Why is it so hard to ask for help?
You grow up being encouraged to do things by yourself. To master things, to be self-reliant. It is important that you learned to cook, care for and dress yourself. To find yourself a job, a tribe and a home. But you probably weren’t taught when to recognise that you were out of your depth, and when to ask for help.
It is easy to forget where to draw the line between self-reliance, and involving others, bringing them in and getting their help.
Not asking for help can be small stuff. It is killing yourself to get to school pickup on time, even though your mum friends are there and wouldn’t mind folding your child in with theirs for a bit. It is cancelling everything when your child gets sick, and not asking if a loving relative could step in for an hour.
It is the big stuff too. Not telling anyone when you are unhappy or low. Not sharing when something has been keeping you awake at night. It is battling along alone.
I have struggled with this in the past. I wouldn’t tell friends if I went through a rough patch. I wouldn’t tell anyone (except my mother) if I was overwhelmed and struggling. It has been life changing, to be able to move to a place where I can phone a loved one and say “It’s me. I need your help”. Every single time, it is met with “tell me what I can do”.
I have a small circle of helping friends. I don’t expect help from everyone. Some friends are much better for entertainment, or fun, or deep and meaningful conversation. But other friends are perfect for helping. And we have wonderfully adult, reciprocal, understanding relationships that are immensely satisfying.
There are so many reasons why it is hard to ask for help. Maybe you learned as a child that asking for help was futile. Or maybe nobody stepped up when you did ask. You might have had a sibling who needed a lot of help, so you chose to be the easy one.
Or perhaps you just gained confidence and approval from mastering things yourself, and adopted it as a life habit.
And what did your role models do? You will have watched your parents, did they involve their village when they needed help, or did they battle through alone?
Maybe you asked for help and were let down as a young adult, so that cut you off from ever asking again. It didn’t matter that you had a new partner and a different life, you carried the reluctance to ask for help over.
Or it can even just be part of your personality, introverts particularly find it hard to reach out to others. Pride often gets in the way, you may not want to seen as incompetent, and unable to handle things.
Maybe it is as simple as you just feel shy, or stupid asking for help. It makes you feel weak and exposed.
Mothers often struggle to ask for help, because they compare their situation to others. “I can’t ask her for help, she has more children than me”, or “I can’t ask for help, everyone else seems to be coping with the same stuff, what is wrong with me?”
Or you can be very aware of that needy friend, who always seemed to want something from you. Who always needed a favour, a break, a hand. And you really don’t want to be like that. She asked for something every day, so you never ask, not even once a year, so you don’t appear as needy.
If you are in a particularly low patch (think new baby) you can stop yourself from asking for help because you are aware that somewhere in the future you will need to give something back in return. And you just don’t have the stamina for that. Even in your worst times, you can be reluctant to be a ‘taker’ if you feel have nothing left to give.
It is particularly common for perfectionists. There is a deep fear that you show a lack of coping skills that people will see you for being the imposter you are. A fear that you will be judged. A fear you are not good enough.
Another fear is that if you ask for help, you will be giving up all control. The person who is helping will take over. The wrong person might hover too much, might never leave you alone again, they might adopt a patronising tone that will drive you crazy.
You need to have a certain degree of self-confidence and self-respect to shut down all that mind chatter, to turn to someone and openly say, ‘I need your help’.
It is easier said than done.
But incredibly effective. And empowering.
One of the most astonishing things I have ever witnessed is a friend who is battling a serious illness. She sent out a group email and said: “This is what I need – I need visits, but not too long. I don’t want advice or sympathy, but I do need meals and school pickups. I need encouragement and distraction, but not too much of it. I would be grateful if you would do this”. The only thing you could conclude after reading the email, is how masterful, how eloquent, how strong and human it was.
Don’t be that person who can’t bring themselves to ask. Don’t be that person who always insists on coping alone. Don’t be that person who always offers to help others, but won’t even acknowledge that they need help in return, let alone accept that help (that is its own peculiar kind of one-upmanship).
So where do you start?
Start by thinking about who to ask. Someone who is empathetic and not too syrupy with the sympathy. Someone practical and organised. Someone who will graciously let you reciprocate one day, when you can. But they won’t expect it immediately and they won’t be keeping score. Someone who won’t hold it over you and be patronising. You know who those people are, so don’t even go there with the wrong person.
And remove ‘should’ from the equation. You may believe that a mother, or a sister, or a life-long friend should be the person to do this. But sometimes, often, they are not the right person. What you are asking for may not fit with their personality, their current life situation.
And be brave: before the conversation, ask yourself “do I want to have a more open, honest and real relationship with this person?” if so, then you are going to have a be a bit vulnerable with them.
And there are some useful tips that can make it simpler
- Ask properly. Open with “I need your help”.
- Say what you need. Be straightforward, no beating around the bush
- Give a short background as to why you need help. “I am just feeling overwhelmed” is plenty of explanation for many people. Don’t underestimate how good it makes people feel to know you trust them, and that they are needed.
- Don’t micromanage. If you need something done, let them do it their way.
- If you get a reluctant yes, don’t go into a tailspin, maybe they were not the right person to ask. Try someone new next time.
- Say thank you when someone agrees to help you. A rushed ‘thanks’ doesnt cut it. Look them in the eye and say how grateful you are.
- And then say thank you again when they have done it
It is scary to put yourself out there, and tell the world what you need. To tell someone you need help. But scary things bring big rewards if you can be brave and do them.