It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning and I was limping through the streets of Madrid. I had just rolled my ankle badly and heard a loud snap. I was miles away from the nearest metro station and over an hour from my homestay.
My foot was rapidly swelling to the size of a grapefruit but my friends kept telling me that I was fine and needed to get over it. As I hobbled interminably back to the train, I thought maybe they were right and that I was pulling it off, when I realized I was crying uncontrollably (an indulgence I rarely allowed myself).
My sorry appearance kept attracting the attention of alarmed passersby who would take one look at me and offer to call an ambulance.
I waved them off repeatedly, bewildered and irritated at their concern.
I parted ways with my friends, because I needed to get home and my house was out of their way. I didn’t want to inconvenience them.
It never occurred to me to get a cab, because I was on a budget and that would be an irresponsible unplanned expense.
I kept slowly inching back towards home on foot (singular), but really, I was stuck.
What felt like hours later, entering a state of shock, unable to stand any longer, and out of ideas, I reluctantly resorted to what felt like the nuclear option – I prevailed upon my Spanish hosts to come pick me up.
We spent the next 6 hours in the ER waiting to find out that I’d broken multiple bones in my foot. But what I remember most is the crippling guilt I felt for disrupting my hosts’ day; that was exponentially worse than the physical pain.
Recalling this story, what strikes me now is that 19-year-old me found nothing whatsoever odd about this situation. The possibility that things could’ve unfolded more easily for me wasn’t even on my radar.
You see, I’d learned early on that asking for help was a bad idea.
Asking for help means you don’t have everything totally under control, which means you have a weak spot. Admitting the weak spot opens up the possibility for disappointment, mockery, judgment, and being treated as a burden. (It also opens up the possibility for connection, growth, and love, but I’ll leave that to Brene for now.)
Sadly, most of my early attempts at vulnerability had yielded exactly those outcomes. I had learned that, however tough of a challenge I was facing, attempting to bring in assistance from anyone else would only make things worse.
I work with a lot of folks who also struggle to ask for help, and there’s a common theme: we often treat our inability to ask for help as a personal failing. We think we should just get over it and start being more trusting.
But I wasn’t giving myself credit for the reason I was so afraid of asking for help. It was simpler to laugh it off and move on than to really look at how I’d come to be this way in the first place.
By not asking for help, I was actually doing the “smart” thing – based on the rules I’d internalized up to that point.
The possibility that some people might actually be willing to help me was incomprehensible. In my schema at the time, it would’ve been incredibly dumb to believe in that possibility, because it had gotten me into trouble so many times before.
It took a lot of years and work to start to shake that schema loose. This is deeply wired stuff. It is also possible to re-wire.
If you are struggling with some version of this, you’re not defective or stubborn or arrogant for not being able to ask for help. Offer some compassion and curiosity to the younger you that learned to be that way, because of the context you were in.
Allowing that kindness within yourself will help open the door to receiving kindness from others – who actually have the capacity – when you and they are ready.