It's now the time of year when seasonal depression tends to kick in for me, and somehow I'm a little bit surprised every time it happens, even though I probably shouldn't be. I was supposed to write a blog post on a completely different topic, struggled with that topic until I was a week later than I'd anticipated, then got to a point where I felt like I was hitting a wall and finally posted a bunch of frustrated messages on our internal Soft Chaos Discord server complaining about how stuck I was. Allison then responded suggesting a collaborative post about asking for help and tackling things as a team, and this is what we came up with:
Squinky: I am notoriously bad at asking anyone for help. This has been true for as long as I can remember, and I'm sure it has a lot to do with being various forms of neurodivergent and struggling to explain my needs and thought processes in ways that most people can coherently understand. Regardless, I distinctly remember early school experiences where I would opt to do solo projects because working in groups was too hard, which would later extend to my gamedev career, where the majority of projects I devoted my time and passion to were ones where I basically did everything myself: code, art, sound, writing, you name it. It was just so much easier for me to simply do the thing than it was to express what I had in mind to someone else and trust that it wouldn't be misinterpreted or outright rejected.
This tendency of mine, paradoxically enough, doesn't extend to being asked for help. I love helping other people, especially when I understand exactly what they're asking for and know I can effectively accomplish the task at hand. When I try to ask other people for help, I feel like I'm imposing a huge burden on them, but when other people ask me for help, I'm happy that they even thought to ask. Even when what they're asking for ends up being something I can't do, or can't do well, I'm flattered that they saw me as someone who could be helpful in this circumstance. I may be frustrated by my own inability to give them what they need, but it's way more of a judgement on myself than it is on the person asking.
After a series of burnouts in my early thirties that eventually led me to leave grad school and academia, I came to a point where I realized that trying to be as independent as possible came with severe limitations and that if I wanted to live a happier, less stressful life, I needed to learn how to be more interdependent. Part of why I wanted to be in a worker co-op was, and still is, to put this need into practice. Yet, it's been easier said than done a lot of the time. Even though I'm working with friends I trust and respect deeply, I still struggle on a regular basis with feeling like I'm dragging them down if I can't do everything perfectly all of the time.
Jess: Oh my gosh, I strongly relate to being bad at asking for help. I am so bad at asking for help and at pushing myself too hard that, during my doctorate, it was one of the findings of my autoethnography -- that even solo creators need other people. I also found that once I *did* ask for help, there was a whole community around me who wanted to offer it. And, although it wasn't transactional, I realized that, for some reason, I also have no problem stepping in when other people need a hand, and that I had built something of a reputation for it.
What is a co-op if not a group of people that can ask each other for help?!
I would like to think that I've gotten better at asking for help than I used to be. Interdependency and mutual support can be hard when you're used to needing to either step up into a role that shouldn't be yours, but is, or when appearing competent and capable as a marginalized person is one of your key survival mechanisms. For me, the term 'parentification' comes to mind from my formative experiences as a young human. Not only did I have to parent some of the adults in my life, but being a tall, responsible-seeming kid, other parents would put me in charge of any group outings with my friends. I value my ability to help others, but I want it to be a choice, and I also want to be able to ask for the things that I need without worrying that I might be a burden.
So, how can we make asking for help as painless and easy as possible? We already know that it's fine when other people ask for help and we're usually happy to provide it if we can. Maybe it's a matter of practice and building up a database of 'times that I asked for help and it was fine, actually'.
Allison: You might not expect this from me, if you know how much work I do on intimacy and collaboration, but the memories Squinky shared of school projects echoes my own quite closely. During my undergrad I would check the syllabi of each class to see which had group projects and then I would drop the ones that did or, if the class was required, take the hit to my grade for not participating. Navigating the give-and-take of working with strangers terrified me. I’ve gotten better at this as time has passed, but there will always be that moment my chest tightens and my heart races.
I have a complicated relationship with asking for help now: I think I’m actually quite good at it, but only if I don’t really need it. Writing this, it's been hard for me to put into words. I’ve had to sit with my articulation for a while, and am still not sure it’s doing a great job of communicating my feelings and anxieties properly. I’m good at asking for help because it would make my life easier, as long as I know I am capable without that help. These kinds of asks make me feel good about myself. I am a team player. A collaborator. It’s what appears on evaluations starting as early as elementary school “plays well with others”.
Asking for help I can’t survive without, however, still fills me with dread. That little voice in my head starts: Oh god, I’m putting so much pressure on this person. They feel like they can’t say no. They’ll hate me. On top of anxieties about what the other person might feel, the thought of needing someone instead of collaborating with them suddenly turns me from a team player into a giant worthless failure. It’s magic.
Soft Chaos has been instrumental in helping me learn how to navigate the pressure I put on myself. Asking for help can be so many different things. It can be an ear to listen, someone taking over a work task you just can’t make yourself do, or just the understanding that some days you need to rest. Whatever it is, we all need help.
I hope you are as lucky as I have been, and can find the people who help you ask for help, and control any angry little voices in your head (especially the ones telling you that you are bad for having needs).
So, here we are, three people who are pretty bad at asking for help but who want to help each other. Knowing this about ourselves and others is actually already a pretty huge help in navigating it. Like Allison said, here's hoping you find the people that can know these things about you and give you help when you need it, too.