May 21, 2020
The other day my friend called wanting a sounding board for a situation that was imploding at her work.
Apparently, a colleague of hers didn’t have the technical skills to implement a critical component of a project and, as a result, very little had gotten done. As my friend fumed, complaining that now the project was months behind, a question kept repeating in my mind.
Why didn’t her colleague ask for help?
“I need help” might be one of the most difficult phrases to utter. It’s up there with: “I was wrong” or “I love you.”
Arguably, though, asking for help is highest on the leaderboard. It’s often obvious when we’re wrong, or in love for that matter. But we can hide our need for help – whether it’s for the skills we don’t have or for the emotional and mental support we need – for months, years, even decades.
Why Is it So Hard to Ask for Help?
We hide our need for help behind our pride. We hide it behind our fake-it-until-you make it competency. We hide it out of a desperate fear that asking for help will make us seem foolish or weak. Asking for help leaves us emotionally vulnerable – exposed in the bright light of all of our supposed flaws.
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It’s easy to internalize such fear-based and culturally prevalent perspectives. But in reality, asking for help rarely ends in rejection or scorn. Actually, it’s quite the opposite.
Think back to the last time someone genuinely asked you for help. How did you respond? Did you think the person was foolish or incompetent? Or did you think the person just needed a shoulder to cry on, a bit of technical know-how or even something blatantly practical such as directions to get where they wanted to go.
My friend, for example, told me she would have respected her colleague far more if she had simply acknowledged that she didn’t know what to do. Yes, when pressed, my friend said she might have thought her colleague was a bumbler. But she also said she would have given her a ton of credit for taking responsibility to get the help she needed. What’s more, it’s likely that her colleague would have received the help she needed.
Good News: People Want to Help!
Research shows that we wildly underestimate just how likely people agree to our requests for assistance by as much as half. Most of the time people – whether they’re strangers, colleagues or friends – are more than willing to help.
Asking for help is a much more nuanced overture than we think. Because we all know how hard it is to do, admitting we don’t know what we’re doing and risking being vulnerable often earns us esteem rather than disdain. As University of Houston research professor and storyteller Brene Brown says: “Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.”
So, how do we find the courage to ask for help when we need it?
How to Ask For Help
Sometimes, as Brene Brown says, you have to “embrace the suck.” Meaning, you have to do the thing you don’t want to do to get to do the thing you do want to do. We can soften those moments of difficulty by being mindful of our multicolored temerity and offering ourselves heaps of kindness as we put ourselves out there.
When you want to ask for help, for example, what sensations do you feel in your body? Does heat rise in your tightened chest? Do your palms sweat? What emotions do you feel? Anxiety? Shame? Does your mind begin to hiss with doubts that weaken your resolve?
Physically soften around it all – drop your shoulders and take in a soothing breath. Realize with as much self-compassion as you can muster that you’re just being human and, then, ask for the help you need.
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Doing so comes with a flipside. When we ask for help, we give someone else an opportunity to be kind, to share their knowledge or to let go of their own limiting beliefs about asking for help. Who knows? Maybe the more we all ask for help the more all of us will get our needs met and the better off society as a whole will be.
Either way, being mindful about whatever arises when we need to ask for help loosens the hard ground of our fear and helps us uncover our courage. Sometimes that’s more than enough to inspire us to say those three difficult words: “I need help.”
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