Do You Have to Ask For Help?

© Can Stock Photo / andreykuzmin

Most people ask for help when they see no other choice. They ask when the price of helping is likely to be the highest, and when the skill of the helper needs to be the strongest. What happens is often that the help they find is too little, too late. That's hard on the person who needs the help and it's also hard on the helper. They might be reluctant to volunteer next time.

People have three obstacles to overcome before they ask for help. One is the fear that no one will want to help them. Two is the fear that no one will be able to help them. Three is the fear that they will be judged (and there will be repercussions) as incapable or weak. Let's take these one at a time, from the point of view of the person you will ask for help.

One: the fear that people won't want to help you.  The reality from the point of view of the people around you is likely to be that watching you struggle is painful. They might not want to help you, but they would probably rather help you than continue to have to deal with the influence your problem is having on them. You might doubt that your problems are influencing anyone else, but it won't take you long to make a list of people you wish would solve their problems so that they would stop having a negative impact on your mood, mindset or ability to get things done. Some of them will be people you love (so what you feel is empathy with their pain). Lots of them will be people who are somehow wired into your life and work. If they have an impact on you, it's likely you also have an impact on them.

Two: the fear that people won't be able to help you. If you wait long enough to ask for help, this will become true. Help requires that people have the skills to help. If you ask for help with a small problem, there will be lots of people with the skills to help. If you wait, there will be fewer people who have the skills to help and they will be harder to find (at a time when you have less energy for the search). From the point of view of the person giving the help, it's tough to help when the stakes are high and the price stretches past your confidence in your skills. It's hard to help when you don't know how and you know that the price of failure will be high. If you really need help, you're probably in touch with what that feels like. When you are drowning, you're scared that you are dragging down other people, people who trust you. The right answer is to ask long before you are drowning. Ask when there are lots of people with enough skills to be successful at helping you. People like to do things they are good at. Give them a chance to help when helping will feel like a win.

Three: the fear that people will judge you.  This is related to two. If you ask only when you are drowning and they feel threatened, people are likely to judge you. We judge our politicians because we are afraid that their failures will hurt us. We judge people closer to use because we are afraid they will pull us into the water with them. We need to separate from their pain so that it doesn't become our pain. If you wait until you're actually drowning, you probably won't be worried about this because you are desperate for help, whatever the cost. But you will have also created a real possibility that someone who tries to help won't have the skills or strengths that are necessary. If you ask for help regularly, reliably, before things become desperate, people have less to judge and less incentive to hold onto a judgment. They can't judge you for failing if you don't fail because you get help. They won't judge you (for long) for being weak if you use help to become strong. You see where this is going? 

Make a list of people you have judged weak because they asked for help. There are two possibilities. One is that the list is empty. The other is that there are people on the list who represent the struggles you have with yourself,  the fears you have that no one will want to help you or be able to help you. This is likely to be the case with all the people who will judge you for asking for help. They are actually trying to deal as best they can with their own fears. As those fears diminish, so will their ability to hold onto their judgment of you.

I have some ideas about how to find help when you need it, and ideas about how to get help without asking for it directly. But my best understanding of how human beings work is this: we work better in interaction with other people. If we ask for help before it's a crisis, before it's a judgment, before the stakes are super high, then people are likely to help because they will have the ability to help and the motivation to make things better for us so that we have a better influence on them.  If you're moving, keep moving. If you're slowing down, ask someone to give you a boost. Don't wait until you are up to your neck and sinking fast. Ask now.

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