Thoughts / help

The hardest four-letter word

Surely the hardest four-letter word to utter to our friends has got to be – H E L P.

As a self-described overachieving recovering perfectionist, I’ve struggled to utter this word throughout my childhood, adolescence and some of my adulthood. What do you mean I can’t handle every single thing that comes my way? Not a chance!

But it’s much more than that. When we live in a society that prides itself on self-sufficiency, independence and achievement, the idea of asking others for help can be daunting. When we’re surrounded by messages based on helping our self – have you noticed the voluminous self-help sections at the bookstore? – the idea that we may need to learn better ways to ask for and receive assistance, may seem a little odd.

This topic of asking for help is one that isn't new to me. One string of situations centred on an episode I had of mental illness. I had admitted before that something wasn’t working, but often that was after my parents and sister prodded me. It wasn't until daily functioning became impossible and everything seemed to be completely unmanageable that I called home and said, "I need to get help. I can't do this anymore." Shortly thereafter, I entered hospital for the first time.

After that experience, it would seem like it'd be easier for me to ask for help, right? Sometimes, but not always.  

I’m still today reticent about asking for help. I struggle with it at work sometimes. There are moments I could ask more of my friends. And I see others around me sharing the same reticence.  As with so many things that would serve us (and others), our fear is what gets in the way. Fear of over-stepping a friendship. Fear of appearing too needy. Fear of imposing.  Fear of rejection. Fear of appearing weak. Fear of revealing our struggle and having people realize we don’t have it all together after all.

The danger, however, is that stalling – due to unfalsified anxiety - can let the situation grow from a problem into a crisis. Whenever we seek assistance earlier, the less help we will need and the more effectively it can be handled. It’s basic preventative science. If that’s a thing.

And here’s another thing, most of us humans are extremely keen to help when we notice a need. But we have a bit of trouble identifying that need because mostly we are continuously distracted, taken up with our lives and unlikely to spot that there is anything at all the matter with people around us unless the problem is spelt out in the clearest, most unambiguous terms. But say they are spelt out, we generally will swing into action and bring the whole of our intelligence and will to bear on another’s pains. In other words, we respond well to screams, but terribly to hints.

We see this all the time when a natural disaster hits. People come from everywhere to help. Readily. Hungrily. They are just there. At the ready. We also see this issue come to the fore in tragic circumstances where someone we know takes their own life. We are certain that we would, if we had known how desperate they felt, have done pretty much anything to help. At the same time, we also know that we didn’t enquire very much, didn’t look too closely for hints and must surely have given off an impression of constant busy-ness. We feel, understandably, entirely wretched and callous.

We need to learn to scream for help. We need to change the story that being in need is a weakness. But that asking for help takes courage and is a strength. We need to remember that whatever the appearance of distraction of others, we are surrounded by people who, when faced with an emergency, will come with a broom to our flood-infested home to help clean up.

When we don’t ask for help when we need it, we assume a burden that might easily (and gladly) be shared. But don’t forget, we’re no good at reading minds. The next time we are in trouble, we must remember not to beat ourselves up for not being self-sufficient, independent perfectionists but compassionately remind ourselves that we are social creatures who work best en masse. And let’s be hopeful in the knowledge that those around us will respond when it reaches their ears.

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Why the 'hope' in Hope Street Cards?

I’m going to be entirely honest here. It wasn’t brilliant genius that led me to the name of this little card business. It was a bike ride home on a miserably cold Canberra evening. The idea for Hope Street Cards had been with me for some time, however I had been struggling with finding a name that wasn’t naff, lame or tacky. I mean, my sister’s hipster reputation was at stake here! I remember having a very negative internal dialogue with myself that evening regarding the state of the weather and catching myself attempting to disrupt these thought patterns as I cycled into my street. Thinking ‘Oh well, at least I get to live on a street called ‘Hope Street’’. Full disclosure. I got the name from my address at the time.

The more I thought about it though, the more totally appropriate it was. Because there really is not much more important a thing than hope.

I find it really difficult to concretely define or describe hope with the poetic justice that I feel it deserves. The dictionary says that ‘hope is an optimistic attitude of mind based on an expectation of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large’. Thanks dictionary. The psychologist Charles Snyder associated hope to the existence of a goal, combined with a determined plan for reaching that goal. Thus an essential ingredient for future planning, motivation and change. But it just feels like so much more than that.

Viktor Frankl, Austrian neurologist and psychologist, chronicled his experiences as a concentration camp inmate in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ (1963). Frankl’s observations and writings led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even in Auschwitz, which create a reason to continue living. He stated “It’s a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future” (p. 115). He warned that “the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect” (p. 120) and observed that “the prisoner who had lost his faith in the future – his future – was doomed” (p. 117). Prisoners who Frankl observed as having lost hope reportedly died within a short time. That’s pretty massive.

