Dear Maria,

You are a strong woman who offers so much to others, but what do you do when you need support? It is often tough to ask for help or confide in people when you want to be seen as that strong person who always wants to help others.
Sleepless in St. Louis

Dear Sleepless in St. Louis,

Thanks for your kind words. I embody the Duck Principle: calm and smooth on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath! We don’t like to show people the paddling part, do we?

I think the heart of your question is this: “you want to be seen as that strong person”. Who is that strong person you have in mind? They’re probably a blend of Atticus Finch, Mother Teresa, and Jackie Robinson. Best advice I’ve heard so far: Never compare your inside to someone else’s outside. The Inner Critic, or ego, deceives us in the strength department. American culture promotes the rugged individualist, the one who can succeed despite all odds, the one who is able to make it on their own.

The truth is, we need each other. Giving and receiving are essential to a healthy life. You say that you “always want to help others”, but reflect on that for a minute. Maybe we like to be the martyr? We say we’re “just trying to help”, but we find secret pleasure in others perceiving us as a selfless giver. Or, our “help” may disguise an attempt to control another’s choices. Then, we get resentful if we help too much. If we give from obligation, or to control someone, and we resent the giving and the recipient, is the gift freely given?

Taking on others’ problems doesn’t help them in the long run. People need to make healthy choices for themselves. In other words, while it’s good to help someone, a chronic situation is more like enabling. Worry doesn’t help, either. Pay attention to when you start to feel drained, or, as you signed your letter, you’re losing sleep over someone else’s decisions. It’s okay to pitch in, but don’t carry another’s burden for too long.

Regarding our perceptions of strength, there’s much to reflect on in a recent interview with David Freese. A former Cardinal player, he’s now the Pittsburgh Pirates’ third baseman. Freese is a hometown hero in St. Louis, and was the MVP of the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series victory.  He thrilled Cardinals fans with a double in the 9th to tie the 6th game of the ’11 series, then a walk-off homer in extra innings to win it. That game is one of the most exciting in World Series history. No one was more beloved in St. Louis in those days than David Freese. St. Louis is still his home.

In his interview, he revealed his story of coping with severe depression during that time, and most of his life. Amazing! We imagine success as the great buffer, shielding us from darkness. We look at a David Freese and think, “If I could just get there [be that successful, have that much talent or wealth], I’d be okay.” Yet, at the pinnacle of his career, he was fighting demons of his own.

“You win the World Series in your hometown, and you become this guy in a city that loves Cardinal baseball,’’ Freese says, “and sometimes it’s the last guy you want to be. So, you start building this façade, trying to be something I was not.”

His success brought St. Louis fans great joy. I am even more grateful to know the whole story, though. Telling it took more courage than staring down a major-league fastball. His hidden truth was a suffocating burden. Now, it is transformed into strength and healing, for himself and others.

How ironic: When we are weak, then we are strong. I am reminded of a favorite scripture passage: “The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

You’ve asked what I do when I need support? I let a few trusted friends see below the surface. This has taken time to cultivate. Along the way, there have been confidences betrayed, and others who couldn’t bear to see me in a vulnerable place. My closest friends love me in my weakness. But, rather than trying to fix things for me, they trust me to find my way. They gently remind me of my better self, like pushing a reset button. Their clarity and direction strengthen me.

I’m a great believer in daily prayer, meditation—whatever quiet time one needs to reconnect with the inner self. Lately, I realized that I took quiet time only on bad days! Now, I’m better about my daily practice, no matter my mood. Strength lies in that connection with God’s grace in my soul. When I’m sad or things don’t go my way, I have that anchor. I’ve lived long enough to know I can get through whatever life throws me. I may need to ugly cry along the way, but that’s okay. There’s someone there to pass the Kleenex!

As you try to get a good night’s sleep, leave those you’re trying to help outside the bedroom door. “No” is a complete sentence, to paraphrase a favorite author, Anne Lamott. I heard recently that empathy and kindness are signs of emotional intelligence. Both call forth actions that appear weak, but will strengthen and heal others. For all that he suffered, David Freese has emotional intelligence. Cultivate yours. Begin with empathy and kindness for yourself. Listen to your intuition: when seeking confidants, when carving out quiet time, and when discerning whom to help and to what extent. Let your soul be your pilot.

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.