If we were having coffee…
I’d tell you that I’ve fallen down a slight slump of depression since our last coffee chat. I thought the first week of being unemployed was rough (it was) but the second week was a strange mishmash of staring at my wall art and stomach illness.
The two, I assure you, are not related. The mental mishmash and wall-staring are me doing some hard introspecting and reflecting on my life up to this point. The latter is quite possibly my body’s inability to properly digest the insane amount tomato acid I’ve been eating in my curry for three (four?) straight days.
But my stomach is doing much better.
And I’m not staring at my wall art as intently.
Those are good signs, right? Great. Let’s move onto something more interesting.
At the recommendation of a childhood friend, I read Amanda Palmer’s, The Art of Asking. I’ve never heard of this Amanda Palmer person before (she’s the lead in the Dresden Dolls and married to author Neil Gaiman) and I’m always a bit wary of self-help type books (having read quite a few of them and feeling lost afterwards). But I gave this one a go because my friend would never recommend anything she herself didn’t like.
At its core, the book is about the act of asking — not just wanting support or help, but actually asking for it and feeling comfortable about it. Too often, as Palmer notes, many of us may feel like we don’t deserve any help or that we can’t ask for it. Why? Because we’ve internalized the shame and guilt that’s often associated with the human need for help. The constant refrain around needing help is weakness, a deficiency in moral character. You’re a loser for needing help.
It’s an expected social-psychological outcome of the “pull yourself up by your boot straps” bullshittery often evoked by politicians and other, very privileged successful people. “I had this opportunity and I took it. Now look where I am!” they beam, arms outstretched with a stupid smirk on their face. Whatever they may think of their own efforts, it’s highly probable that they got where they are because of help of one kind or another (though they either won’t call it that or admit it outright).
We all need help throughout our lives. The challenge is to make it less stigmatizing for those who need it, and less of a chore for those who don’t readily give it.
Side note: at this point, I realize this post is written from a position of certain privilege. Palmer herself writes Asking from a position of privilege despite her self-made choices to live in what appears to be a state of precarity. This is not a post about the stigmatization of people who receive social assistance. Rather, it’s a reflection of the book in relation to my own experiences, and exploring the theme of “vulnerability.”
“There’s really no honor in proving that you can carry the entire load on your own shoulders. And….it’s lonely.”
Palmer’s got a point here. This is how you suffer burnout. It’s also utterly unrealistic to think you can do everything on your own. Yet, that’s what we’re taught from a young age. Do well, work hard, action, action action — all of it as though there are no external players in the process of Life. Do and you’ll just succeed. Opportunity confetti!
We’re not born omniscient. We don’t have perfect knowledge. We need one another and our collective expertise to make it through. That’s how we learn and that’s how we live.
And yet… all of it sounds so much easier than actually doing it.
I tried an experiment. I have mixed feelings about the on-going results. And I’m still learning what it means to be comfortable about asking for things I don’t want to ask for. I’m still learning to change my outlook in these moments as someone who needs help from others rather than someone who may be a burden. I’m still learning that not all asks will result in the desired outcome. That sucks but even those instances reveal something I may not have considered before.
Until recently, I never thought to seriously tap into my network of friends and colleagues for help. I didn’t see the point despite reading numerous think pieces noting the benefits. I was also extremely hesitant and felt like I’d be a burden. I don’t like to ask for help because I’ve internalized this idea that asking for help means I’m a failure. Of course, this is utter hogwash when you think about it for a hot minute.
I have a generous network of folks. All wonderful with diverse interests, backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge. After reading two-thirds of Palmer’s book, I decided to throw caution to the wind. What’s the worst that could happen? I asked myself. No one would respond. Yeah, that would be an ego killer but how likely is that to happen? I don’t know. I wouldn’t know unless I tried it.
So I did.
I reached out to a friend and colleague from my master’s program. The friend who recommended Palmer’s book. My then-co-worker/friend/wife. Former coworkers. A former supervisor/now-mentor. I haven’t gotten precisely what I’m looking for but I’ve gotten enough support to carry through the slog. I get at least one text or email every day asking how I’m doing or a suggested job listing. I give these serious consideration and pursue them. I’m grateful for my network, even if they’re there for a venting session, a bag in which I can unload my troubles into and dump out into the air.
It’s so good to ask and feel good about it.
I also hate to ask for money — and this is a post in itself. When I was a kid, it wasn’t an issue. I think kids are shameless this way but as a young adult establishing independence, asking for money was near-verboten. In my mind. Unrealistically. Because I did ask for money to survive but I hated it every single time. The run-up to asking my parents for rent money, or textbook money, or money to cover necessities (groceries!) was a mental dance to summon the gods of anxiety, shame, and unworth. I just hated doing it and I still hate doing it because somehow I think at my age, this shouldn’t be happening. I’m not deserving of this support.
But life happens as it happens and it’s difficult to get out of the trench.
After I do my mental Cirque du Soleil, I ask. I expect the worst outcomes, which compounds the existing anxiety. Once its over I’m relieved, lying around like a floppy balloon. It’s all stupid. This feeling. My parents will support me in my time of need (i.e. when shit hits the fan and I’ve run out of ideas) but I have to ask for it. In understanding this, I’ve never asked for the sake of asking and that has made it somewhat easier to go to them. But the feeling of shame, as though I’m some undeserving imposter, is always there. It will probably always be there.
– 30 –
Featured image of white roses is in reference to Palmer’s time as a street performer — the White Bride — who gave flowers to people who dropped her money.
#weekendcoffeeshare is a WordPress writing community. Bloggers are encouraged to write as though they were sitting together and talking over a cup of coffee. It’s meant to bring writers closer together.