This past summer was very difficult, with Mom’s two surgeries and one of my own, and it became clear to me that my reluctance to ask for help when I needed it – or even to accept it when it was offered – made things much harder than they had to be. I know that there are people in my life who would be happy to help me, and who have offered to help many times, but I always say something like, no, I’m fine, thanks anyway.
I knew some of the reasons why it was hard for me to ask for help: it’s embarrassing to try to explain what I need versus what other people expect me to need; I’m afraid of being judged for the things I can’t do; I don’t believe I deserve help; I’m afraid of what I will owe in return; I often have no idea of what kind of help would help me; and, often, what I really need is so much bigger than what people can give me: I want to feel safe and loved; I want to pay off all of my debts; I want to be healthy and have the energy to go to work more often; I want to be published by a major publisher; I want a house with a yard, and ten dogs, and a horse; I want children. And if I can’t have what I really want, whatever I get instead ends up feeling disappointing, no matter how kindly and generously it is given.
So, I said no to the offers of help this summer, whether they were offers to make meals, or give rides, or just be a supportive listener; even though I was terrified while Mom was in the hospital, and for the first few weeks after she came home. I worried that she would die, and then I worried that something would go wrong and I wouldn’t know how to help her, and then I worried that something would break in the apartment and I wouldn’t know how to fix it. Through all of it, I just kept saying, No, I’m fine, thanks anyway.
I’ve been practicing my asking-for-help skills with Mom for years, because she always wants to help me and never judges me for being needy. And I’ve learned that when what I ask for is impossible (aka, take out your magic wand and fix everything, Mommy), she will search for ways that she can help that I couldn’t have thought of myself. And more often than not, that help is what gets me to the solid ground I need in order to take the next small step by myself. But that practice hasn’t translated very well into asking for help from other people, maybe because I don’t trust them to help without judging me.
When I told my therapist about this essay, she told me that I was conflating two kinds of help: practical help and emotional support. But for me, those two things have to come together or else neither one really works. Emotional support feels empty without some kind of practical help that gets me over the void in my own abilities, and practical help feels unsafe and alienating if it’s not accompanied by emotional understanding and sympathy for why I need help in the first place.
To be fair, to me, I’ve gotten better at asking for help than I used to be, and to be fair to other people, there have been plenty of times when I have received meaningful help, without being talked down to or treated like a lesser being. But I never expect it to go that way.
I was reading a scene in a Rhys Bowen novel recently, where the protagonist had injured her collarbone and needed help carrying her bag up the stairs (needless to say, this was not the dramatic peak of the novel), and she wasn’t embarrassed, or feeling guilty, or trying to muscle through it. She just asked for the help she knew she needed and moved on. And I was gobsmacked! This otherwise unimportant scene stayed with me, because I kept asking myself how it was possible that she didn’t feel embarrassed, and didn’t imagine that she was exaggerating her injury, and didn’t see herself as a failure for needing support. I take all of those feelings for granted, as the cost of living, but wouldn’t it be amazing not to feel that way?
I was almost done with this essay, I thought, when another facet of this fear of asking for help came up; one that I hadn’t recognized before: I had to reach out to my dentist, between appointments, because one of my bottom teeth was loose and causing a lot of pain. I’d been putting off calling her, telling myself that I’d just seen her recently, and she knew my situation, and there was no point in being dramatic about it, and the pain wasn’t so bad. But Mom, who knew how hard I’d been working on this essay, told me that I needed to ask for help, and I felt sufficiently scolded to push myself to reach out to the dentist. The dentist called me right back and said she wanted to fit me in for an appointment as soon as possible, because she’d been worried about that tooth since my last visit, and she already had a plan for removing and replacing it. I made the appointment and then grumbled to myself about the unfairness of life, and how annoying it was that she’d called back so quickly and already had a plan in mind. And I realized, that’s why I didn’t want to reach out to her in the first place: I didn’t want to know that my lower teeth were in such bad shape, so soon after the trauma of replacing the upper teeth.
I keep wanting to believe that asking for and receiving help will be some kind of magical elixir, where the pain disappears and life feels easy; that is often the kind of help I’m craving. But if getting help actually means having to face the harsh realities of life, the ones that I can’t handle on my own, then no wonder I’m reluctant to ask for help. Maybe putting off asking for the help I know I need allows me stay in La La land for a little while longer.
I have no idea how to overcome this desire to stay in La La land. Intellectually, I know that I have to, but I also know, deep in my body, that I’m not ready. I think part of my belief that I can’t get the kind of help I want from other people comes from knowing how hard it has been to give myself the compassion and support I need when I’m struggling. I figure, if I can’t give that to help myself, why should I believe that anyone else would be willing or able to give it to me?
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?
This makes a lot of sense to me. Asking for help is so fraught with complications that I often think it’s better to suffer alone or to figure out how to deal with whatever it is, even if I can’t really. But as it turns out, people like to help! I like to help too! I have to keep reminding myself of that though…
It’s so hard!
