For the Ones Who Hide Away When They’re Struggling

“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.

for the ones who hide away when they're struggling

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.

for the ones who hide away when they're struggling

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.

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Are you among the ones who hide away when they’re struggling? Join the conversation in the comments!

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19 thoughts on “For the Ones Who Hide Away When They’re Struggling

  1. Bridget says:

    I often don’t think of myself as a “good-girl perfectionist” especially since my perfectionistic tendencies have waned due to sheer exhaustion and inability to keep up. But this statement, “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.” is so me. Here’s to trying to step out.

    • Bridget says:

      Does anyone else have difficulty articulating what is the problem when someone reaches out to help? I often can’t explain it.

      • Yes, I can relate to this; great question, Bridget! Sometimes the problem feels so big and tangled up that I don’t know where to start talking about it.

        What’s been helping me lately is this question from coach Brooke Castillo: when clients tell her that they don’t know what to do or that they don’t know what’s wrong, she says, “Okay, well, pretend that you do. Just hypothetically, what would you say if you did know what’s wrong, or if you did know what to do?”

        Often this simple trick is enough to unlock insights and truths that people have been keeping out of their own consciousness.

        Just a thought; definitely welcome other people’s suggestions on this!

    • Here here! Thank you for sharing this, Bridget – I always appreciate hearing which portions of posts resonated with people. And you are definitely not alone in the “turning inward” either.

  2. Renee says:

    Wow! I love how you see the lesson, the magic and the perfection in your everyday life! The man with the sign could have provoked a completely different, and much less loving reaction from another person. Instead of seeing differences in circumstances or being put off by the color of his skin, you saw the similarities between you and let that warm your heart and reach out to a fellow human being in need, while learning the lesson that it is okay to ask for what you want.

    Even though I know intellectually that it is okay to ask for help, I do still tend to go to ground when I’m going through stuff because I feel like I should be able to handle my own problems. It feels shameful to open up and be vulnerable with people, although I have made some headway with tried and true blue friends, and we’re that much closer because of it.

    Equally, it is hard for me to share the load with things that I do not need help with, such as the newsletter that I publish for a group I belong to. Another person has asked to be involved, and he has tons of experience, but I’m finding I don’t want to share it because he might be better at it and then I’m nobody special again. Crazy thinking, and I do realize that, but at least I realize it. I’m working on unpacking those crazy feelings with the ultimate goal of inviting him to help out, while holding the intention to learn something new from him. I’m a masterpiece that doesn’t really, really know it yet, lol.

    • Renee, I’m thrilled to hear that the story resonated with you! It’s actually a deleted scene from my forthcoming book, and while I loved writing it (and living it) I was hesitant to share it at first for fear of it being misunderstood. So it’s a wonderful encouragement to know that it spoke out to you.

      He seemed to me at once an angel and a fellow imperfect human being, and I like that I have no way of knowing for sure which it was.

      Your comment made me smile; I can definitely relate to your descriptions! Hats off to you for articulating what’s going on with the newsletter; as we both know, the first step to moving past the crazy thinking is to recognize it for what it is. 😉 I’d love to hear how it turns out.

      Proud of you, Renee, and always honored by your presence here.

  3. What a beautiful post, Caroline (as always!) and I so relate to this issue! In fact, I’ve noticed that this can really come up in relationships — when you have two people with these tendencies, sometimes there can be assumptions that both are pulling away from each other, when in fact, both are just struggling and withdrawing. Definitely been there! Thanks for writing about this. 🙂

    • Jill, that’s so well said; I’ve definitely seen that dynamic play out. It can be so freeing to realize, “Wait, we both want to connect here, but we’re each just afraid that the other one is pulling away!” Thrilled to hear that you liked the post and grateful for your wisdom and your friendship. <3

  4. I loved this! Yes, we all need a little help sometimes. This also reminds me that if I don’t believe I’m worthy of receiving help, then I believe that the people to whom I give help are actually less than me. And I don’t believe that, so I don’t want to act as if I do.

    • Thank you so much, my dear friend! And you make a great point: our beliefs about receiving help ourselves are inextricably bound up in our beliefs about other people who receive help. If we judge ourselves for accepting support, we’re judging them too. Fortunately, we can drop judgment in favor of mercy anytime we choose. Grateful to you for modeling that for me. <3

    • Amanda, thank you so much! Thrilled to hear that the story and imagery resonated with you; it was beautifully miraculous. It’s actually also a deleted scene from the memoir about recovering from perfectionism that I just completed, so there’s more where that came from. 😉 Also, hats off to you for your work as a creative and a coach and congratulations on YOUR forthcoming book as well!

  5. Sheila says:

    Thank You for verbalizing or defining the thoughts and actions I demonstrate when I feel overwhelmed. I have judged others or made up stories to explain the behavior when I have been on the receiving end. I pray that I can now extend the grace that I want to receive when I retreat, and know that it’s ok to say “I need a little help”.

    • You’re so very welcome, Sheila! Glad to hear that the post resonated with you. It can take a lot of courage to admit that we need help or support, so know that I am cheering you on in that. Thank you for reading and for commenting!

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