Or, it's OK to NOT be OK
Asking for help has never been one of my strengths. Until fairly recently, if I was assigned a project, if a teammate asked me for help, or if there was something bothering me personally, I would take the approach that it's mine to deal with and see to its logical conclusion. At work, I've always been one to take the blame for a mistake, regardless of whether or not it was mine, so we can collectively focus on a solution.
As a leader I've been able to effectively delegate for much of my career. I pride myself on hiring smart, capable people and trusting and empowering them to do what they do best. Even so, that doesn't mean that when I'm given an assignment or a project that I'm eager to ask for help getting it done. It's assigned to me, so I take it as my personal responsibility to get it past the finish line, inconveniencing as few people as possible along the way.
Mental Health Month
That leads me to the purpose of this post. It's Mental Health Month. It's important as a leader to create a space where people can be their authentic selves. That includes advocating for their mental health. Often times, in order to do that most effectively, you also have to advocate for your own.
It's important to know if YOU need some help. It's VERY understandable to NOT feel OK right now, there is so much shit happening around us.
I'm speaking from the perspective of someone in the US where gun violence is at an all-time high. Books are being banned by small-minded people. Some people still don't realize that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States and that citizens of Puerto Rico ARE US citizens. Half-wits (exhibit a, exhibit b), pundits (I probably should've included them in the first group), and those in denial are pretending White Supremacy isn't a thing or that racism doesn't exist. Corporations are forcing employees back to the office under the guise of "improving collaboration and productivity" when it's really about control.
I could devote many, many posts to all things shitty that might be contributing to a less than spectacular bill of mental health. I think you get the point, so I'll spare you further negativity.
I repeat, it's OK to ask for help
In fact, you owe it to yourself. Here's the Cliff's Notes version of my personal story. I don't share this for sympathy. I'm certainly not sharing all the gory details. I am sharing this in the event it can help just one person feel better about their situation and realize it's OK to get help. In fact, you deserve the help. You're not in this alone.
The story goes like this. It's August of 2021. My family and I traveled to Savanna, GA for my cousin Ashley's wedding. It was the first time we'd flown since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The picture above is one of the few where we weren't masked. My sister, Christy, met us in Savanna. Her flight got in much later than ours. We were on a mini vacation and everyone was excited to see Christy, so we let the kids stay up until she got to the apartment we rented. After some excited conversation and lots of hugs, everyone but Christy and I retired to their rooms.
Christy and I went to the kitchen. I poured us a couple of local craft beers I picked up at a nearby Publix. Then we talked. And we talked some more. And we cried. Then we talked some more. We talked until after three in the morning. We talked about our childhoods. We talked about some things that have been with us for decades. We talked about some things I'd much rather not remember.
In some cases, I didn't really understand or fully recognize those as memories until much later. Some of those things were obvious, right in my face kinds of things. Others had lay dormant, for well over two decades, occasionally rearing their ugly head only for me to dismiss them as though they weren't my memories. As if they didn't really happen.
The conversation prompted me to promise Christy that I'd look into therapy. That was as hard of a thing for me to promise as I could imagine. Seeking therapy meant asking someone else for help. It meant letting someone else in, a stranger no less, and telling them things I hadn't talked about with anyone, ever, at least not until that humid August early a.m. in Savanna, GA. It meant being vulnerable in a way that I've never been before.
Finding the right fit
It took me a little while to spend some focused time researching and finding a therapist to work with. I started with Psychology Today and read through a number of therapists profiles. I couldn't decide if this process seemed more like reviewing portfolios, resumes, and interviewing individuals to eventually hire or online dating (yes, I did that once upon a time, well before I met my amazing wife - a non-online dating story for another time). I reviewed the profiles looking not just at their specialties and what I thought I needed, but for any clues as to personality fit. Who was most likely to get through to me?
Unlike hiring, I didn't really know what I was looking for. I didn't know specifically what I needed. I didn't know anyone locally that I could ask for a referral - probably because as adults we don't often talk about the most important things (i.e. needing help).
After a few months of distracted searching and reviewing profiles, I finally scheduled an appointment for a 15-minute consultation. I figured at the very least, that gave me an opportunity to see if they were a good fit. The appointment request form had an open field with no character limitation (challenge accepted) asking for information on why I was seeking therapy. I decided the only way to do this was to be open to getting help, open to change, so I shared a fair bit of detail about what my sister and I discussed in Savanna and what I thought I needed help with. I went into my first session fully prepared to open up.
Taking the leap
After the first 15-minute consultation, I felt like my research and taking the time to make the right decision had paid off. I've been seeing the same therapist for nearly a year and a half now. She's helped with so many things. I'm not going to share the details of my sister and my conversation, because I'm not looking to start a public smear campaign, but I will share this. Ilana R. Luft-Barrett, Ph.D. has helped me in ways I didn't know I needed. First and foremost, she's helped me to become a better and more patient father and husband - patience not being a virtue that was bestowed on me. She's helped me learn to manage anxiety in the workplace, in social situations, and in life in general.
Ilana's coached me on giving myself grace and not focusing on being perfect, but instead focusing on the progress I make each and every day. A perfectionist by nature who's unfortunately passed that personality trait on to all three children, that might be the most important assist of all. She's really helped me to embrace the growth mindset, and in the end, bring my authentic self to most situations instead of hiding behind my own insecurities.
I'm still not perfect, and that's ok
Is everything perfect? Hell no. I still have work to do. I'm still frequently impatient. I still have a temper. I'm far from the perfect dad, husband, son, friend, colleague, leader, peer, etc. I'm getting better at getting out of my own way and getting out of my comfort zone, but I still have social anxiety. The difference is now I'm taking a growth mindset and realize getting a little better every day is what's important. Perfection is impossible.
I owe my new found perspective mostly to my sister and Ilana. But I also owe it to myself for deciding to get help. If you're feeling isolated, trapped, frustrated, or just unsure of what is bothering you or how to get past it, do yourself the favor and talk to someone.
Share your story. It just might be one of the best decisions you ever make.