We all need help, a lot or a little. It’s part of life, helping others, like you. Simple things easiest, big things harder. Please ask, and believe in it as a simple request and look for the helping hands.
I’m working on it, but it’s so hard.
I find it hard to accept help because I know that people will never do things the way I would do them, and telling them how to do something is often more work than just doing it myself. I keep saying I wish I could learn to delegate, but I suspect this will never happen!
Yes what Paula says. There are some who may feel bothered when asked to help out, and then there are some who aren’t bothered at all but can’t help, at least not at the moment, but most people feel it is an opportunity to do something meaningful. The latter ones are the ones that count. With them it is a win-win. So you should never be afraid to ask for help.
I love that idea. Thank you!
Thank you for examining a problem that many of us share, Rachel.
When we are young, we need very little help.
As we get older, we need more and more help.
This change is what you are experiencing….growing old.
Weaving a social web will catch you when you fall.
I hope so!
Try saying ‘yes’ just one time to some little thing and see how it feels, Rachel. Maybe it won’t be done exactly how you want it done, but it will be done. It might feel like a small step, but it really is a major step for those of us who prefer to say, “No, thanks” to those requests to help us.
That’s a good idea. Thank you!
This is such an important topic and you describe your reasoning so well. You’re not alone in feeling this way. Maybe you need to stop and think about how you’d be doing someone a favour by accepting their help. Not everyone, for sure, but someone you think you can trust to be empathetic. You might just be helping them to feel better about themselves to accept their help. 💕
That’s a great way to think about it. Thank you!
I’m one of those people too who find it very hard to ask for or accept help. I can empathize !
I often find that knowing what you need and asking for that…of the universe or spiritual agencies or your higher self…brings the result you need for your greatest good, cause it opens the space that allows that good to manifest, if that makes sense. The solution already exists but we need to accept and allow it. That good result may differ from what we think we need or want but May turn out to lead to better than hoped for developments opening up. It is start8ng a conversation with Spirit or whatever you choose to call it.
I am thinking about the character with the injured collar bone, you mentioned. I have not read the story. But, if I were to imagine myself as the person who carried the bag up for her, I would have been so grateful that she let me know about this hard-thing-for-her I could not see (the injury) and that she asked for my help. This would be because I would have been so sad if I found out someday, later, that she suffered needlessly (otherwise) when my (currently) able body could have been put to good use so easily and simply.
I get it, though. I am genuinely happy when I can be the helper. Being the petitioner is a whole other story.
I think I struggle with both roles for some reason.
We all need help sometimes and there is nothing wrong with asking for it. No one will think less of you for it, and if they do, they’re not worth knowing. But I was thinking, you have a lot of goals, and that’s good, but you can’t deal with them all at once. Why not pick one or two that mean a lot to you and work on those first? One thing at a time, and one day at a time. You can do it.
I can try! Thank you!
Have you read the book “90 Minutes in Heaven”? It too deals with someone’s reluctance to ask for help and how he comes to look at this in a completely different light. ❤️
I’ll look for it. Thank you!
I’m glad you’re addressing this issue with yourself. We all need help sometimes. Hope you are your mother are feeling better.
I grew up believing I could not ask for help (for many reasons) and then I went to work in a nonprofit and began to see that people want to help but often don’t know how. I saw my work (and asking people to join in and help) was a way to give them an opportunity to be generous. Once I started applying that thought to work, it was easier to see that it was also true in my personal life. I still struggle some with asking for and accepting help, but I remind myself that I like to help and appreciate it when someone lets me.
We are very often hardest on ourselves ❤
Maybe putting it out there as you have done will help you overcome it to some extent.
I hope so!
It’s very hard to ask for help when it’s not part of your history.
I can so relate to this essay. In my case, I’m clinging too hard to independence. Of course, it’s more complicated than that.
It’s always more complicated. That’s my mantra.
I know exactly how you feel, Rachel. And I think it’s probably one facet of being an introvert. We like to think we’re independent. When I was younger I really disliked people my age who were constantly asking others for help. Now I think they do that because they don’t have such tight personal boundaries, and that’s a good thing. No man (or woman) is an island…
But how do they learn how to do it? And does it require surgical intervention?
They’re naturals. The rest of us have to be aware and train ourselves.
When you’re an introvert, it’s hard ask for help, the fear of being vulnerable too great a burden. Just know there are plenty of people in your circle who’d be happy and honored to ‘help’ however they can. Please consider letting them-it’s a beautiful gift.
I will try. Thank you!
Yes to each and every reason you don’t ask for help. My list also includes wanting to be seen as self-sufficient, wanting not to “owe” someone who helped me when I asked when THEY ask for help, and here’s my biggie: I question in my head why I should have to ask for help because if the person I am asking really loved and understood me, they would KNOW that I need help and what help I need!
