Asking for Help - Not Waving but Drowning

By Concentric Counselor Christian Younginer, LPC, NCC

Not Waving but Drowning

By STEVIE SMITH

Nobody heard him, the dead man,   

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought   

And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   

They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   

(Still the dead one lay moaning)   

I was much too far out all my life   

And not waving but drowning.

I believe this poem verbalizes well a common societal pressure. That is, the need to be happy externally, even if drowning internally. As we go through our day, met with multiple “How’s it going?”, we invariably are trained to answer “fine” or “great”, without the slightest thought. The question we’re left with is: how would anyone know I’m drowning, when I always give them a friendly wave?

Asking for help can be deceptively difficult. Frequently I hear from clients that asking for help shows weakness, or is shameful, or too vulnerable. So, we strengthen our resolve, buckle down, and soldier on at the expense of our wellness and happiness. We become run down, exhausted, and deflated. Imagine a balloon trying to remain the same size, while its air slowly leaks. We receive messages from our families of origin, our employers, and consumer culture that tell us to harden. But the harder we get, the more brittle we become. Rather than naming our need for help, we’re now drowning with work, emotions, schedules, and isolation. 

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Ultimately, this issue of asking for help comes down to a person’s struggle with taking care of themselves. Wellness, self-care, asking for help, boundary setting, etc all live in the same neighborhood: taking care of the self. A former supervisor of mine offered this metaphor:

You board an airplane, take your seat, and the flight attendant begins the safety protocols speech. They get to the section on the oxygen mask. They say, ‘please secure your own mask before attempting to assist anyone else.”

Why is that? Well, you can’t help anyone if you’re dead. The same concept applies here, albeit with less grim consequences. How can we expect to function, let alone help others, when we run ourselves ragged?

To return to the topic at hand, one way of taking care of the self is asking for help. Seeking therapy is a form of this. I often name the courage it takes for a client to find a therapist. As we know, it’s hard to find help for ourselves- especially for our mental health. As if the unfortunate stigma isn’t enough, busy schedules and work demands can get in the way. If therapy is two steps too far for you, there are smaller ways to open ourselves to the help of others.

We don’t have to instantly open up and adopt this idea. Rather we can take smaller steps that feel safer. For example, if we have created a default answer of “fine” when asked “how are you?” by random people, then that may have filtered into closer relationships. Those relationships where it may feel safer saying “Actually, I’m struggling.” So, what if we remove the automatic ‘fine’ from our vocabulary? Rather, when asked by a close friend or family member, “how are you?”, we take that question for what it is: an out-stretched hand to a drowning person.

 I think it is unfair to view this poem as an indictment of those who misread the author’s anguish. Rather, I believe it is a call to stop waving when we’re drowning. To let those looking out for our safety, save us. Only from this place of moaning, cold death does the author finally feel safe saying she was much too far out all of her life. If only we, the onlookers, knew this we could’ve helped.

 It is ok to feel you’re too far out. It is ok to feel like you’re drowning. There are those who want to help us, but only if we let them. When we don’t ask for help, we deny our friends and family the gift of being able to help someone they love.

The Role of Anxiety in Living an Authentic Life

By Concentric Counselor Christian Younginer, LPC, NCC

To be brief, anxiety can suck. The persistent worry of imagined scenarios can plague the mind and exhaust the body. It can manifest as brief periods of pronounced worry, a baseline worry for all things, and even panic attacks. But I would like to offer a perspective that may be overlooked in coping with anxiety. That is, can my anxiety teach me something?

Specifically, can my anxiety teach me how to live an authentic, meaningful life? This question shapes Existential Therapy. At its broadest, existential therapy is the endeavor of understanding one’s existence in a therapeutic setting. This is done via an honest exploration of one’s freedom, choice, responsibility, meaning, and inevitable death. Existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom conceptualizes much of anxiety as death-anxiety (Existential Psychotherapy, p.189). That is, persistent anxiety can be explained as an underlying worry about a life without meaning in the face of approaching death. Death is what allows life to have meaning. If there were no end, then for what should we live? The finiteness of life can motivate, intimidate, and terrify. However, it is this anxiety that can be the canary in the mine of our life.

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As we work, study, sleep, parent, eat, play, drive, and journey through life, meaning and purpose can slip through the cracks. Anxiety can creep in, seeming to have no definable impetus. Often enough the death of a loved one, or a diagnostic medical scare can bring perspective -- wherein we confront our death. But one does not need to wait for such a moment to ask these questions, such as “Why am I here?”, “What does it mean to exist?”, and “What is my purpose?”.

Anxiety can be that canary that alerts us of an inauthentic life. It warns of the finiteness of life, and the importance of living a life with meaning. This often manifests as a vague sensation of “running out of time”. Without meaning, one can find life pointless or trite. The finiteness of life no longer motivates, it terrifies. But if we listen to what our anxiety is telling us, perhaps we can redirect our lives towards meaning.

