Dear Amy: I can’t make people understand what I need. I say: “This is what I need,” but they don’t understand. My friends aren’t apathetic, but they seem to lack empathy for me.
At different times this year I have said, “I’m overwhelmed, I can’t keep working this hard.” My colleagues, who I know like me, said, “Just keep going.”
These same people then came to me and said, “We have to watch out for ‘Julie’ (another co-worker) — she might need help.”
In cases like this, we would help the colleague who was stressed by taking some of her burdens from her.
At the same time, I would think, “I just told you I need help. Why won’t you help me?” Later, a co-worker said to me, “You’re the only one of us who is always OK, and always happy.”
It felt so unfair. I had literally told that person, several times: “I’m not OK. I’m overwhelmed. I’m not happy.”
The other day I felt fragile and sad. I said to my romantic partner, who loves me, “I need affection today.”
He let me wilt over the course of the day. Later I said to him, “I thought you were going to love me extra today” and he laughed, like I was joking.
I’m glad he doesn’t feel like he needs to help me — I’m independent and responsible for myself. But sometimes I want help and ask for it explicitly, and even those who love me don’t believe me.
How do I express myself more clearly?
— Loved, but Lonely
Dear Lonely: My first suggestion is that you find a therapist, as soon as possible.
I hope you don’t see this as a cop-out on my part, but as advice from someone who has truly been where you are.
Some people seem to easily telegraph their vulnerabilities, wants and needs, while others seem consigned to serve those needs.
I assume that you are independent, capable, good-humored, stoic and generous, and these qualities can lead others to either ignore your needs or — even worse — appear to deny that you have any.
The phrase “self-care” has taken on multiple meanings (for everything from drinking enough water to saying “no” when you don’t want to do something), but sitting with an objective and qualified professional counselor to discuss your own personal challenges is truly the essence of self-care. A counselor will never deny that you have legitimate needs.
If you are being disregarded when you explicitly ask for help, ask again. Ask louder. And then, find ways to take what you need — by writing an email to your supervisor (versus making statements that are disregarded), and taking some absolutely necessary time off in order to regroup.
That old chestnut about applying your own oxygen mask before helping others to put on their own masks applies here.
Also — during a moment when you’re not feeling fragile — let your partner know how abandoned you felt during your time of need.