There are two people in my life that I KNOW beyond a doubt would do anything they could if I asked for help. I recently had to ask one of them (who lives just over a mile from me) to pick me up at the garage we both use (which is between our locations!) and take me home so I could leave my car there for repairs, then come get me and take me there when my car was ready. I had weepy spells because I had to ask, because I had to rely on someone else.
I try to remind myself that I want people to let me help them because it brings me joy to do so and that, maybe, I’m robbing them of some joy when I refuse their help?
It’s so hard to get to that place, though.
I think I’m similar to you. I often know if I asked for help and received the proper support, I wouldn’t experience stress and anxiety, yet I think things through far beyond the reasonable and likely.
I hope you can feel the confidence to accept help from people you trust.
Me too! Thank you!
Rachel, have you ever considered that refusing someone’s offer of help is denying them a blessing? Food for thought.
Ok. Now I feel like a meanie.
No, just let people have their blessings. And how do you know G*d hasn’t sent them to you? His help comes in many forms.
I know where you’re coming from Rachel. This could well have been written for Sadje’s Sunday Poser this week! Interesting comments about how others feel offering to help and being accepted. I know when we offer to help our friends we are happy to do so.
I had no idea this was so universal!
I think most caring people are eager to help their friends and family–strangers too. Instead of feeling like a meanie for denying people the ability to help you, perhaps you can view your requests as an invitation to share in a blessing.
I wish I could think of it that way, but I’m not there yet.
I related to this essay in so many ways:
As someone who fears being judged & found lacking,
As a mother who wants to always have the best advice/help for her adult children.
As a grandmother who wants to be there to help her grandchildren
As someone with health issues
And even as someone who has an unhealthy fear of the dentist.
You always help me look at life from a different perspective. Thank you!
Thank you so much!
I ask for help all the time for big and little things. The scene from the novel is a perfect example, I often can’t reach things or lift them. When I travel I don’t usually need to ask, someone will offer to lift my carryon to the overhead and also retrieve it. People like to help others and it’s a kindness to me and the person I may have hit in the head if I had attempted to do it myself.
I like being asked for help at things I’m good at. No it doesn’t fix everything but there are positive feelings on both sides of the interaction and they add up.
That sounds great!
This seems like a very human and normal struggle. I’m thinking back to how my elderly dad refused to ask for help in caring for my mom who had dementia. It was frustrating for us kids, yet at the same time, I also understood where he was coming from.
We are complicated creatures!
Yours is a real struggle and I too relate to it. Like other readers, my instant reaction is to say, But people love to help, want to help! However, a generic offer of help isn’t useful. Specific offers and requests are. This dawned on me when people offered to help with our apartments’ garden : it will only happen when I suggest specific jobs, like “you could take care of the pots” and “you could keep the tecomanthe under control.” I suspect I have trouble letting go of control.
Sending you bear hugs! ʕっ•ᴥ•ʔっʕっ•ᴥ•ʔっʕっ•ᴥ•ʔっʕっ•ᴥ•ʔっʕっ•ᴥ•ʔっ
Yes. Sending hugs too!
I know, so many reasons saying no. But a pleasure or a sorrow, life is about saying yes. Yes allows movement (change, healing,…), no just stops (not fun). Maybe you think yourself somehow “less”, so, be generous instead. Not kidding. To receive help from a friend is a gift to them. You can allow them to contribute to your well-being. Say no, and you deprive them of that experience. So two things – be generous, be appreciative. No guarantee of result, but it is the stance that engages with life as best it can be in the moment.
Said another way – think less about yourself and more about them. You open yourself to see and experience differently.
love you can count on your mom and those sweet faces of you pups~!❣️
Oof. I felt this one.
I have trouble asking for help, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I have emotional neglect. People raised in the 30s, 40s through 70s dealt with wars, uncertainty, etc, so they didn’t talk about their feelings or what the things they were experiencing made them think. Consequently that got passed on to generations and here we are. In the past people were in survival mode. In a developed nation we’re past that; thus we can take time to discuss our feelings and thoughts. However with people who have emotional neglect this is an uncomfortable prospect. For example, I have no idea how I feel, except I know when I’m angry. Idk if this is similar to what you experience, but it might be worth checking out.
Very interesting! Thank you!
Oh my…I need to read your blog every day. I’ve been away for a long time, dealing with health issues that have morphed into a major depressive episode. I needed to read this essay, I see myself so much in your struggles. It is wonderful to know I’m not alone. I’ve been praying for help earnestly to climb out of this pit of despair… I feel that reading your post is part of the answer. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you so much!
It is hard to ask for help. Thanks for your encouraging blog. Physical help is great, and spiritual help is but one prayer away.
It’s true we all need help sometimes somehow. I never knew how to ask too. Be strong and have great day.
Thank you too!