One of the things I love most about our elementary school is that it teaches life skills that help students grow socially and emotionally. Every week, they discuss and practice a different skill. I definitely could have used this training growing up. Even as an adult, it's a great re-frame in times of frustration: "This situation is helping me develop my life skill of flexibility." Though I believe long division is important, and I use it daily in my work (not ever), being able to negotiate relationships with yourself and others is crucial to happiness and success (however you want to define it). The life skill we are working on at home with our children is gratitude. Every day, and this was my husband's idea, my daughters state something they're grateful for, and how they want to show their gratitude. So, for example, the other morning my six year old stated she was grateful for the car that takes her to school, and will show her gratitude by practicing her reading. Nice.
Last week, I was hanging out with my friend Elizabeth Sylvester and complaining, a skill I'm particularly good at, and one I'm somewhat proud of. It's hard these days to let your negativity fly publicly without getting a redirect to look at the bright side. Luckily for me, though, Elizabeth is also a psychologist, and has a lot of tolerance for the art of creative negativity. Anyway, I digress, so I was complaining, and Elizabeth quoted one of my favorite novel characters, Inspector Gamache, in her response. She was pointing out a life skill that I'm lacking. For those of you who are unaware of the Inspector Gamache series, it's definitely one to check out, especially if you need a source of soothing wisdom. The mystery series is by Louise Penny, and goes down like a cup of hot chocolate after a particularly difficult, blustery day. Very warm and cozy.
According to the wise Inspector, there are four statements that lead to wisdom: "I was wrong. I'm sorry. I don't know. I need help." The life skill Elizabeth was suggesting I might need to work on is "I need help." This has always been true of me. Even when I think I'm asking for help, I'm not. The truth is that I'm not really good at it, AND it makes me feel profoundly uncomfortable, like I'm putting someone in a difficult position. You know, because everyone is so busy and all, and they really don't need one more thing on their plate, and I don't want to be a burden, and blah, blah, blah. The truth is I enjoy helping people when they ask directly. It makes me feel useful and important, like I'm someone who can be relied on or trusted. So why am I hesitant to ask others?
I have two thoughts about this. One is that our society is based on the relentless pursuit of independence. You know what I mean. We value the idea of people going off on their own, creating their own lives, and accomplishing great things, as if that can be done in a vacuum of relationships. That's the ideal isn't it? When the reality is that we build our dreams and identities in the context of very complex reciprocal relationships. No-one does it alone.
I think therapists are particularly prone to this way of thinking. Our professional, and sometimes personal, lives are organized around helping others. I can't tell you how many flyers I get advertising workshops on self-care for therapists. But this does not only apply to therapists. The compulsive need to be helpful, and the difficulty asking for help, can come from early experiences in learning how to relate. In some families, parents are often incapable of taking care of themselves, let alone their children. In these homes, children become exceptional care takers of the adults at their own expense. These hyper-responsible individuals grow up believing that there is no real help out there for them, and become comfortable doing things on their own and for others. You see the pattern. Asking for and accepting help becomes foreign.
So what I'm suggesting is, that for those of us who value independence, and not being a burden, it might be useful to see how the other half lives. What does it feel like to ask and receive? Can we sit in the vulnerability and fear of judgement and disappointment? What happens if someone says "no?" It's time to be a burden occasionally, and revel in the real world of inter-dependence and support. For example, there's a trend, at least among some of my friends to request that people not bring gifts to their children's birthday parties. Now this is in part because we all have too much stuff and very small houses. And let's be real, our children probably don't need more material things. But I wonder if there isn't something else going on. Are we passing this trait on to our children? What would it be like to let them want things and received things joyfully and within appropriate limits, AND learn to enjoy and explore the art of thoughtful giving?
So back to the ongoing list of life skills I'm working on. Thank you Elizabeth, I will add asking for help to my list.