Why is Asking for Help so Hard?
Why is Asking for Help so Hard?
Among my personal hang-ups, the one that is causing the most grief is my inability to ask for help.
I am George Costanza in Seinfeld who receives a file on a client he knows nothing about, sets it down at his desk at 9:00 and leaves at 5:00, having done nothing all day because asking for help was out of the question.
Like George, I have sat for hours at my desk trying to figure out how to connect to a printer when a 30-second visit to a colleague would have provided my answer. I have torn my hair out for months trying to resolve a problem in my relationship when asking a girlfriend who has been down that road before could have cleared it up in an instant. I have tried to find every possible solution for a personal or work-related problem myself when asking the right person for help would have saved a lot of strife. Not asking for help is like a chain that’s holding me to the ground.
I’ve identified two things that determine whether I’ll ask for help instantly or else stew in my own juices of helplessness:
- The perceived likelihood of appearing stupid or lazy. This is me thinking, ‘they will think I’m stupid’ or ‘I should know this’
- How wide the gap is between the importance of the person whose help I need and my own self-worth. This is me thinking, ‘they’re big important them and I’m small silly me’.
I’ve been told that both these things are ‘female things’ and they might well be, but I prefer to attribute this quirk to my life experiences rather than the gender I’m aligned with. So, in my case, I’ve always been fiercely independent. Mum says I was (attempting to) dress myself by age three (“I can do it myself!” was my catch-cry). I also have a brother with a disability, so to ease the burden on my parents I always strove to be as well-behaved and academically successful as possible. I didn’t want to cause a fuss, I just wanted to please. Now, as I train to become an independent researcher through my PhD studies and have the weight of an 80,000 word thesis bearing down upon me, I’m realising just how disabling my inability to ask for help is. It’s a huge waste of time and mental energy, and its got to stop.
Curiously, the only thing I waste no time in asking for help with is my mental health. I don’t think it’s weak to ask for help when feeling a bit crap or experiencing life’s challenges.
So, what does a girl do when she hates asking for help in every other facet of life but is curiously good at asking for help when it comes to mental health? She sees a psychologist about it. The psychologist was very helpful, and I have seen this particular psychologist a few times so knew they would be helpful. It’s not some people’s preferred style for a therapist, but this psychologist and I always have a heart-felt laugh about the latest predicament I find myself in. In one session I was struggling to think of something, anything I was good at, and they suddenly suggested, slowly, “well, in the past, you were really darn good at mental illness.” We cracked up. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but definitely mine. Anyway, in the session, the psychologist gave me two excellent tips for how to ask for help.
Two ways to ask for help:
- I’ve got no idea what I’m doing, can you help me out?
- I’m thinking of doing it this way [describe to person briefly], but I’m not sure, what do you think?
It all appears so simple in principle, but what about all that ‘fiercely independent, convinced I’m unimportant’ jazz? Unfortunately, changing that mindset comes down to practice and telling yourself “I deserve this help” and “this is where I am [in life, as a student, as a virtuoso pianist] and it’s okay”
I like saying the above to myself when I’m settling in for a long period of doing nothing because I’m too afraid of asking for help, and it’s helping. As with every mindset or behaviour I have attempted to change or accept in the past, I began by getting curious about asking for help and started conducting ~experiments~ where I approached people and wrote down the outcome. Contrary to expectations, when I asked for help, people did not have a pitying look of disgust on their face, or immediately start texting a friend to inform them of the stupidity that disturbed their peace, nor laugh at me. I was met, instead, with a warm smile, a kind explanation, and an offer to not hesitate to ask for help again.
I still hate asking for help, but this is where I am and it’s okay. Each time I do it, no matter if I fail, I feel less and less chained to the ground.