Many years ago, perhaps eight or ten, my daughter and a group of her early-twenties-friends were gathered around my kitchen table. The topic of discussion was the most important quality in a future mate. I was listening carefully, my back turned toward them as I stirred the pot of chili, pondering their list: kind, truthful, helpful, good work ethic, willing to communicate, God-centered, good to his mother, sexual attraction….I cannot remember the others. At some point one of the girls asked me directly, “Mama Montanez, what do you think is the most important quality?”
“The willingness to ask for help when it is needed,” I answered. Silence. “Why do you think that is the MOST important quality?” another girl asked.
I can tell you. It is because LIFE IS MESSY and sometimes we just don’t know enough or have enough resources or have the strength to do it well on our own. Sometimes life hands out more than we think we can bear. Sometimes we have blind spots and can’t see our own problems. And I can tell you that having been a therapist for twenty-five years now, and a teacher before that, that the most successful and well-adjusted people know when to ask for help. The people I know who are making a real difference in the world ask for help.
I am going to take a risk and say that I think asking for help is easier for women because we value collaboration and we are more willing to be influenced by others. (This is backed up by John Gottman’s longitudinal research on what makes for happy marriages.) I actually think this quality in women is on the second X chromosome. But on that Y chromosome, asking for help is a sign of weakness. It might even get you killed if you are out there hunting for your next meal. It certainly is not the sign of a leader or chief, who should know what to do and how to do it. What head of the tribe would be respected if he asked for help?
But that doesn’t work in real life. In real life, in this messy, crazy life we are living, it is impossible to know everything. I hire an accountant and a financial planner because I do not have the skills or the knowledge to do a good job maximizing and managing my finances. There is too much information to know and none of it is in my field or in my area of interest. So, if I didn’t ask for help in this area, it is very possible that my finances wouldn’t be working for me as well as they could. And it is not a stretch to say that my finances may be a wreck, making life even messier.
I hire a mechanic to fix my car because I don’t have the skills or the knowledge to do it, and I don’t have the desire nor the time to figure it out myself. So I ask for help. Volumes of people ask for help from personal trainers and nutritionists without giving it a second thought.
I ask friends for help frequently. Help me think about this. Help me see my blind spots. Help me find some compassion. Help me in whatever ways I do not seem to be able to help myself.
When I was teaching parenting classes, I studied with Barbara Coloroso, a parenting consultant and international speaker who encouraged parents to give their kids this message. “There is no problem so big or so complicated that you and I together cannot figure it out. AND IF WE CAN”T, we will find someone who can help us!” What an affirming and positive message, and one that promotes resilience.
For some reason, asking for help from a therapist feels threatening to many. We are not only saying we need help, but we know we may have to admit how and when we are wrong, and that might feel shameful and embarrassing. And so things get messier and messier until there is a true threat, like the relationship might be over, and then it seems like maybe asking for help is the last ditch effort. Better sooner than later, I assure you.
Here’s what I think. Life is hard and life is messy. Many of us don’t have the personal and interpersonal skills necessary to create a successful relationship. We didn’t have that role model in our homes. We had childhood trauma that affected and continues to affect our development. We are afraid of communication. We don’t know how to speak our truths. We have buried our pain with addictive behavior and by building walls. We are still immature and selfish. We cannot admit our faults and negative patterns and we are defensive, blaming others for our own problems. Life has handed us something completely overwhelming and we are unprepared to deal with it constructively. I think I have had every single one of these things in myself and in my marriage. Probably the list is endless. But the truth is that asking for help and getting good help can change the messy into marvelous. And if you are getting help, and the messy isn’t changing, get different and better help. Things can and do change. We need skills and accountability to make changes. We need others who know more than we do and can guide us on the journey.
Ask for help. Because life is messy and life is marvelous.