I recently sat in a keynote about achieving personal greatness. It wasn’t one of those obnoxious overly-inspirational pep talks about how this person defied all the odds and was an overnight success story. It was an intimate open story about how overcoming struggle was key to mental wellbeing and ultimately, unleashing her personal greatness and professional success.
Referring to the familiar airplane safety measure, the speaker explained that in life, “you have to put your oxygen mask on before you can put anyone else’s on.” She went on to say that taking care of yourself can seem counterintuitive but even the best leaders in the world know it’s necessary and that sometimes to do that, we must ask for help.
Signs That It’s Time to Ask for Help
Some time ago I was a very different person in a very different place. My coworkers, friends and family couldn’t see much of a difference in me, though that may just be a self-evaluation. It was a pivotal time that ended up fundamentally changing me, for the better. A combo meal starting with my own personal baggage (because we all have some) combined with burnout, which I thought would end when I left my job but which actually spiraled into a deep depression. It turns out I attached my sense of self-worth to my job. While I knew in the long term leaving was the best move for me, the whole experience was emotionally unsettling because it was uncertain.
“You’re not good enough…not for that job, not for your friends, not for your family, your coworkers, etc.” The tape played on repeat for me for a couple of months. I willingly pushed everyone around me away because I didn’t want to be judged. A famous researcher and TED talker, Brené Brown says that this sensation is shame, which she also refers to as the “swampland of the soul.” If you haven’t seen her amazing talks yet, hold the phone and do that, here and here.
The Power of Vulnerability
In her first one about the power of vulnerability, she says the keys to achieving success are courage, compassion and connection, all of which are contingent on one’s willingness to let go and be vulnerable. In her second chat, she expands by saying you cannot talk about vulnerability without talking about shame. Brown says the less you talk about it, the more you have it.
So, I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t really talk at all. Who wants to talk about that? It was so conflicting. I felt like I needed to talk about it to get through it but I was too scared, ashamed, [insert your adjective here] to be that honest. Openly saying you’re at a low point and having a mental health snafu is shunned in our society and a slippery slope to being labeled a “crazy person.” So, I put on my happy face and kept going, but it felt awful. Seemingly ok? Sure. Actually ok? Not really. Actualizing my greatness? Definitely not.
Enter again, Brené Brown. “We numb emotions to escape negative things like grief, fear, shame but in doing so we also numb joy, gratitude, happiness and then we are miserable and looking for purpose.”
She gave me a hug and told me it’s okay not to be okay, that we’ve all been there. She humanized the shame I was feeling and encouraged me to ask for help more.
I’ll never forget breaking down to one of my girlfriends one day who, like a champ, didn’t even bat an eyelash. She gave me a hug and told me it’s okay to not be okay, that we’ve all been there. She humanized the shame I was feeling and encouraged me to ask for help more.
So I did.
My version of help was going to a counselor, weekly, and it was a game changer. The woman was a safe zone for me to talk about what I was going through and help me healthily deal with it. It turns out, even though I felt like it was the end of the world at the time, it wasn’t. It was unnerving because it was uncertain and I felt vulnerable. Funny enough, you know how Brene Brown refers to vulnerability? As the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.
What Happens When You Ask For Help
My struggle, while in retrospect so minor, was very real and was a catalyst to a very positive (the Type A in me might also add, “past due”) change in my life. I am happier now and feel more confident in myself aside from my work. I feel more compassionate and connected towards myself, my friends, my family, and coworkers. I truly feel like the pivotal moment allowed me to graduate to this chapter of life. And I am grateful that I had a girlfriend who reminded me it was okay to ask for help to grow into that space.
I am no vulnerability researcher. I am not even a huge Brene Brown enthusiast, to be honest. I happened to fall into her TED talks by chance coming out of the recent keynote. I am also no doctor trained in mental health. I am, however, a human who experiences highs and lows like anyone else in the world and who aspires, through it all, to reach my own version of greatness.
So, as a friend and fellow human, I wanted to use this outlet to be vulnerable myself and remind people that it’s okay to put your oxygen mask on first and ask for help. It’s not a weakness; it’s strength. And once you’re in a spot where you’re okay, you’ll be able to pay it forward and help others do the same. Because as leaders, we know that greatness is never a solo act.