Asking For Support Can Be a Sign of Strength

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“My progress is my own responsibility. I do not need others and I should not depend on them for help.” Myth or truth?

At first blush, the answer seems obvious. As John Donne so memorably wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” All the great traditions encourage us to value “the pieces” and to therefore seek out a community of like-minded friends who will support, inspire, and guide us. Buddhism calls it “taking refuge” in the community. The Native American Shawnee chief Tecumseh said it this way: “A single twig breaks, but the bundle of twigs is strong.”

But not so fast. It turns out that those statements are only part of the truth. There is another, paradoxical, side to the story. The Buddha also told his followers, “Be an island unto yourself. Take refuge in yourself.” In Christianity, we hear “Work out your own salvation.” And the Hindu Manusmriti, or Laws of Manu, like many other sources of universal wisdom, claims that “true happiness is born of self-reliance.” In essence, the sages encourage us to be self-reliant and to seek support-to embrace both independence and interdependence. At times, it’s important to ask for support, and at times we must fly solo. Knowing what’s the right approach to take, and when, is part of the play of paradox.

Life is always trying to help us balance these two sides of the equation. If we are too independent, we will find ourselves in a situation where we must collaborate in order to survive. If we are too dependent or passive, life will sooner or later cut us free from the relationships, jobs, people, or possessions that prevent us from making progress. When I was in my twenties, for instance, I worked for a time as a night-shift editor. It was a solitary kind of existence but one where I was compelled to take on more responsibility. I had to move projects forward, approve press proofs, and make critical decisions on my own.

It wasn’t easy, and for a time it felt as if I had been relegated to living on the moon. Later, I came to see that the situation had been tailor-made to strengthen my weak points, especially my indecisiveness and lack of confidence. It prepared me to grow in self-reliance and ultimately to manage an entire editorial department. Like a mother bird who knows what’s best for her chicks, at times life will nudge us out of our comfortable nests-or, if we’re really stubborn, give us a swift kick in the pants-to force us to fly on our own.

Keys to the Balancing Act

Every part of life, as it grows and evolves, naturally moves between seeking support and flying solo. Only when those elements are in balance do we make real and lasting progress. Leaning too much or too long in one direction or the other slows us down. The following four questions and the tips that go with them can help you target which part of the paradox needs your attention so you can get back in balance and move full steam ahead.

Is there an area of your life where you are trying to make progress on your own but feel stuck? What kind of support would help you move forward more quickly? Remember that support can be physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. It can be anything from getting a regular massage once a week to joining a community where you can share your passion. It can involve talking through a decision with someone you trust or hiring a consultant or coach. In the spirit of giving and receiving, consider trading services with someone whose help you need. What one step can you take right now to seek support, guidance, or advice in an area where you feel stuck?

Do you tend to tackle all of life’s challenges by yourself? If you have a hard time asking for help, keep reminding yourself of these two truths: First, seeking support is the loving thing to do and the strong thing to do. By getting the right help in making good decisions and taking the next step, you are honoring yourself as well as those who will be affected by your choices, now and in the future. Second, people are more willing to help than you might think. If the people you approach cannot help right now or are not willing to help, it doesn’t mean you aren’t worthy. It just means you haven’t found the right supporters yet. You will.

Are you in a personal or business relationship with someone who is making decisions that you should be making? What would you like to tell that person about how you are feeling? What would you like to request of him or her? Try crafting what you want to say on paper first before explaining it in person. You may even need to send your message in writing so you can fully express what you find it hard to say in person. Follow up to make sure that the person you are addressing understands what you are asking and that you both have the same expectations going forward.

Are there spaces in your togetherness? Having a close relationship doesn’t mean you should give up being yourself. In fact, you may get irritated with those you love simply because you need some regular time apart, some breathing space. No two people have all the same interests, and it’s not healthy to expect that to be the case. Do you allow and encourage yourself and your partner to pursue your own individual interests? Take some dedicated time for yourself and allow your partner to do the same. You’ll have more to offer each other and the world as a result.

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