5 Ways to Ask for Help Without Saying ‘I Need Help’
Before we really get into this piece, I need to be honest about one thing: I am exhausted. Starting with shutdowns across the country last March, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in June, and the four-day election mania of November, I still feel the wear of 2020. Any of these events on their own would be draining. But the combination of all three on top of the demands of everyday life — work! chores! planning a wedding! therapy twice a week! maintaining friendships! self-care! writing on Medium! — is almost debilitating. It’s only the third month of 2021 and I’ve already hit a wall that I’m not sure I have the energy to climb.
After weeks of silence, I came clean about my mental state to a few close friends out of sheer desperation. I needed my feelings to live somewhere outside of my body, so I typed them up and posted my feelings on a private forum of my closest friends. The moment I hit “post,” I doubted my choice: Would everyone tell me to “just hang in there” or suggest things weren’t that bad?
I was debating taking down my admission when the first response came in. “I can’t concentrate on work at all,” my friend wrote. Soon similar sentiments filled my inbox. “Even waking up feels like too much,” another friend revealed. A chorus of “I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one feeling this way,” arrived from all corners.
Sharing my darker truths gave me hope in a way that Lexapro and meditation hadn’t. I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, but when things get dark there’s still a constant part of me that asks: Is this something else malfunctioning within my brain or do other people feel this way? I hate to know that my friends are also fighting through a hazy tunnel of pandemic burnout, but I’m also relieved to know that I’m not in that tunnel alone.
Since my post, I’ve wondered why so many of us are reluctant to divulge how we’re truly feeling. Just this week, I met with my psychiatrist and automatically answered that I was “fine” when she asked how I was doing, despite meeting with her to discuss just how un-fine I am right now. What I suspect it comes down to is not knowing how to say to our loved ones, “I am struggling and I need your support.” It sounds so simple, but in dark moments, the vulnerability and the effort it takes to say those words feels Herculean. Maybe you never learned how to say “I need help,” or you fear the reaction to saying it. Maybe there’s a voice inside that’s convinced you that admitting to any sort of struggle is a sign of weakness rather than strength. (That voice is wrong, by the way.) There could be a million reasons why facing your truth and asking for help feels impossible and that’s okay.
Our feelings are constantly changing and they can be fun and uplifting as much as they can be dark and deep. Think of them as a swimming pool: Asking for help is like choosing to cannonball into the deep end. If the most swimming you’ve ever done is sticking a toe into the water, that cannonball is the scariest thing you can imagine. Work your way up to it by starting at the shallow end of the pool with a few floaties. Here’s what’s helped me to wade into my own pool of feelings as I work toward swimming into deeper waters:
Traffic light check-ins
I don’t think this is actually called a traffic light check-in, but it’s how I see it in my head. Think of your feelings as a traffic light that sends three simple messages. Green says “I’m feeling good today. I’m ready to take on the world and live my life.” Yellow means you’re feeling a little more tender. It says “I’m here and I’m capable of doing what I need to but it’s going to be a little harder than usual. Please give me grace and an extra dose of kindness today.” And red says “I’m not in a good place. I am barely functioning, and I need support.”
I like this method because it’s simple for everyone to understand. If you share it with a friend or family member, it empowers you to share your mental state and gives loved ones the language they need to ask you about how you’re feeling, even if feelings aren’t a common or comfortable topic for them. You can say, “Hey, I’m feeling a yellow today,” or a loved one can ask, “What color is your inner traffic light today?”
This method is also great in that it doesn’t require explanation, so it works well in the workplace (which is actually where I learned it!). Studies of the traffic light check-in in workplaces reveal that employees perform better and are happier when they can honestly disclose their well-being at work without fear of punishment or shame.
Hear me out here. Emojis are a godsend for the worst of times. If you’ve ever been so depressed or grieving so deeply that you can’t leave the bed to do anything more than grab water and use the bathroom, consider emojis your friend. They are the lowest possible lift of check-in methods.
Here’s how it works: You and your loved ones agree on two emojis. One means you can handle whatever’s going on alone, the other means you can’t. If my cousin doesn’t pick up his phone for a few days and stops showing up to appointments, I simply text him: 💜 or 💖? His response lets me know if I need to stop by or give him space for the time being. On the flip side, I know that if I send him a 💜 and nothing else, he’ll show up at my door, no questions asked.
I don’t always understand my feelings. I know I’ll get comments on this story from people who say I should be able to simply tell people how I feel without emojis and traffic lights, but that’s not realistic for me right now. I spent a long time pushing my feelings deep down into my gut, so when I bring them out into the light now, I sometimes have difficulty recognizing what they are.
When that happens, I can feel my feelings breaking loose but I can’t name what they are in the moment. I communicate this weird state of not knowing by telling my partner, “I’m feeling tender.” My partner knows that “tender” can evolve into something more easily labeled, like sadness or anger, but it’s the word that explains the overwhelm of something unknown starting to bubble up out of me. It lets her know that I’m on an inner journey for the next hour or so and I don’t yet know where it’s taking me.
The spoon theory went viral after Christine Miserandino came up with it as a way to explain to a friend how it feels to live with lupus. It’s since been adopted by people living with different mental and physical health challenges to communicate not only what living with their challenges feels like, but also how they’re doing on any given day.
A very condensed explanation of the spoon theory is that each morning, we all wake with a specific number of spoons. These spoons represent the day’s possibilities. The rub is that every task, activity, and chore costs one spoon. On my worst days — when my depression rages at full speed — I may only wake with five spoons. By the time I finish breakfast, that leaves me with only two or three spoons to get through an eight-hour workday. On other days, I can wake and find I’ve got 20 spoons.
I’m a huge fan of the spoon theory, and I use it a lot when speaking with friends who also live with mental health challenges. I try to check in before big conversations or social activities by asking, “Do you have the spoons to talk about…” or “Do you have the spoons to go out?”
Speaking in spoons is helpful because it provides a vocabulary to speak about the effects of mental and physical health challenges. When I say, “I don’t have the spoons to do that today,” my friends understand that I’m not saying I don’t want to do something, I’m saying I don’t have the mental or physical capacity to engage in a specific activity.
Finally, my tried-and-true friend: the feelings wheel. My therapist introduced this tool to me early in my treatment journey and using it was much more difficult than I expected. After so many years of stuffing my feelings, trying to name them was hard.There are multiple versions of the wheel, but I use the one created by Kaitlin Robb. Her wheel illustrates the connection between the six core feelings — anger, disgust, happiness, fear, sadness, and surprise — and their more complex counterparts (revulsion, terror, amusement, awe, etc.).
In those first few months, I’d look at the wheel every morning and try to name what I was feeling. More than once, I’d trace a feeling like “apathetic” down to its source and be shocked to find that my core emotion was sadness. This tool was wildly helpful in putting a name to all of the sensations I was feeling but didn’t know how to talk about.
Not only did the feelings wheel help me to share my experience with others, it helped me to understand myself more. Suddenly, I wasn’t just “feeling out of it all the time.” I was sad. Knowing that gave me the power to confront my sadness, examine where it came from, talk about it, and ask for the tools I need to help me move out of it.
Learning to ask for help and speak up about feelings aren’t little goals, so give yourself time and grace as you find what works for you. Whether you adopt one of the practices described above, research a different way to solicit support, or make up your own. You can do this. You have what it takes to wade one step further into the pool of your own feelings and you have the power to ask for support as you do it. Good luck!