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When Reaching Out is Harmful

Sometimes it is actually not beneficial to ask for help.

Excuse me, what??? Aren’t we supposed to call on people when we are distressed? Doesn’t EVERY social media account hosted by mental health professionals post frilly quotes about how important it is to ask for help and how “it’s ok to not be ok?”

Well, that’s one part of the elephant.

Yes, asking for help is a life skill. We all need to do it sometime if we are going to survive and have satisfying relationships. But just like any “good thing,” we can use it too much.

Here are some tips:

  1. First, identify what it is that you want: This is harder than it sounds. Before you reach out —ask yourself, “what is it that I would like this person to do (or not do) or say (or not say)?” If you DON’T know what you are looking for, you are asking for trouble. Not to mention that the relationship account will get a major deduction. Take some time to figure out what it is you are hoping for. Do you want suggestions for solving the problem? Do you want some creative strategies for distraction? Cheerleading? Validation?

  2. Next, think about the person you are reaching out to—are they actually capable of giving you what you are looking for? Or is it a 50-50? Are you willing to take that chance right now? Maybe when you think about it, you are pretty sure there’s no damn way they would hit the mark. As I always say, “Your mother IS your mother.” In other words, now is not the time to fight reality. If they are not likely to be able to provide what you are hoping for, time to consider plan B.

  3. Before you make your first official move, first use perspective-taking. Regardless of your current need, the fact is, when you reach out to another person for help, you need to tuck into some empathy if you want to keep the relationship. What time zone is this person in? Did they work all day? Do they have small children they could be picking up from school? This might change how and when you ask for help. It will almost certainly increase your patience and level of appreciation for their efforts which they will almost certainly pick up on.

  4. In an ideal world, there would be people we could use as an emotional dumping ground who would forever be supportive and loving. Hmm…not sure though, that sounds kind of creepy. Regardless, people are not objects and no matter the intensity of love the other person has for you, no human being is limitless. Like it or not, asking for help does take a toll on the helper. Anyone who says differently is kidding themselves or trying to sell you something. Don’t buy it. Of course, this doesn’t mean you “can’t” reach out at all…let’s not go THAT far. Just like you can take money out of your checking account without bankrupting yourself, you can ask for help without bankrupting your relationships. The key is not taking too much at once and adding to the account when you can. You get the picture. Please, thank you, and “is this a good time” can go a long way.

  5. Finally, pro tip: DO NOT reach out at the peak of your anxiety. Yes, your anxiety WILL go down (the upside) but the result is your helper will imprint on your mind like a baby duck to its mother (the downside). Then it feels like you HAVE to get in touch with that person to feel better. Not a great place for either party to be. If you are going to reach out, first try to let your anxiety drop naturally a bit—even just a smidge. If you are already “addicted” to your “human Valium,” consider stretching out the time between contacts, talk to them about things other than problems, and/or ask them to help you stop reaching out so much.

  6. Bottom line? Asking for help doesn’t mean we are going to get it or get it in the way we need it. As Buddha says “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path”

Stephanie Vaughn, Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist-HSP, owner of PSYCHē


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