Caring for yourself

How To Ask For Help: Kick the Elephant out of the Room

5 minutes

Don’t ignore the elephant in the room — kick it out. Learn how to open up, have difficult conversations & ask for the help you need.

When you’re dealing with a hard situation, the difference between how you feel on the inside and look on the outside can be huge. Inside, you may be emotionally crumbling or feeling immense sadness, fear, or grief; outside, you’re chatting about the weather.

The expression “ignoring the elephant in the room” describes the way people avoid talking about huge, impossible-to-overlook or difficult situations. Sometimes, people who care about us avoid painful topics because they don’t know what to say or don’t want to upset us. Sometimes, we’re the ones staying quiet because we’re worried about burdening people with our pain or making them feel uncomfortable.

Ignoring the elephant might cut down the chances of an awkward moment, but silence in the face of suffering isn’t neutral. It carries a physical and emotional cost, leaving us worn down and isolated. But you don’t have to carry your burdens alone and in silence.

Decades of research show that social support helps people manage stress and recover from trauma.1

  • Tip #1
    Open up and name the elephant

    You might feel like there’s no natural way to shift from talking about last night’s game to a hard conversation about your pain and fear. That’s okay. Many wonderful conversations have awkward openings. Kicking the elephant out of the room begins with admitting the elephant is there.

  • How to do it

    If you’re ready to talk, there are lots of ways to get started.

    • When you’re feeling connected to someone, you can simply say, “I’ve been having a hard time. Are you up for talking about how I’m feeling?”
    • If connecting in person feels overwhelming, try an email, text, or phone call. That separation may help you feel more in control of the depth and pace of a conversation. A text could be as simple as “I’m really missing my sister today. Do you remember that time she . . .”
    • Sometimes, intense conversations can feel easier with less eye contact. You may want to talk while walking, cooking, or working on a project together.
    • If someone opens the door to a conversation when you aren’t ready, it’s okay to say, “I’m not up for talking right now, but just knowing you’re willing to listen makes me feel better.”

  • Tip #2
    Seek out an “opener”

    Some people are easier to talk to than others. “Openers” are people who make it easy to talk about whatever you’re facing. They can be especially helpful if you’re someone who worries about intruding or tends to be private about your emotions.

  • How to do it

    An opener may not be your closest friend. Instead, look for someone who loves asking questions, feels comfortable with strong emotions, or listens without judgment.

    If no one comes to mind, consider looking outside of your immediate circle of support. People are often surprised to discover that some of their best support comes from an acquaintance or a friend they’d lost touch with.

    If you’re comfortable sharing your experience on social media, that can also activate openers in your life. Posting makes it easy to let friends and family know what you’re facing when you don’t have the energy for individual conversations. You may also find that unexpected people in your network are struggling, too.

  • Tip #3
    Look for people with shared or similar experiences

    If you don’t feel ready to talk to friends or family yet, consider reaching out to people who know about the elephant in the room. People who have faced the same challenge – or another major life challenge – can offer deep compassion. Across groups as different as refugees, people with mental illness, and parents whose children died, researchers have found clear benefits of connecting with people who’ve gone through similar difficult life events.2

  • How to do it

    If you don’t know anyone who has faced what you’re facing, consider joining an in-person or online support group. They exist for virtually every type of hardship, from intimate partner violence to cancer. You can find a group by searching the web or talking to a healthcare professional or social worker. Most support groups are free, confidential, and open to all.

    If you don’t feel ready to meet new people, you can read books or blog posts written by someone who has gone through the challenge you’re facing. Sometimes, just knowing other people have experienced the same hardship as you can help you feel less alone. You can also join an online community to read what others have shared or to share your own thoughts. Many people have developed deep, supportive friendships this way without ever meeting in person.

Kicking the elephant out of the room doesn’t mean you have to share all your feelings or make yourself vulnerable to people who don’t make you feel supported. Even with those who make you feel heard, there may be days when you’d rather sit in comfortable silence. That’s okay—you can take it day by day, or hour by hour. Opening the door to a hard conversation is the most difficult step. Once everyone has acknowledged there is an elephant in the room, it becomes much easier to start coaxing it out the door.

Other Lessons


  1. Rafael del-Pino-Casado, Antonio Frías-Osuna, Pedro A. Palomino-Moral, et al., “Optimism, Social Support, and Coping Strategies as Factors Contributing to Posttraumatic Growth: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Loss and Trauma 14, no. 5 (2009): 364–88; Marianne Skogbrott Birkeland, Morten Birkeland Nielsen, Marianne Bang Hansen, et al., “Like a Bridge over Troubled Water? A Longitudinal Study of General Social Support, Colleague Support, and Leader Support as Recovery Factors After a Traumatic Event,” European Journal of Psychotraumatology 8, no. 1 (2017): 1302692.

  2. Darrin R. Lehman, John H. Ellard, and Camille B. Wortman, “Social Support for the Bereaved: Recipients’ and Providers’ Perspectives on What Is Helpful,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 54, no. 4 (1986): 438–46; Laura Simich, Morton Beiser, and Farah N. Mawani, “Social Support and the Significance of Shared Experience in Refugee Migration and Resettlement,” Western Journal of Nursing Research 25, no. 7 (December 2003): 872–91; Hugh Worrall, Richard Schweizer, Ellen Marks, et al., “The Effectiveness of Support Groups: A Literature Review,” Mental Health and Social Inclusion (2018): 5441; Daragh Bradshaw and Orla T. Muldoon, “Shared Experiences and the Social Cure in the Context of a Stigmatized Identity,” British Journal of Social Psychology 59, no. 1 (January 2020): 209–26.