Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash
I don’t know exactly why I became allergic to asking for help. I think part of it’s cultural—America loves people who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, not people who try to hand someone else the laces. And part of it I learned in my family, the motto of which should read, “I CAN DO IT MYSELF.”
In other words, I didn’t realize there was something wrong with not asking for help. To me, I was doing what was normal. If I didn’t understand something, I’d figure it out. If I was feeling something, I’d deal with it by myself. Even things like instruction manuals were only for people who needed help…and I wasn’t one of those people.
Help was for people who needed help and, quite frankly, needing help was gross. It was admitting weakness and implying I didn’t have enough resources.
Looking back, I now realize my aversion to help was an incredibly short-sighted and self-defeating premise. How I got here was, ironically, through going to therapy, the ultimate “asking for help.” It wasn’t easy to take that step, and—in retrospect—I’m proud of myself for doing it. At the time, however, I was just desperate. I had everything I’d ever worked for, I could point to dozens of accomplishments, I knew I should be thrilled with my life—but I was miserable. I felt like I had nothing, and—most alarmingly—I didn’t even know what I wanted, so I was stuck. I couldn’t help myself, if I couldn’t figure out what that form that help should take. And so I bit the bullet and asked a psychologist friend whom she would recommend, and she helped. My first ask.
Since then I’ve thought a lot about help and how I avoid it. Even now, I have to remind myself that asking is okay, but every day I reap the benefits of doing so.
So here are a few ways I’ve rethunk (an important concept to me, even if it’s not a real word) asking for help:
If helping makes me feel good, asking for help makes other people feel good.
There was something about my refusal to ask for help that was rooted in power. I would give help, all the time. I helped friends, students, colleagues, strangers. But I would never ask for help in a way that, now, speaks to me more about my desire for approval, for control, and for dominance than about my self-reliance. I liked giving, but I withheld my own vulnerability in my relationships. And how shitty does that sound? I’m sure it was shitty to deal with.
The fact is when we ask for help from someone, we’re telling that person we honor their expertise, their experience, and their wisdom. We’re telling them we trust them with our truth: the fact we aren’t perfectly autonomous. That we need them. On the one hand, this reminds me why it’s genuinely difficult to ask for help. On the other hand, this also reminds me why it’s so important. My metaphor for this is why we rough up the surface of something before we glue it to something else—so the glue will stick better. Relationships, like glue, will slide off of a smooth, impenetrable surface—even if that surface looks good alone.
Help is honestly, truly, helpful
Growing up, if I asked my mom why she didn’t ask for help, she’d say, “Because it’s faster and easier if I just do it myself.” Since then, I’ve heard this sentiment echoed in dozens of mouths, myself included: “It’s easier if I do it myself.”
But is it really “easier,” or is there something else going on? What my mom really meant when she said this (and what I meant when I said it myself, later in my life), was “I want it done in exactly my way and I’m not willing to accept anything else.”
I imagine this is a totally reasonable, even important, stance when, for example, you’re performing open art surgery and you are the maestro of fixing hearts. But is this actually reasonable for, say, loading the dishwasher? Some of you are thinking, “YES. THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY, YOU MONSTER.” And maybe this is a hill you really do want to die on. Personally, I’ve realized that the dishes will get cleaned no matter how they’re loaded. And if I’m in charge (like really, really responsible for something), I’ll figure out how to do it right the next time, if I fuck something up. But a lot of us were never allowed to be responsible for things, as kids, because if we fucked something up, the responsibility was taken from us. We became “the person who couldn’t load the dishwasher,” and that was that.
But how shitty that lesson is, when you think about it. Especially for the person who picks up the burden, even if they’re insisting on doing so. The fact is that, long term, we’re going to save a lot more time and energy by letting go of a little control and/or putting in a little effort in the beginning to teach someone else how to do something responsibly and follow up with consequences if those expectations aren’t met. Basically, this is teaching, in a nutshell. I had to learn to do in my personal life what I’m paid to do in my professional life, a lesson in how silly humans can be.
Sometimes, you have to pay (or barter) for help
This might seem weird, here, if you think of help as something freely given. But sometimes, especially as adults, it’s okay to put our resources into asking for help. Have you met those people who complain bitterly, and constantly, about how much time they spend cleaning the house, and yet, if you suggest getting a cleaning service, they will act like you’ve suggested heresy?
Don’t be that person. If you have resources, use them. Most of the time, in our capitalist world, that means spending money. But sometimes we can barter for help, too. I do lots of workshops for writer’s group around the country, and I often do them on the subject of time-management. One thing I always suggest is to find people with the same problem in the group, and to figure out a way to help each other. Maybe that means an accountability group, or rotating daycare for a few hours a week, during which the other mothers write while one mother sits the children.
For me, therapy is my big example for paying for help. Again, however, it could be as simple as farming out cleaning, or having groceries delivered, or whatever. If there’s something you deeply resent and that sucks up your energy you could be using to do what you love, maybe you can pay for someone else to do it for you. You’re lining their pockets with what they need—cash—and you empty out your resentment pitcher. No one can operate with a full resentment-pitcher, so let yourself get help.
These are just a few thoughts on help. I hope they…help? As always, feel free to share your ideas about help, below. And if you enjoyed this please share:
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