Have you ever struggled with a problem and had a sense that you could really benefit from talking to someone - but you had some reservations about opening up?
Have you ever wished you could share your struggle with family or friends, but didn’t feel comfortable going forward to them?
Have you ever longed to say whatever’s on your mind, but you were afraid that you might burden whomever you opened up to?
If I had a nickel for every time someone started their first counselling session with me by saying something along the tines of, “I decided to come to you because I didn’t want to burden my family and friends”, I’d have a very impressive nickel collection. I have a hard time believing that the prevalence of this kind of statement is due to mere coincidence. In fact, usually when a whole bunch of people make such strikingly similar statements, it points to some convention within the deeper cultural waters we’re all swimming in.
So why do we think we burden others when we reach out for help?
Negative Responses Speak Volumes
Some people who are wary of burdening others with their problems are being very selective with whom they open up to because they’ve learned from past experiences.
I’ve known several people who have decided to trust a professional like me because the people they’re closest to have responded in unhelpful or alienating ways in the past.
Some negative responses can send clear messages about how burdensome we are when we’re struggling – or rather, how burdensome some people find our problems to be. I’ve known folks who have dealt with anything from grief to cancer, whose closest relations repeatedly remarked how hard their struggle was on them.
For example, one woman got in touch with me after her mother kept saying how hard it was on her seeing her middle-aged daughter (the client) experiencing profound grief after a significant loss. Another woman learned to be particularly careful with whom she shared her concerns after she was diagnosed with a serious illness: her partner stole the spotlight when it came to the expression of suffering, leaning heavily on her at a time she was depleted and needed someone she could lean on. In both cases, while these third parties’ feelings of distress were legitimate, they made it “all about them”, sending the message that the person at the centre of it all imposed these feelings on them.
In cases like these, it’s understandable that some people might avoid sharing their experiences of adversity in an effort to mitigate these unhelpful (and often hindering) responses.
Avoiding Judgment and Rejection
Generally speaking, burdens are not particularly well liked. After all, no one likes carrying around extra weight if they don’t have to. Many people who are wary of opening up to others about the challenges they face are cautious because they know there’s a chance they might be received with judgment and exclusion. This is another common reason some people want to avoid being seen as a burden.
As I described in my post on social exclusion anxiety, it is generally important for people to be met with inclusive responses from others. When we’re heard and our feelings and perspectives are validated, we generally feel good (go figure!). On the flip side, when we’re met with judgment and exclusionary responses, we’re more likely to feel alienated and out of place. It’s a sign of good health to be at odds with exclusion and rejection (not that it’s necessarily unhealthy to prefer being alone).
For example, a teenage boy came to my office after he was repeatedly told by his parents that “they didn’t want to hear about it” when he expressed how he was feeling after being the victim of a sexualized assault. They responded by getting up and walking into another room when he brought his concerns and suffering to light, and he read these responses as saying, “you’re a burden and we don’t want to deal with you”. For this reason, he chose to find a professional helper he could trust with his story, who wouldn’t respond with judgment and exclusion.
In this way, being wary of being seen as a burden is highly practical and health promoting.
Discomfort With Receiving Help
Some people are so used to helping others that it feels strange and unfamiliar to be on the receiving end. When this is the case, people can be understandably reluctant to reach out for help when they need it.
There are lots of reasons for this, many of which relate back to cultural perspectives on helpers and helpees. I’ve met with clients who work as counsellors, nurses, psychologists, and caretakers, several of whom have mentioned how odd it felt being in the opposite role. They remarked how they didn’t want others knowing they were seeing a therapist because it might reflect badly on their reputation as a helper.
I think this is very telling - it speaks to society’s view that people who need help are weak. Most of us are probably familiar with this perspective to some degree: the people who are giving help are assumed to “have it together”, and are therefore proficient, while the people receiving the help are regarded as needing to “get it together”, and are therefore deficient. Of course, this is a really problematic and limiting view of the helper/helpee dynamic: It creates a climate of fear around opening up when outside help could make a big difference.
I think the notion that people are “weak” for seeking help is an idea worth disrupting.
Making it Easier to Reach Out
If you’ve ever been reluctant to reach out for help, what would have needed to change to make it easier for you?
When I recall all the many reasons for reluctance that I’ve heard from clients over the years, a general theme emerges:
Being able to trust that their concerns will be met with dignity and understanding, and that the person they open up to can handle it.
There are definitely circumstances in which people’s assumptions about how others will respond to them opening up are accurate. Often this knowledge is based on first-hand experience, and is therefore hard earned. In these situations, when it feels like you’ve really exhausted your resources, finding a professional helper who you can trust makes sense.
But there are other circumstances in which it may be worthwhile to go out on a limb and test the organic relationships that make up your life. How certain are you that your problems will be received as burdensome if you decide to open up? Is your assumption based on something you know about yourself (or the problem you’re dealing with), or is it based on something you know about the other person? Are there ways you could present your issues that would be more or less burdensome?
The reality is, everyone responds differently to issues people bring forward, and not everyone opens up about their struggles in the same way. For instance, a lot of people find others to be burdensome when the sharing isn’t reciprocated: when it feels like one person takes and takes without giving back. Similarly, some people begrudge the helper role when it becomes a thankless job: the person or people they’re helping fail to acknowledge or appreciate their efforts.
As people receiving help, we can actually do things to decrease the likelihood of our helpers feeling burdened:
- Say thank you;
- Offer a token of appreciation;
- Offer our help and assistance to them;
- Let them know how much of a difference they make in your life.
There’s one thing that I think is especially cool about being in the helper role (which I’m in every day): it feels good to make a positive difference in the lives of others! This can be pretty clear to us when we’re in the position of offering help, but can escape us when we’re in need.
If people truly burdened others simply by seeking support for their struggles in life, I would be in rough shape. But the reality is, I find it to be such an honour to have ample opportunities to be helpful to those who seek my support. And I know I’m not alone in this: I’ve spoken with several colleagues on many occasions about the myth that people do us harm or burden us with their problems, and they echo my sentiment that it’s actually enlivening to have the opportunity to help.
So that’s something to consider the next time you’re on the fence about opening up and sharing your struggles with someone you otherwise feel you can trust. You may be presenting them with a kind of gift: a chance to be close to you and to have their sense of competency reaffirmed by being helpful.
When the dynamic is right, there is no one-sided helping relationship. Everyone who seeks help in an equitable and fair way is simultaneously being helpful to the person they’re receiving help from.
What have been your experiences of seeking or giving help?
How do they compare to each other?
Can you think of any other reasons someone might want to avoid being a burden when faced with seeking help?
Have you considered reaching out for help with something you're struggling with?