As the eldest in a large family, I grew up taking care of others. Watching my younger siblings, I learned to develop a sixth sense; I reserved a part of my attention to wander on that periphery where something might flare up among any one of them, at any time.
This ability turned out to be useful during the decade in my young adulthood when I was a teacher. All children share a yearning and striving after something too unformed and unknown to put into words. A great teacher is someone who takes a student’s poor question and, without any embarrassment to the student, transforms it into a profound inquiry with reverberant answers that ripple through the consciousness of the class like circles of water spreading outward in a pond. I wasn’t a great teacher, but I was a good teacher who got my students excited about learning and served as their guide.
All of my life, I have identified with being competent, dependable, responsible. My parents were strict with me and punished me for infractions. I absorbed their lessons and was hard on myself. I didn’t allow myself to make mistakes, and when I made them, I suffered agonies. Self-torture was the price I paid for error. I missed opportunities where others might have helped me because I wouldn’t let them.
There were times when I wanted help, and I didn’t get it. For a long time I was frustrated and unhappy. It took a paid professional—my therapist—to tell me that I didn’t get the help I wanted because I never appeared as though I needed it. His observation stunned me. I thought others could tell when I felt needy and vulnerable. Apparently not. I had learned to conceal my feelings. I thought neediness ugly and repellent, and I was afraid of being vulnerable. Being vulnerable meant letting my defenses down, leaving myself open for attack.
It’s often said that to be loved, one must be a lovable person, someone who knows
how to love. It’s the same with receiving help. To an extent, it’s knowing how to ask. That was hard for me, because I always thought I had to be in charge. From my parents I had learned that any help they gave was in exchange for something else. They expected a return, and often I thought the price was too high. The help they gave wasn’t really help at all. It was barter.
I knew that not everyone was like them, but my fear of this transaction infected my
interactions with others. When I needed help, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for it until I was desperate. When I did ask, it was with the expectation that the price would be too great, or else I would be turned down. The cycle fed on itself: my defeatist attitude ensured that I would be defeated.
And sometimes I was guilty of the same behavior that I deplored in my parents. I
asked for help as if I were extracting a promise, and when I met with resentment in return, I only had myself to blame. That was another of my misperceptions.