How does one do this?

An example from philosophy may be of use. In Frederick Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Nietzsche offers the reader an aphorism he titles ‘The Heaviest Burden’. He proceeds to ask the reader: if a demon were to order that you must live this life in eternal recurrence, every moment, detail, pain, and triumph- would you thank him or curse him? (The Gay Science, Aphorism #341). So, do I live my life in such a way that were I to re-live this life on repeat, I would praise the demon with gratitude for the opportunity? Or would this prospect bring about the abysmal dread of re-living a meaningless life? It is this precise idea where anxiety comes into play. Am I experiencing the anxiety and dread of a life not worth re-living?

It is this question that can help steer us towards meaning. Do I live in such a way that were I to re-live this life on repeat, would I be in joyful contentment or in abysmal dread? This is a tough question with which to be confronted. However, we can use this question as a beginning: the moment one begins to ask “does my life have meaning?”. Rather than be frozen by the possible dread this question instills, one can frame this as the moment in which a new life begins. As always, Confucius said it best, “ We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.”

Determining WHAT is meaningful is a personal journey that can take time to uncover. But knowing thyself was important to Plato for a reason. It is this existential journey of a human confronted with death, through anxiety, uncovering that which gives their life meaning.

To conclude, yes, anxiety does suck. But as we work to cope with it, let us ask -- What is this anxiety trying to teach me?  Anxiety very well may lead us away from the existential dread of an unexamined life, and instead towards finding a meaningful life worthy of repeating.

Sexual Trauma, Triggers, & The 24-Hour News Cycle

By Concentric Counselor Katie Ho, LPC, NCC

You can hardly escape today’s current social and political climate - it’s on the news, in your social media, overheard at lunch, and even for therapists, themes in session. For those who have experienced trauma in their lifetime, past or ongoing, navigating topics like sexual assault can be overwhelming, scary, complicated and sometimes even powerful. How we take care of ourselves and the people around us who may be struggling with the complexity of their emotions has to be part of the larger conversation. It’s clear that avoiding or minimizing discussions on sexual violence and quieting the stories of survivors is not the path to atonement and reconciliation. But as we create space and lift up the voices of those who have suffered, we must also take inventory of what comes up in us and tend to those parts with kindness, care and nurturing.

The #MeToo movement, local and national advocacy groups and social justice organizations have been and continue to create a platform for those who have been victim to sexual harassment and assault. While the stories and accounts of these traumas seem to be daunting all of the sudden for those who have been unaware, statistics and experts have known for some time of these experiences. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) estimates that 1 in 5 women will be raped in the United States in their lifetime, and that 1 in 3 women will experience some form of sexual violence. The majority of these acts are committed by acquaintances, partners or people who are known by the victim, and according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the majority of these events occur at or near the victim’s home. These of course are statistics, data and research gathered through reports from multidisciplinary agencies. There is undeniable value in knowing these numbers. And just as much, there is value in hearing the experiences and seeing the faces of survivors who have chosen to come forward.

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As allegations and reports of sexual assault make the news, we are bombarded with information, opinions, commentary and even jokes on the matter. Survivors are subject to their own re-traumatization, which has an impact on psychological and physical health, triggered by both the details of these publicized allegations of assaults and non-believers who dismiss them.

In knowing that a trigger is a psychological stimulus that can be evoked through anything from sights, smells or sounds, it’s no wonder that the 24-hour news cycle is affecting so many people. Survivors are not alone in their strong reactions to the constant replaying and subsequent criticism, shaming or dismissing of survivor stories. Those who feel a connection or calling to the cause, whether it be through their empathic attunement or knowing a survivor, may also experience the distress and burnout that comes with the current climate.

So how do we take care? How do we balance the righteous anger and complexity of our other emotions, promote advocacy and change, all while healing and taking gentle care of ourselves? In doing this, one of the most important things to know is nothing can replace the support of others. So find someone, or a group of someones, who can help to support, validate and foster a safe environment for processing.

Find a tribe, or maybe even create one. Pay attention to your body, as our physical being can often tell us when stress is increasing and it’s time for tending and healing. Maybe that means physical exercise, movement, touch or a practice of progressive muscle relaxation (a quick YouTube search is all you need!). Set boundaries. Limit your intake of news and dialogue on the topic by knowing how much mental and emotional labor you’re able to give without overextending yourself. And if you find yourself overwhelmed, triggered or lost, use mindful grounding techniques to bring yourself back into your here and now. Feel your feet on the floor, describe and notice something around you, use your five senses to bring a consciousness into your physical environment and current moment in time and add in a quick reminder - “I am safe. I am in control. I am okay.”