there will be few distractions, such as strangers walking by or children who need supervising. Finally, think about how you will make your request. We often feel that showing the full force of our fear or sadness will motivate others to help us, but the reality is that these big emotions can be difficult for others to take in. If possible, find a way to center yourself first. I don’t mean hide your feelings — shove them down or pretend you’re fine when you’re not. But the way we feel emotions in our bodies can be controlled somewhat. Taking time to close our eyes, take slow deep breaths, and listen to calming music or a meditation app can make a world of difference. This way, when you share what’s going on, your emotions will still be there, but will hit your friend as a rain storm rather than a tsunami.
Hearing a friend who needs help, but then not knowing what you can do for them feels powerless. Going to someone with a specific request will help them to feel empowered to help! Before you ask for support, spend some time journaling, talking to a therapist, or thinking to figure out what it is you actually need. If at the end you still don’t know what it is you need, that’s ok! Your ask might be “I need to process my thoughts and feelings with someone I trust,” or “I need to share what I’m going through so that I feel less alone.” Clarifying this, that you don’t want advice, but rather a listening ear, will help ease the pressure on your listener. They won’t feel the need to come up with a magical fix for your problems. Remember, the people we go to for support are also human, vulnerability and fear of failing you.
Whatever your need, the more specific your language can be may help. For example “I need help with childcare” could feel overwhelming. Narrowing it to “I need someone to pick up from school while I’m at work on Tuesdays and Thursdays” or “I need help finding a nanny who won’t put my immunocompromised child at risk” are more action-oriented.
set reasonable expectations
Sometimes, when I leave an interaction that felt unfulfilling, I think “well, what was I expecting?” Typically, I realize that what I was yearning for was completely unrealistic. I recently had an experience in which a friend shared that he wanted to come visit me. I had been feeling very isolated, so the thought of a friend, someone I could hug, quarantining and getting tested so that they could see me, felt amazing. When things came and he had to postpone for a month or two, I felt devastated. When I explored why I was so upset, I realized that a part of me had thought that if he came to visit in October, he’d see how beautiful my home was during fall foliage season, and maybe he would fall in love with the countryside and decide to leave the city to come live here, and I’d have him around not just for a week but forever. WOW. Talk about unrealistic expectations! But that’s what was happening in my brain. So when the visit moved to November or December — much less aesthetically interesting months — my dreams were dashed.
Before you walk into asking for support, ask yourself what you hope to get out of it. If you are just hoping for someone to hear your story, great! If you’re hoping for them to agree to a weekly walk in the woods, or to cook you dinner sometimes, that’s probably doable! If you’re hoping for them to make all of the pain of these last several months go away, that’s less realistic. When you notice those grander dreams in your mind, acknowledge them. Let yourself feel what it is you desperately want and why. But then remind yourself that it won’t be reasonable to ask that of another person, and come up with a smaller version that will be possible, but still lead you one step closer to your dream. And when you get together, start the conversation by clarifying your expectation, before you get into the whole story of why or how. That way, they won’t have the uncertainty of trying to guess what will be asked of them.
None of this is easy, and it may not feel comfortable or result in the support you hoped for. But remember that we are all human, and nothing we do succeeds 100% of the time! The more you ask, the more times you’ll receive support. And if we can each make one another’s load a bit lighter, we will all rise out of this together.