“Asking for help does not mean that we are weak or incompetent. It usually indicates an advanced level of honesty and intelligence.” ~Anne Wilson Schaef
For most of my life, I’ve exhibited contradicting behaviors.
On one hand, I believe wholeheartedly in collaboration, and have always been quick to help others out. I do it at work and in my personal life. Helping a stranger parallel park, listening to a friend as they go through a hard time, these are common occurrences for me. Once I even helped a blind man walk over a mile to the nearest church…IN THE RAIN.
On the other hand, I’ve had this deeply ingrained sense that I’ve needed to be independent, solve my own problems, and go it alone.
I struggle to ask people for even simple favors like picking me up at the train station, or eating food out of a friend’s fridge even though we’ve known each other for years. I feel this sense of paranoia that somehow I am asking for too much, and I’ve had these visions of people flipping out, and me feeling humiliated and fearing I’ve created distance between us.
I know it may sound absurd, but this is how I’ve felt for the majority of my life.
But still, at first glance this may not seem like a big deal, especially in the light of the perks that come with it.
In fall 2015, for example, I started an online class about Machine Learning, and within a few months I was already confidently writing code for my company. When I shared my work with a coworker, she said, “You learned all of this by yourself?” But to me, this was no surprise—when you don’t feel like it’s appropriate to ask others for help, you find a way to do it yourself.
What I’ve come to realize, however, is that I’ve held onto the belief that I have to go it alone and can’t ask for others’ help for a unique reason: it makes me feel safe. What do I mean by this? Well, I realize that asking for others’ help is actually a very vulnerable action, and by never doing this, I never had to be vulnerable.
This “safety” is truly a consolation prize, however; strong social relationships are a key to happiness, and an attitude of never asking for help blocks opportunities to foster personal connections. I never really felt lonely before the working world, but I was aware that I would keep friends at a distance after a certain point. The wall would come up.
But since mutual vulnerability is necessary to foster deep connections, however, I was also holding myself back from a lot of joy.
Of course, being vulnerable with anyone is scary, which makes it easy to forgo. I myself have used a lot of excuses and masked them as care for others. When I’d say, “I wouldn’t want to be a burden to them,” it was really code word for “I’m afraid I might be rejected.”
If you’ve known me for a while, I hope this is an “aha” moment in understanding me. I don’t mean this in a vain way, but rather that the above paragraph describes me so well, just through writing the description, I myself feel a deep sense of relief, and even laugh a bit. After some personal growth, it seems like such an absurd (and unhelpful) way to view the world.
So, where did this attitude come from? Well, thanks to Google, I’ve been able to psychoanalyze myself. In all seriousness, though, I think it’s a learned behavior that arose from being the youngest child amongst the three children in my family. There have been articles written on the idea of the “Invisible Child,” and that label resonates with me in a strong way.
Basically, it describes the child who sees problems within his family, and, desperately wanting to help, remains silent about any his/her needs, wants, or problems in an effort not to burden others.
Out of respect for my family, I won’t disclose details about our challenges, but let’s just say there was an unhealthy dynamic. As a result, from a young age—even though I was too young to understand what in particular was going on—the body language and palpable tension around me enabled me to surmise that something wasn’t right.
So, what to do in this situation? If I couldn’t fix the situation, at least I could avoid contributing to the problem, I thought. All I had to do was solve my own problems and ask for very little, and in this way I’d make life easier for others and they wouldn’t have to worry about me.
“Don’t burden anyone, they’ve got enough going on.” That was the motto.
Of course, this behavior suggested an unhealthy underlying belief—others’ needs were more important than my own. An attitude counterproductive to my happiness, it meant I was likely to view my normal requests in my relationships as unreasonable, preventing me from getting what I needed and allowing anyone into my intimate world.
This attitude manifested itself in many ways. For example, I often tried to figure out problems myself, only asking for help in dire times. I put on a mask that suggested everything was good in my life, even when it wasn’t. In addition, I never asked for more than I needed; while my brother would ask for expensive gifts like video games or the newest electronic, I always asked for something modest and often practical, like a backpack.
As long as it wasn’t too expensive, of course.
Whatever the reason for my difficulty with asking for help, I’ve recently come to understand that life is much richer when you realize you don’t have to go it alone.
Thanks in large part to my girlfriend, who goes out of her way to help me through her time and connections and reminds me that we all need others’ help, I realize that life is not only easier but also more enjoyable when you allow others to help you (and, of course, give your help in return at some point down the line).
Let me give you an example.
Recently, I was to moving out of my apartment. With too many things to bring home—and not wanting to bring them home—I had to find a way to sell my large items quickly. Though I had put up a few ads on craigslist and Facebook, I needed help. The time crunch and the emotions of the situation left me unable to think clearly.
Without telling me, my girlfriend also put up posts to sell the furniture, too, understanding that I was shy in asking for her help even though I wanted and needed it. Like magic, this problem that I viewed as overwhelming began to disappear, and replacing my overwhelm was deep feeling of appreciation. One by one all the items I needed to sell got sold.
She also used her exceptional organizational skills to coordinate borrowing a friend’s truck, saving me the time, energy, and money needed to rent one myself. When I unexpectedly created a gigantic hole in the wall while moving furniture, she had the connections to have it plastered and painted, completely solving a problem that on my own would have seemed like a crisis.
After this experience, I remember thinking and feeling a few things. First, deep love and gratitude that I have a someone in my life who cares about me so much to go to such lengths to help me out, offering her time, mind, body, and heart. And even more amazingly, she was happy to do so.
That was the real epiphany—when I thought I’d be creating distance in my relationships by asking for help, these experiences actually brought us closer together.
Secondly, I learned that collaboration shrinks problems that seem insurmountable to one person alone. Everyone brings a unique set of skills and perspectives to the table, and when you ask others for their help, not only do you enable them to showcase these abilities (filling them with confidence), you’re more likely to overcome the problem at hand.
If you’re having trouble asking for help, I encourage yourself to push yourself to do so. I encourage you to figure out where that little voice and unhelpful belief is coming from.
You are probably someone who gives often but asks for little—let me tell you now, you don’t need to be a martyr, it’s okay to ask for help. You won’t find that by doing so you create distance or that others get mad—on the other hand, you’ll find that they want to help you because they love you, and that the whole experience brings you closer together.
It’s a really beautiful thing.