“Hi friend, how are you doing today? Thinking of you and sending love your way.”
I press send on the text, then click my phone screen off. I know better than to expect an immediate response from friends who hide away when they’re struggling.
My friend deals with depression and anxiety, and I know that this is a challenging time for her. I also know that when things get tough she tends to go dark.
Still I send the message and the love anyway. I pray that it can help her to defy the voices that tell her that she’s a bad friend, that she’s just bringing everybody down, that nobody cares.
Sure, sometimes her virtual disappearances get frustrating, but I know that that’s because I do the same.
The Perfectionist Retreat
My friend and I are both good-girl perfectionists; both of us hide away when we feel scared and sad and anxious.
We are the Jane Eyres and Eleanor Dashwoods and Princess Elsas of this world, the ones who retreat into silent isolation when we’re having a hard time.
(This gets confusing for our family and friends, because they don’t know whether we want more or less contact.)
But we do not want to rock the boat or burden anyone, ever. We’d much rather turn our fear and anger inward than bother anyone else.
Our role is to be the strong one, so when we feel weak, we panic.
We don’t know how to do this! Other people need help, but not us! We can pull it together by sheer force of will!
And when we can’t, we feel wildly ashamed. Then we hide, so no one will find out what a mess we really are.
Hiding is, in fact, our default setting. We know how to hide emotional pain beneath stellar performance; that’s what we’ve done for years.
Need a Little Help
I encountered him a few years ago on the way to a volunteer caregiving commitment. That evening my car stopped at a red light, and I fought to keep my eyes open against debilitating fatigue.
I’d forgotten my sunglasses, and I squinted through the windshield to see the man standing on the median in front of me.
He was tall, elegant, and African-American. He wore a crumpled white shirt and worn-out khaki pants, and in his hands he held a small cardboard sign with words printed in blocky black marker.
The sign had every letter capitalized: “NEED A LITTLE HELP.”
Those four words were like a key turning in my chest. In a flash, I understood that this man and I were the same.
True, I wasn’t standing on the road asking for money, but I needed a little help too. I’d been trying to pretend otherwise, but the sight of that sign freed me to drop the denial.
I was flat-out exhausted, and I needed a little help.
Vulnerability: The Gift We Give Each Other
Suddenly I felt flooded with compassion for both the stranger and for myself, because I was the same as him.
My rational mind warned me to be careful, to make sure my car doors are locked, to watch the man closely and be ready to drive away fast if need be. I took those precautions, but I wasn’t scared at all.
We were the same, so I waved the man over as I reached for the twenty-dollar bill from my wallet on the passenger seat.
My grandparents had sent it to me in the mail along with a birthday card, and I gave it to him because it felt exactly right. He had given me a gift, and I wanted to reciprocate.
As I rolled down my window just far enough to pass the money through, I met the man’s gentle, brown-eyed gaze. The sunset blazed behind him, the light so bright as to blind.
He looked me straight in the eye and spoke with warmth and kindness: “Thank you. God bless you.” And I said it right back, knowing that our blessing was already there.
Be Brave, Be Honest
The next time you’re tempted to hide away, I dare you to do something different. I dare you to wear your sign, to tell someone you trust that you need a little help.
The vulnerability might feel awful at first, but then, so does hiding away.
In Rising Strong, Brene Brown puts it this way:
“… when perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun.”
But when you get honest about the reality that sometimes you need a little help, you effectively kick both of those clowns out of your car.
And then you have the opportunity – no, the privilege – of allowing yourself to receive.
Are you among the ones who hide away when they’re struggling? Join the conversation in the comments!
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