We face situations all the time where we aren’t getting what we need. I find the most difficult things to ask for are the ones which are less concrete. Asking for help in doing a physical task or solving an IT challenge is one thing. But to ask for what you need in terms of a little space, more patience while you figure something out, or support can be a whole other ball game.
In my experience, this is one of those areas where social and cultural conditioning can override hard-wired tendencies. Most people would agree I’m pretty outspoken generally. So you wouldn’t think it would be hard for me to ask for what I need, regardless of what it is.
Case in Point
A couple of years ago, life felt pretty overwhelming. Business was very busy, my two teenaged boys were defiant and lazy about chores, one was struggling mightily with school, my parents were living next door, I was serving six people a sit-down dinner every night, we had a fully operational farm, my mother’s dementia was quickly accelerating, and we got a high-needs dog. There were several days a week I thought I would crack.
But I felt like I was “supposed” to be able to do it all. Asking for help in any of those areas seemed unreasonable because none of those things seemed like anyone else’s “problem” except mine.
You can probably see that I was wrong. I finally now can, too.
The Inevitable Breakdown
I reached a breaking point inevitably and wound up unable to get out of bed for a day. My wife came to talk to me, after fixing me up with medicine and comfort foods. She didn’t even have to say anything. I melted down, sobbing, and all my overwhelm came tumbling out. She listened patiently all the way through.
“I can’t do all this stuff anymore,” I sobbed. “It’s too much!” She patted my hand and agreed. Then she asked me what I needed.
“I need the boys to take responsibility for their own stuff and do chores without me reminding them. I need the dog to be less needy. I need my mom not to be sick. I need my parents not to need to come to dinner every single night. I need my brother to want to help out more with our parents.”
But none of that stuff was in my control. I was asking for the wrong stuff. I needed to stop taking responsibility for things that I couldn’t control and start focusing on what I could control.
Asking for the Right Stuff
I asked my kids to help out more and told them I would no longer care more about what they were responsible for than they did. I asked my dad to arrange for respite care for a break once a week. I asked my brother to set up a regular schedule for hosting my parents at his house. And I asked my wife for a date.
I needed to give myself permission to take care of myself. I wish I could say that a magic wand waved and everything immediately got better and we all lived happily ever after, the end. But that would not be real life. I still struggle. Our colleagues and families don’t want us to be superheroes who burn out in a flame of glorified self-sacrifice. They want us to ask for what we need.