I wanted my first days of motherhood to affirm my faith in humanity. Instead, I found myself alienated and alone.
Like many of us, I’m usually reluctant to ask for help, so before birth, I’d made a solemn promise to myself and God that I would ask for assistance, no matter how hard it was.
I assumed my reluctance was the problem, not the people I might depend on.
But just hours after my baby was born, weakened from a near-hemorrhage during my home birth, I reached out to someone close to me I thought I could depend on. I asked for practical, limited help. They turned me down so nonchalantly it felt brutal.
The support I’d struggled to reach for crumbled under my hand.
Honestly, it took me years to recover from the shock. I could not tell whether I’d been foolish to ask for help at all, whether I’d asked too much, or whether something more complicated had happened.
It’s easy to sing about ‘getting by with a little help from our friends’. But asking for help from other people is a vulnerable proposition. What do we do when our desperate requests fall on deaf ears?
There are no easy answers. But in the years since my daughter’s birth, I’ve come up with a few guidelines that help me continue seeking help while protecting my heart when people let me down.
Reframe Why You Ask for Help
I love giving help to other people, but when I need something, I often feel I’m begging, annoying my loved ones, or revealing that I’m entitled or spoiled.
So it shocked me to read Brené Brown’s take on depending on others: “When we attach judgement to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgement to giving help.”
My reluctance to allow others to serve me is not a mark of sainthood.
I’ve started trying to reframe why I ask for help. Rather than viewing it as a sign of weakness, I try to see it coming from a position of strength, courage, and love. When I lean on people, I invite them to go deeper with me into relationship.
Reframing the ‘art of asking’, as Amanda Palmer puts it in her brilliant memoir, makes it easier for me to recover when people fail me.
Before, people refusing to help me meant I was unworthy and unlovable.
But now, just the act asking for help tells me I’m strong and courageous—no matter what kind of response I get. When I ask for help, I have leaned on the body of Christ, depending on others as the church in Acts demonstrated so brilliantly.
Having people respond well is icing on the cake.
It still hurts when people say no. But there’s a difference between hurts that skewer our hearts and disappointments that give us valuable information. Which brings me to the second thing I’ve learned about handling people who turn away from my need.
It’s Healthy to Allow Disappointment to Change a Relationship—for Better, or Worse
I used to think that when people disappointed me, the ‘Christian’ response was to forget my hurt without letting it affect how close I felt to that person. I thought that’s what Jesus meant by “forgiveness”.
But as Lewis Smedes puts it, “You can forgive someone almost anything. But you cannot tolerate everything…We don’t have to tolerate what people do just because we have forgiven them for doing it.”
There is a major difference between forgiveness (leaving a person in God’s hands and learning to wish them well) and reconciliation (restoring the intimacy and closeness you had with them before they hurt you).
When people disappoint, it’s unrealistic, unhealthy and unbiblical to reconcile without them repenting. Jesus speaks about this quite clearly in Matthew 18: 15-17—telling us to approach the person who has hurt us one-on-one, then with one or two others, and after that with the whole community. If even after multiple attempts at reconciliation they don’t repent, he says, “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
We often read those last few words as being about ostracization. But I think they’re just as much about trust. If a person is not reliable, do not depend on them.
In my case, I spoke to the person who let me down about my disappointment quickly. To further my disappointment, they responded defensively. Over the next few years, I realized that they had a long history of letting me down at key moments—and continued to do so now.
I’d thought we were close, but we were not.
It turned out that underneath their refusal to help lay valuable information about our relationship. It hurt to realize I’d misjudged them, but when I was finally honest with myself about their pattern of neglect, I stepped back from depending on them. Now, rather than feeling constantly hurt by them, we have a more distant, but still-positive relationship.
Create Fertile Ground for Forgiveness
Christians toss around a lot of platitudes about forgiveness. I used to think forgiving was like a magic eraser—pray hard enough, and God could turn any frown upside down.
In truth, forgiveness takes more than prayer and good intentions. The key is this: is much easier to pardon when we’re ruthlessly honest about the people we’re need to forgive.
When I was still “close” to the person who constantly disappointed me, I had to forgive a never-ending, infinite litany of hurts. It was impossible to ‘let go’ of a hurt that did not end.
When, however, I put distance between us, accepted their limitations, and started depending on others instead, the hurt became something confined to the past.
It was the difference between downing one pill and standing, mouth open, in front of a fire hose, trying to swallow the onslaught.
When I finally set up kind, firm boundaries with them, it was like taking off a backpack loaded with lead bars. Forgiving them is an ongoing process, but it’s worlds easier than before.
A Model of Helplessness
After we face deep disappointment, it’s tempting to stop depending on people, or blame ourselves for our vulnerability. But looking to Jesus Christ, our need for help takes on a holy sheen. Christ took the form of a helpless baby, completely dependent on people for his care. Ultimately, he, too was betrayed by people whom he should have been able to trust.
God models a heavenly vulnerability to us, and invites us into the breathtaking joy of trusting other people. He urges forgiveness of disappointment, but also offers a clear-eyed, unsentimental path forward when people let us down.
Forgiveness and vulnerability go hand in hand. As we learn to trust other people, we also learn to trust ourselves—trust our hurt, trust our need for help, and trust our gut about whom to depend on. In teaching us wisdom, resilience, and clear-eyed love, Jesus invites us into community that truly feeds our souls.
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Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.