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Dr. Daniel Seidman

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Men and Asking for Help

Posted: 12/08/10 06:48 AM ET

What is it about men that makes them think that asking for help seems like a weakness, not a strength? It seems like a matter of pride to rely on oneself for many men, and self-reliance is clearly seen as a strength, not a weakness. So how do we know when it is best to rely on oneself, and when it is time to seek out the advice and counsel of others? Why do we place such a high value on "toughing it out," especially when it can isolate us or cut us off from optimal solutions? What can we do to help make asking for help feel more natural?

To be able to choose between these two courses of action, it helps to know what are the advantages and disadvantages of each. Chief among the advantages of struggling with a problem on one's own is, if you solve it in a satisfactory way, you can avoid the often misguided or problematic input of others (more about this later). You also get to experience the pleasures of being self-reliant, such as increased feelings of accomplishment and confidence in figuring something out for oneself. However what if, as happens in life, the problem proves to be too big for you? What if it goes beyond your experience and creative efforts? Even if this is the case, becoming well acquainted with the problem first best positions you to recognize what kind of help you need. In life, those who know what they are looking for, and what they need and want, end up having the best chance of getting it!

A key part of being self-reliant is avoiding misguided input. In raising children I was often given advice by well-meaning people who were following "conventional wisdom" but who didn't really know my kids or much about the situation. Sometimes, if I had followed their misguided input, it would have been disastrous. So always consider the source, and always bring your own intimate knowledge of a situation to the table. Next, be careful who you seek out for help with a particular problem. For example, who would you ask for financial advice: someone who has their house in order or someone living on the edge?

There is an old saying that almost everybody asks for advice, few listen and almost none take it. In fact, as a psychotherapist I find it often turns out that people get themselves into the most trouble when they override their own gut sense of how to approach a situation, and instead take a supposedly "safe" or "conventional" approach offered by others. So when asking for advice, listen carefully but double check it with your own gut response before proceeding. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to have trusted advisers or mentors in your life, who really give you the straight story on a problem, this can save you the time and expense of trial-and-error learning. But again, you have to know who best to ask for help, and for which kind of problem. It has also been said don't go to the hardware store for bread!

Beyond the issues of self-reliance versus asking for help, men sometimes have their own particular difficulties with asking for help, although women can also have their own brand of trouble in this area. Men don't like admitting, or even recognizing, when they feel helpless. I remember the day after 9/11, I found myself almost in a trance, busily cleaning up everything in sight in the space where we ran our clinic. I was trying to find order in the emotional and psychic chaos of that tragic time, trying to assert control when events much bigger than me left me feeling helpless and powerless.

Men can also feel "one down" about going to someone else who is better equipped to help solve their problem. However, when it comes to changing long-standing habits, such as cigarette smoking, for instance, I tell people they don't get extra points for suffering. Why not make changing old, unproductive behaviors as easy and pain-free as possible? In the end, those who are by nature self-reliant often make the best use of help when it is offered. They are also able to move on quickly if the help being offered is unproductive.

Men can also fall too easily into the "willpower" trap, and ignore available help at their peril. The wards of hospitals are full of men who refuse to go to the doctor when they have physical symptoms and who seem to prefer to pay the price rather than to go for help. In my own work helping smokers quit, I often hear from wives worried about their smoking husbands' health. This is usually to no avail unless I quickly hear from the man himself. Many male smokers believe that quitting smoking is all about willpower: either you have it or you don't. Many men who smoke also believe they need to smoke in order to perform better at work or to cope with the stress of making a living. Once they realize this is a myth, that smoking can't solve real life problems or make them smarter, more talented or more conscientious at their job, a shift in their perception or beliefs about smoking can greatly lessen the strain of quitting.

Contrary to the willpower notion that quitting is just about strength or weakness, accepting well-considered and well thought-out guidance is like being offered a map when you are in uncharted territory. Again, using my experience with smokers as an example, following a well-traveled path can save a smoker the trouble of having to forge a new road all on his own. However, as is well-known, many men will struggle to find their way rather than roll down their window and ask someone for directions! As one example of a small piece of guidance that can make a big difference, few smokers (and their health care professionals) know that using two forms of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) at the same time (like the patch and the gum, or the patch and the inhaler) is the most effective medicine available to help quit smoking, according to the latest US government guidelines.

One man whom I am friendly with quit smoking on his own, but suffered a long time from withdrawal and getting used to his life without cigarettes. He "toughed" it out without nicotine replacement patches or cessation counseling. He was successful long-term, but with a great deal of strain and discomfort. In contrast, some hard-core smokers never quit without outside assistance. Others wait too long, until faced with disability or even death. Another person I know was able to quit relatively easily with a little outside help arranged for him by his wife. However, he had waited until he couldn't walk more than a block from emphysema. Still another person, never really tried to quit until he developed a fatal lung illness. Even while fighting for his life, however, he still could have benefited from some timely expert smoking cessation help had it been made available to him at the bedside. Unfortunately, such help is rarely made available as a critical part of comprehensive patient care, even though it can help ease a smoking patient's pain. While there is hope for a cure, it makes no sense to do all we can to get better but still continue to puff away. In the last year I lost two special friends to smoking (see You Have to Die of Something). This experience has reinforced what a patient told me years ago: "Don't wait until you hear the diagnosis to get help."

Dr. Seidman is author of the new book Smoke-Free in 30 Days: The Pain-Free, Permanent Way to Quit with a foreward by Dr. Mehmet Oz (Fireside Trade Paperback Original, January 2010). An audio book is available from Random House. Dr. Seidman first introduced his own program to stop smoking as a featured expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show with Dr. Oz
early in 2008, after 20 years of helping smokers at Columbia University. For more details about the book go to www.danielfseidman.com