The grace of reaching out

holding hands

This is day 14 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “Who is there for you when things don’t work out?” More info here.

When I’m afraid to reach out for help, I sometimes ask myself: how would I feel if the roles were reversed? 

If a friend or a loved one were in pain, struggling, hurting, would you want them to come to you? Or would you want them to keep quiet, afraid of what you might think of them? 

The fact that these questions are a no-brainer means that our emotional antennae are a little haywire as far as reaching out goes. 

Researcher Brene Brown goes even further: if you see yourself as weak for reaching out, that means you can’t help but see others as weak for seeking your help. It’s only logical. So the choice is clear: let yourself off the hook, or admit that your friends are spineless, too. 

I was raised to value independence, and things started getting tricky as soon as I formed strong relationships. Did having a boyfriend mean I was no longer independent? What if losing him would be devastating? Maybe it was then that I started to “make up” for the weakness of having a loved one by trying to handle all my emotions alone.

Some sort of confused pride held me back from sharing all my struggles, but fear is another culprit – the fear of judgment. Talking about our pain and problems is like handing off a fragile glass globe to someone else, hoping they won’t break it. And sometimes our friend or family member drops it on the ground accidentally by judging us, dismissing our feelings, or one-upping us with their own problems. Other times, the judgment is just in our heads, projected onto them.

But a theme that runs through Brown’s two books on vulnerability is that we can’t go it alone. As much as I’m loath to say it, I need my father, my fiance, my friends. Shame gets its power from the unspoken, and the fear of what will happen if we speak. People who are resilient to shame are the ones who reach out, seek help, and ask for what they need. During her “spiritual awakening” – her euphemism for a breakdown – Brown made the most progress when she forced herself to dial a friend in the middle of a “shame storm.” 

And those moments are the stuff of real connection. If someone can handle your glass globe of emotion delicately, without judgment, with sympathy and love, you’re weaving the threads of unbreakable connection. And when that person needs someone – as they inevitably will, because they’re human – they’ll be more likely to reach out to you. 

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, writes: 

“Brilliant people sometimes do the most unintelligent thing possible. In the midst of stress, rather than investing, these individuals divested from the greatest predictor of success and happiness: their social support network. Countless studies have found that social relationships are the best guarantee of heightened well-being and lowered stress, both an antidote for depression and a prescription for high performance. But instead, these students had somehow learned that when the going gets tough, the tough get going – to an isolated cubicle in the library basement.” 

It’s time we reject our double standards and get truly tough – and see reaching out not as weakness, but as courage.

Photo by Flickr user Valerie Everett

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