And more recent, empirically-validated research backs the importance of hope up. Hopeful individuals have been found to make healthier lifestyle choices in areas such as exercise, eating and drinking (Peterson, 1988). They recover from illness and injury more effectively (Snyder, Rand & Sigmon, 2005) and have increased life expectancies (Maruta, Colligan, Malinchoc, Offord, 2000). They manifest less depression and anxiety symptoms (Cheavens, Feldman, Gum, Michael & Snyder, 2006) and experience increased positive mental health, personal adjustment, life satisfaction (Gilman, Dooley & Florell, 2006; Kwon, 2002) and sense of meaning in life (Feldman & Snyder, 2005). Obviously the benefits of possessing a hopeful approach to life are numerous and noteworthy.

During my first year of clinical psychology training, the importance of ‘instilling a sense of hope’ in conjunction with the client was taught as one of the key ingredients for providing successful psychotherapy. Some consider hope as one of the four most significant common factors in good therapy outcome (Hubble, Duncan & Miller, 1999). Irvin Yalom a guru in the world of psychotherapy teachings identified the instillation of hope as the first curative factor in effective group psychotherapy. Esso Lette observed: “Hope is crucial to recovery, for our despair disables us more than our disease ever could”.

During my very early training this knowledge made me feel slightly relieved. Being overwhelmed by anxiety at providing psychological treatment whilst feeling entirely inadequate, underprepared and paranoid I would end up ruining someone’s life, I thought, ‘well at the very least I think I can help someone feel hopeful’. And for the most part I could. There was one time though, when that sense of hope was so incredibly difficult to cultivate. Where the empathic response I had to a client’s traumatic past and current internal experiences left me feeling devoid of hope. I too felt hopeless. And it was gut-wrenching. And terrifying. And so incredibly sad.

That experience really affected me, because the guiding principle of recovery from a mental illness is hope – the belief that it is possible for someone to regain a meaningful life despite a serious mental health condition. And that recovery is not a linear process. Or an end result. It’s a process, ongoing adventure, one step at a time, that sometimes looks and feels like one big mess and is completely different for everyone. And it’s really, really, really hard work. Because there’s so many things you have to do that you often just don’t want to do (e.g., get adequate sleep, exercise, challenge unhelpful thinking patterns). And you have to do these things with no absolute certainty that doing these things will make you feel better. You need courage and commitment and a bucketload of hope.

But for someone who is experiencing a mental health condition there can be an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, so where can that foundation for recovery come from? At the launch of Hope Street Cards, Clinical Psychologist Jo beautifully described the benefits of having someone else “hold on” to that hope for you, when you yourself can’t. And I totally agree. At my darkest times my therapist – let’s call him Dr M – has held the hope for me. I’m not even sure he knows he’s doing it. But he will refuse to engage with me in any particularly ridiculous notions of my self-worth I might have. He does this very subtly and tenderly, but it is a gentle reminder that he doesn’t believe in such thoughts, he believes in me. And at times this has been enough.

At other times it’s been my family and my friends who have carried that hope for me. Just by being there they provided the gift of faith that I might be able to live well again. And what does that gift feel like? I think Emily Dickenson may have described hope best: “Hope is the thing with feathers”. And those feathers tickle your heart a little.

 

Smart things I quoted:

Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Pocket Books.

Yalom, I. (1985). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Peterson, C. (1988). Explanatory style as a risk factor for illness. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 12, 117-130.

Snyder, C. R., Rand, K. L., & Sigmon,D. R. (2005). Hope theory: A member of the positive psychology family. In Snyder, C. R. and Lopez, S. J. (Eds.). Handbok of positive psychology. (pp. 257 -267). New York: Oxford University Press.

Maruta, T., Colligan, R. C., Malinchoc, M., & Offord, K. P. (2000). Optimists vs. pessimists: Survival rate among medical patients over a 30-year period. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 75, 140-143.

Cheavens, J. S., Feldman, D. B., Gum, A., Michael, S. T., & Snyder, C. R. (2006). Hope therapy in a community sample: A pilot investigation. Social Indicators Research, 77, 61-78.

Gilman, R., Dooley, J., & Florell, D. (2006). Relative levels of hope and their relationship with academic and psychological indicators among adolescents. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25, 166-178.

Feldman, D. B. & Snyder, C. R. (2005). Hope and the meaningful life. Theoretical and empirical associations between goal directed thinking and life meaning. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 401-421.

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