Saturday, March 15, 2014

Learning to Learn, Learning to Trust

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” The trainee looks at me skeptically. He’s applying a CSS stylesheet to a five-page website, the penultimate assignment of his technology training.
“You can ask me, or someone else- there are lots of resources!” I say.

He’s bright. His work is good. But he’s frustrated, staring at the screen, clenching his fists. He’s building a tricky page, so I suggest we consult the web department about the best strategy for coding it. He rejects this. “I’ll figure it out.”

For days he refuses help, goes it alone. It seems simple enough – just ask! Yet he doesn’t. Finally, standing in the Hopeworks kitchen over a slice of fresh-baked bread, he confesses, “I don’t want them to think I can’t do it by myself.” He’s worried if he asks for help, he won’t be considered for an internship. He’s afraid of being seen as weak.

At Hopeworks, one of the most important skills Camden youth develop is “Learning To Learn.” That is, we believe any trainee can learn to learn and grow on their own. Hopeworks teaches and nurtures initiative, active ownership of learning, and resourcefulness. Part of this is knowing when to ask for help, and this is especially difficult for many of our youth.

Why is it so hard? We all know elderly folks who fall trying to do their own painting or cleaning, young people who refuse to ask for assistance until it’s too late. But a more revealing question is, “What happened?” If we stop asking “Why won’t you ask?” and instead ask “What happened to you that not asking for help makes sense?” we begin to see that for many people – the ones we label “stubborn,” “proud,” or even “fiercely independent” — there is a deeper, more troubling possibility: attachment avoidance.

Attachment avoidant individuals make up a fairly high percentage (approximately 30%) of people with intrafamilial violence or other serious trauma. They have experienced a deep, traumatic violation of trust or traumatic loss, often during childhood. Some of their defensive patterns include:

  • Relying on deactivation of attachment as strategy to cope with attachment-related distress
  • Shifting attention away from events or feelings that would trigger the attachment system or painful emotions and memories of attachment figures (such as childhood loss of a parent or sibling through death, divorce or incarceration)
  • Idealizing even undeserving parents or other caregivers as a way of preserving a positive perception of them
  • “Minimizing emotional meaning of traumatic events and their long-term implications” using a variety of strategies such as glossing over, claiming a happy ending (“I was OK in the end”), talking around the traumatic event, intellectualizing it (“It made me stronger”), or focusing on other important issues (such as an upcoming exam or conflict with a girlfriend) as a way of diverting attention from attachment-related issues and the unmanageable emotions that accompany them.
  • Being compulsively or insistently self-reliant, often stemming from a worldview that others are unreliable. Hyper-invested in presenting themselves as strong, independent, competent and normal, attachment avoidant individuals have great difficulty acknowledging the need for help and asking for help. (They can be like the trainee described above, who could not risk asking for help even in a learning environment where it was encouraged.)
  • Cutting off relationships temporarily or permanently as a way of managing difficult emotions and, paradoxically, preserving the relationship (We often see this several weeks into training when sometimes trainees disappear or show sporadic attendance after a strong start – “just as it is getting good.”)
(Based on Robert T. Muller, Trauma and the Avoidant Client)

In the training room some of the effects of trauma our youth endure as residents of a violent, impoverished city emerge as this reluctance to ask for assistance. So often they say, “I’ll do it on my own.” When I first came to Hopeworks it felt like rejection. Why wasn’t I connecting with them? Was I not accessible enough? Was I approaching them the wrong way?

But after I started to get a sense of their environment — the harsh street where any sign of weakness (particularly for young men) can mean violence or death; the poverty, multiple traumas, neglect, adverse childhood events, and losses so many Camden youth experience — I started to see that, for our youth, asking for help means taking a big risk. Asking for help can mean opening oneself to remembering a time when others would not or could not help, where one was left vulnerable by those who should have helped and protected. For many youth, asking for help can feel like exposing weakness. It can make them feel vulnerable. And yet, this vulnerable space is the space of opportunity and the opening for change and growth. At Hopeworks it is our job to make a space where youth can safely experience their own vulnerability as they take risks to learn.

Studying avoidant attachment in our staff study group has opened my eyes and led me to interpret youth’s rejection of help not as a reflection on my training style but rather as an aspect of the experience of living and working in Camden. I’m starting to understand what a risk it represents for so many of our youth to make the leap and ask for help. I’m seeing how essential it is to provide a place – and to build a community – where they can feel safe to do so. This means we must engage the emotions that are evoked when people engage in learning. These emotions can be powerful and can make learning, and the change that comes from it, feel unsafe. So in a real way, for Hopeworks youth, learning to learn means learning to trust.

How does it make you feel to ask for help?

This post was originally published in the Hopeworks 'n Camden blogHopeworks is a youth development organization that uses technology training and employment opportunities to partner with young men and women to achieve their dreams.