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Why is it So Hard to Receive Support?

Letting others in is an ongoing process.

As a therapist, I offer support for a living—yet taking in care from others is another story.

I remember the a-ha moment when I first understood the reciprocal nature of support. Several years ago I attended a powerful community-based grief ritual.

At the start of the intimate weekend, we were given time to ask questions about the process and become more acquainted with our many collaborators.

holding-hands-858005_1280I asked a specific question about turning down help, and one man sincerely replied that people want to help, and to have that dismissed can feel like a rejection. I finally got it: denying help distances us from others—even if in our own minds we do it because we fear that we’re a burden and want to spare others that weight.

While you’re by no means responsible for satisfying others’ desire to feel needed, if you’re aware that you lean toward the isolating side of being highly independent, you can try letting people know that you see and appreciate their efforts. In fact, it honors the other person to receive their support. Thankfully, we don’t have to be alone with our pain.

Too many of us lack a safe group of people to act as a support system, whether it be friends, colleagues, family, or even chosen family. What’s more, many of us do have this, yet either don’t recognize it, or are too “independent” to take advantage of it.

Letting ourselves be seen in our needs and receive care is essential for our nourishment and growth, and yet it can be one of the most difficult things to do. Why is that?

One possibility stems from our cultural tendencies toward guilt and self-judgment, conditions that isolate us to varying degrees.

Many of us were taught to be unrealistically strong, or to place others’ needs before our own—and during times of extreme stress or adversity, our perceived “failure” to fulfill these roles can cause us to wall off from others. Even when life is moving along relatively smoothly, it can be hard to accept a compliment, ask for help with a task, or even acknowledge a simple statement of empathy.

What are we so worried about?

  • Others not being able to relate to our situation
  • Others not understanding us in our responses to that situation
  • Others blaming or shaming us for being in the situation
  • Others being unwilling to help us
  • Others being turned off by our feelings
  • Others being overwhelmed by our problems

Sound familiar? These are just a few common concerns, and they prime us to deflect rather than receive support.

But what we forget when we’re struggling is that others are often more forgiving and compassionate toward us than we are toward ourselves.

Current research on self-compassion, put forth by Kristin Neff and others, confirms that we’re often much harder on ourselves than we’d ever be on others. If you can relate, chances are you’re not giving yourself enough credit for your own resilience and empathic nature.

Radical self-acceptance, your own inner work, will help with this. When you’re noticing challenging emotions arise—or the anxiety that often covers these feelings over—you can practice holding space for yourself: neither rejecting your feelings, nor becoming engulfed by them.

Though you’ll want to find a compassion-based practice that you resonate with, I personally like mindfulness teacher Tara Brach’s RAIN practice. To paraphrase:

R = Recognize what you’re feeling inside.

A = Allow the feeling to be just as it is.

I = Investigate your inner experience with kindness.

N = Non-identification with a limited sense of self or storyline.

Life brings a host of barriers to trusting others—or ourselves—enough to become receptive to care. But unfortunately, guarding against pain also keeps out healing. We live in a culture that prizes thought over feeling and  independence over interdependence. We have to deliberately search for ways to express and unburden our hearts.

Hearing that man’s caring conviction at the grief ritual was an invaluable reframe for me, and allowed me to see that receiving support brings joy to others, too.

Beginning to let yourself receive will bring up fear, insecurity, and vulnerability—but it’s in these tender spaces of interdependence where love happens.


Shirin Shoai

Shirin Shoai

Shirin Shoai works with people inspired to build more meaningful lives and relationships. Grounded and curious, she supports clients toward clarifying desire, exploring identity, setting healthy boundaries, managing challenging emotions, and navigating difficult transitions. She also facilitates groups for motherless daughters and mixed-race women of color.

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