1 Way to Break Out of the “Myth of Self-Sufficiency”

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By UB therapist Michael Maloney, LCPC

Author, and vulnerability researcher, Brene Brown brought up in her book Dare to Lead that she asked “thousands of leaders” a question.  “What do your team members do that earns your trust?”  What was the most common answer from these leaders? “Asking for help.”  According to Brene Brown, managers are less likely to “delegate important wok” to people who did hot ask for help because they needed to trust that they would “raise their hands and ask for help” when they needed it.  

Let that sink in.  Asking for help actually builds trust.  

There are many things that get in the way of asking for help.  So many of us view asking for help as a weakness, and not a strength.  We may believe that we are causing a burden on others or appearing too needy.  There is also a pervasive and insidious myth that we should be self-sufficient, particularly for men, but women are not excluded.  This Myth of Self-Sufficiency in particular creates an idea that if we ask for help is showing we are weak, inefficient, or just don’t have it all together.  (And really who really has it all together).

However we need to call out these hurdles and myths to ask for assistance.  We are biologically social creatures and we will need help. We might need physical support in getting things done that we can’t just do ourselves.  We might need emotional support when we go through hard times. We may need wisdom shared, of knowledge that we have yet to obtain. We will need social support so we don’t have to handle some we don’t feel alone as we handle some of our biggest challenges.  Let’s explore some ways to make asking for help more accessible.

Growth vs. Ability

There have been a number of studies that if the focus in a classroom is about valuing a student’s ability (how good are they at x activity) rather than their growth (how are they getting better at x activity) then the results are that students ask for less help.  To rephrase, when the focus is on a student’s perceived worth, then they are less likely to ask for the help they need. This can be seen out of the classroom as well. As a therapist I see so many people have a hard time entering therapy because they believe that if they start therapy they have to admit that there is something wrong with them.  People believe that they don’t have the skills and abilities to cope by themselves. This is a version of the Myth of Self-Sufficiency. Once they get into therapy people hopefully learn that it is about their growth and not their perceived defects.

However, if we live in a culture within the Myth of Self-Sufficiency we believe that we constantly have to prove ourselves that we are good enough.  So many of us are “faking it until we make it” or dealing with imposter syndrome that we constantly don’t want to have others see that vulnerability.  But we need to build a culture towards growth and not competition. We can’t control our larger cultures, but we can control our smaller cultures, such as friend circles, home, work environment to some degree.

In a previous position I was asked to look after and oversee some of the interns that worked in a lab I worked in.  While I was onboarding some of our interns I would tell them some of the expectations and responsibilities I had for them.  But I also made it clear what were ways to build up trust for me. I told them that if they didn’t understand something they needed to come and ask questions.  I told them that if they made a mistake that I wouldn’t be mad it they talked to me but I would be mad it they tried to cover it up. I told them that if they needed help that they had to tell me.  Lastly I told them that I could teach them more from a mistake than doing everything perfectly. I was intentional in the space we were creating in that it was about their growth in the position and not how well they got it innately or counting their mistakes as something to hide.  I wanted to create a culture that asking for help was part of the process. I also gave them permission to fail. How might you create a space where others ask for help? What would make it easier for you to ask for help? How might you give yourself or others permission to fail?

Role switching

We are often more generous with others than we are to ourselves.  If we ask for help our insecurities come out. Our fears of not being ‘good enough’ get triggered and we start getting to a place that we just have to try harder.  The Myth of Self-Sufficiency sometimes tells us that it is okay to ask for help if you tried every other option first. So you can ask yourself after your proved that you have done all the hard work it avoid asking for help.  But this sets us up for a trap. If we do this we become more exhausted for all the failed attempts and trying to just “push on” and then we are more fragile with our egos that asking for help seems more risky or leaving us easy to feel shattered.  

Now if we were open with this and someone told you that they felt like they had to do all the hard work before asking you for help, how might you respond?  You might ask them to ask you sooner and not exhaust themselves. You might want to help them because it feels good to help out our friends and family. By asking for help the other person is saying they trust you to help them.  Again we are more generous for others than we are to ourselves. When considering asking for help ask yourself if someone asked you for this favor how would you respond?

We are all doing the best that we can

It is important to remember we are all doing the best that we can.  We aren’t perfect and we all have flaws. We all rely on family, friends, and community to create a system that supports our lives.  The community you build that supports you is one that you maintain. If it was all take and no give, we might need to question that relationship.  But we have to be mindful that is we are all give and no take, that doesn’t lead to a balanced system. True strength is not to prove we can go it alone, but to prove we are a person willing to connect with others and be vulnerable.  

Asking for help and support are ways that we break out of the Myth of Self-Sufficiency.  By asking for help we are investing in our value to connect and work as a team. We all do the best that we can and we all need support and help in life.  We can ask help from friends. We can ask help from professionals. And occasionally we can ask help from a stranger. But remember these are all ways that we can connect with others.