By Caitlin Holzer, Naperville North High School Class of 2016 & Alive Teen Alumni
I am going to start with part of my conclusion, we do not have to do everything on our own. There is no finish line when learning to be assertive, so all that matters is the starting line. Remind yourself every day that you don’t have to struggle silently. Tell yourself that it is okay to ask for help, regardless of how big or small your request is. Remember that you are worth someone else’s time and energy.
When I’m lost and in need of help—regardless of what it’s for—I squirm in the discomfort of vulnerability. As a student struggling to balance mental health and tremendous stress, I need every bit of extra help. I’m not always able to do what is expected of me, and staying on top of important deadlines or completing some of the simplest tasks is a constant battle. Because of this, a good chunk of my time and energy is spent catching myself up to speed. It haunts me to think I might appear as though I’m making excuses for laziness if I ask for extensions on assignments or exams, so I avoid asking for help like it’s the plague. Self-advocacy is hard and remaining silent feels like the easy way out. In reality, asking for help is probably be the biggest act of courage in my everyday life.
Predicting horrible outcomes and making inaccurate predictions are my forte. I never expected the support I received over time nor the freedom I experience each time I ask for help. Learning to advocate for myself changed my life in some of the strangest, most unexpected, and amazing ways. Let me share a few of my favorite lessons from this journey.
School is not a one-size-fits-all institution. Don’t try to fit the norm, build your own.
Like many other freshman, I struggled to assimilate into high school life and balance taking care of myself at the same time. As hard as schools might try, it’s nearly impossible to create a one-size-fits all institution that fully supports every single student’s individual needs. Instead of trying to shape-shift myself to meet expectations, I found ways to morph the expectations into something a little more compatible with my needs. I met with my school counselor as needed to check in and take breaks. I asked for and was given an “anytime pass” that allowed me to remove myself from difficult class periods and take a breather in the nurses’ office. I learned to ask for extensions, breaks from class, and advice from teachers—both on life and schoolwork. I committed myself to finding a balance through experimentation.
Naperville North is filled with people willing to make students’ lives easier, and I’m sure most high schools aren’t very different. Unfortunately, unless we voice our needs and concerns, the solutions and remedies will not find us. Struggle grows in the fear of vulnerability and hides easily behind happy faces and silence. I searched and asked for these resources; they did not find me. If I had not expressed my struggle and asked for some accommodations, I cannot even imagine how miserable I would have been in high school. If you’re having a hard time and school is making it worse, do not just hang in there; take a breath and ask for help.
Asking for help is a sign of courage and strength.
In my mind, asking for help translates to vulnerability. Being vulnerable became, and still is, one of my biggest fears. Our competitive culture cultivates the mindset that showing weaknesses a sign of giving up and should only be done as a last resort. Like all things, overriding internal chaos and asking for help requires practice and patience. One of my favorite authors and researcher, Brené Brown, wrote, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage are not always comfortable, but they are never weaknesses.” Courage is doing what feels right, despite knowing the risks and not knowing the outcome. Being courageous is exposing your true self in moments of great uncertainty. You and I are courageous every single time we are vulnerable, and I think that’s something worth celebrating.
Learning to be assertive with your needs and asking for help might place you in a sometimes painfully vulnerable situation, but I promise you, the courage to reach out for a helping hand has lived in you all along.
I learned how to better take care of myself.
Trying to push through difficult assignments and meet deadlines when my mind is speeding at a million miles per hour is not worth the agony and sleep-deprivation. Believe it or not, balancing your life and school and work is possible, and it all starts with you. When stress is interrupting my daily life, stepping back and taking a deep breath is crucial to the preservation of my sanity. Self-care is not always bath bombs, green tea, and a good work-out; it exists in many forms. Healthy communication, reaching out to friends when you’re struggling, or taking a break even when you have stuff to do are all forms of self-care, and they are critical for managing stress and brain power. Never for a second apologize for taking care of yourself.
Life is substantially easier when you ask for help.
Relief does not always find me immediately, but somewhere along the way, things do get better. Being honest with myself and others takes time, practice, and patience, but it always pays off in the end. When I choose to follow fear over self-advocacy, I sacrifice the joys of extra-curricular activities and time spent with friends and family. When I choose self-care, unnecessary stress dissipates, and I can focus on what is most important. I have the space and energy to be my best self. I establish long-lasting relationships that support my individual needs and create an atmosphere in which I can be successful. My point in saying all of this? Asking for help is worth your time, energy, and temporary discomfort.
Self-advocacy is not a sign of weakness and does not make you a burden, but instead is a sign of strength and courage that makes room for the most important things in life. Tap into the immense courage that lives inside of you sometime soon and ask for help where you need it. In the long run, you won’t regret it.