The Adult Child Inability to Ask for Help

Ask an adult child who endured dysfunction, alcoholism, or abuse during his upbringing what the idea of “asking for help” evokes, and he may respond “hesitation,” “restriction,” “trauma,” “confrontation,” and “distrust.” But why?

Reasoning, I realized, is in the wiring-of the brain, that is-and my own was soldered during my upbringing-in other words, the wiring contained the ‘why,” or, in my case, the why not when it came to asking others for this help.

How, it is certainly fair to wonder, can you expect help from others-and especially strangers-when your own parents were not there for you? Parental “help” may have been more synonymous with abandonment.

My father was a para-alcoholic, who was exposed to the same erratic, unpredictable behavior he subjected me to, yet neither knew that he was an abused child nor that there was anything wrong with the treatment he received. And my mother, while caring and loving, grew up with a father who himself suffered from an explosive personality that could only be quelled with a quick gambling fix (translated as a full-blown addiction) and she was just as powerless-not to mention frightened-when the insanity played out in my home environment.

Based upon this ostensible normalcy, how and why, I often wondered, would those who did not know me from Adam endeavor to “help” me or even acknowledge my existence? This was what I knew. It was never questioned or corrected, and certainly seemed to configure my brain’s circuitry at a pre-school age, perpetually preparing me for rejection and trepidation.

Subconsciously transported back to my original parental betrayal and the trauma it created, help equaled harm, causing me to feel exposed, even in present time, to a person who may have treated me in a similar manner. Who, I can only ask, would want more of this?

The sheer thought re-erects that impenetrable wall that separated me from my father and, ultimately, others-the one that rumbled, “Step over this line and you’ll be sorry that you did!”

Placing the potential help on one side of a seesaw and the potential hurt its asking could yield on the other, I often assessed the lesser of the two evils, even if that risk were nothing more than irrational in nature, whose seed was planted in childhood. As I continue to pursue my recovery path, I have begun to realize, of course, that it was.

Desperate times lead to desperate measures, it has often been said, and I usually had to fall into the former category before I even contemplated the latter of asking for help. I can only imagine the perplexity of a person who is the product of a safe, nurturing childhood when he tries to understand how seeking a helping hand from another could be considered a “desperate measure,’ much less a dangerous one. The person, I am sure, would not blink an eye at asking, “Could you help me with… ”

Then again, that person never had the need to cross his brain’s wires the way I did and then experience and expect the opposite of what would have been considered normal, reasonable, and rational. There were times when my father went ballistic at the sheer thought of aiding his “enemy.” I thought I was his son…
Exposure to any later-in-life authority figure was an instantaneous lighting, like a switchboard, of those circuits, followed by the emotional drop into the pit known as ‘victimhood.’ If being victimized and perhaps harmed could be equated with “help,” then I would rather do without it, thank you.

Indeed, there were times when my father seemed intolerant of my sheer presence and asking him for things was sometimes nothing more than a race between the rational request and the rise of his defensive wall, leaving me unable to reach him. (I later suspected that he was the recipient of the same rejected treatment when he dared the same interaction with his father.) It was hardly worth the successful delivery (of whatever I needed) if I had to fear another retriggered explosion to achieve it. This was certainly one of the circumstances which had me think twice-if not ten times-about ‘bothering” others for this aid, even as an adult.

It also did not breed any sense of self-esteem or worth, implying that I was just not good enough to even give the time, attention, or help to.

Adult children negotiate life, hiding their deep-dark secrets about the deep hole in their souls and the flaws they believe reflect their intrinsically faulty endowment. They are unaware that this rift was progressively created by parents who suffered from the same deficiencies and projected them on to them. Asking for help, to an adult child, is thus the equivalent of advertising it, a scream, if you will, of “Hey, world, look at how unworthy and inferior I am! I need your help because I can’t do it myself!”

“I was intimidated by step five, because it meant revealing my darkest secrets to another person,’ according to “Courage to Change,” the Al-Anon text (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992, p. 127). “Afraid that I would be rejected for being less than perfect, I put so much energy into hiding the truth that, although no one rejected me, I was as isolated and lonely as if they had.”

The adult child syndrome forces a person, without choice, into a state of isolated self-sufficiency, which serves as an outward expression of distrust in others, an inability to have relied on them when he needed them, and the ultimate attempt to create an environment of safety, security, and stability. Ironically, the more he believes that he is inadequate and incapable, the more he must dig within himself to find the “Jack of all trades” resources to individually achieve what he needs, transforming him from incapable (in belief) to autonomous (in ability).

Trust is a must, but requiring help returns him to a state of helplessness, when the very parents who should have aided him were the very ones who caused his plight and may have become the ones from whom he most needed protection.

“One effect of alcoholism is that many of us are reluctant to get close to people,’ according to ‘Courage to Change” (ibid, p. 363). “We have learned that it is not safe to trust, to reveal too much, to care deeply. Yet we often wish we could experience closer, more loving relationships.”

It may require a significant amount of recovery, during which a person’s childhood-bred fears, traumas, misbeliefs, and distortions eventually dissolve and enable him to view others in a non-authority figure, parent-emulating light who care and are concerned, so that he can see their good-intentioned actions of help for what they are and not the potentially detrimental offer his rewired brain tries to otherwise convince him of.

The ultimate help may come from his creator or the Higher Power of his understanding. But turning to him may be the most difficult act.

A disconnection and fall from him may, first and foremost, have been the initial subconscious step toward his disbelief. Leaving him vulnerable and powerless to shaming and damaging parents without intervention certainly did nothing to instill his confidence in an entity who could have protected him from danger and aided him during his greatest time of need. And finally, whatever he associates his earthly parents with he eventually attaches to his eternal one, assigning the same condemning and punishing qualities to him, until he can no longer see through this distorted filter.

Once again, it requires a considerable amount of recovery, during which his distortions are dissolved and he rises to a level of wholeness, before he can re-embrace God and regain enough faith and trust to ask him for the help he needs.

“I have an important part to play in my relationship with my Higher Power,” according to “Courage to Change” (ibid, p. 48). “I have to be willing to receive help, and I have to ask for it. If I develop the habit of turning to my Higher Power for help with small, everyday matters, I’ll know what to do when faced with more difficult challenges.”

Article Sources:

“Courage to Change.” Virginia Beach, Virginia: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992.