It’s a week before your big deadline. You’re stuck on a task, drained by the long hours, and demotivated by the lack of progress. You know your senior colleague could have resolved your problem in a matter of hours, but you couldn’t bring yourself to ask her after such a busy week.
You got off a long flight with full cases of luggage. After multiple transfers on public transport and a long walk, you collapsed as soon as you got home. While feeling exhausted and sore, you started to regret not accepting your friend’s offer to pick you up or asking that friendly stranger to give you a hand.
Recently, your boyfriend broke up with you out of the blue. Since then, you’ve been hiding in your room, crying your eyes out under a duvet, feeling deeply hurt and abandoned. You don’t want to face your family looking like this, even though your mom’s tight hug might just be what you need right now.
If you remotely find any of these scenarios relatable, the chances are that you are one of many people who, on a daily basis, struggle to ask for and accept help from others. You may be well aware of the alternate endings to these stories. Yet, because of some invisible force, you repeatedly choose to put yourself through the physical, mental, and emotional suffering, alone.
For a long time, I was going through this inner conflict, often struggling, refusing to let others in, and then complaining to myself about how the whole world seemed to have turned against me. One of the defining moments of my wake-up call happened at a depressing and vulnerable point in my twenty-something years of life, when I received a message from my best friend, expressing concern about how I needed help, and immediately broke down into tears after holding them in for weeks.
I almost forgot how frustrating and isolating it used to be, until I recently talked to another friend. I was shocked at how much she reminded me of my younger self. At the same time, I was relieved, because I’m now able to share what helped me break out of this vicious cycle of misery.
The first and foremost step is understanding the causes because, as often said, you need to study the disease before you can find the treatment. It takes time, reflection, and sometimes uncovering uncomfortable past experiences. It can mean to keep asking yourself “why” until there is no more reason to be had.
With that in mind, here are five fundamental reasons why you may have a hard time asking for help and how to tackle each of them.
1. You are scared.
First of all, you are scared of abandonment and rejection, fearing that people will turn a blind eye and a cold shoulder on you. You dread to be reminded of how you came to a parent or someone in a past relationship for support, only for them to show that they were unwilling or unable to offer it. You don’t want to feel disappointed and betrayed again, so you convince yourself it is best not to reach out in the first place.
Secondly, you are afraid of judgment. You are highly conscious of what people think, feel that you need to prove yourself, and view asking for help as a sign of incompetence and weakness. To protect your identity, you strive to accomplish things on your own. This sometimes results from previously being looked down on or labelled as needy for requiring help. In addition, it is more likely to get triggered in people with certain traits, such as being sensitive to others’ opinions and emotions.
Last but not least, you fear losing control over your life, responsibilities, and achievements. If you are risk-averse or generally find uncertainty uncomfortable, it can be unsettling to put your fate in someone else’s hands. Asking for someone’s help is a perfect example of this.
How to start conquering your fear:
Fear is not naturally born but usually comes from personal experiences, so striving for growth means removing things that no longer serve you. Cleaning out unhealthy relationships in which you are unheard and unappreciated, Marie Kondo style, will make space for more rewarding relationships to come, add value to your life, and restore your trust.
If you suffer from emotional wounds, it is especially important to let yourself heal. Closure can be overrated and is only worth it if it can be found in a safe way, physically and emotionally, for you. Coming to terms with your wounds and accepting to move on is also closure, and there are several ways in which you can do this, including educating yourself about your own trauma, confiding in a loved one, and attending therapy.
2. You have low self-esteem.
Low self-esteem manifests through thoughts and behaviours in different ways. However, they all relate to your own view of yourself as inferior. You don’t think you deserve to be supported. You feel like a burden, to strangers and your closest people alike, and that your problems are not worth their time. You believe you have to toughen up and deal with whatever comes your way because others have it worse, and if they are coping on their own, then you don’t have the right to complain.
These self-defeating thoughts may make a genuine need become a major guilt trip for you. Remember those times when you keep apologising at the beginning of every sentence, feel useless, and beat yourself up inside? It’s likely your insecurities speaking.
What to practice instead:
As Stephen Chbosky from the movie The perks of being a wallflower says, “We accept the love we think we deserve”, and the most valuable love that lays the foundation for all others is a love for yourself. Self-love comes down to prioritising your wellbeing and making investments that make you feel whole.
Your body, mind, hobbies, missions, and values are sacred sanctuaries that you can rely on during stormy weather. When they are nurtured, they can show you that, no matter what happens, you always have your back. This will then allow you to accept love from others as well.
3. Your outlook is dominated by pride.
Placing too high a value on yourself is as likely to fuel your struggle as having low self-worth. In modern societies that emphasise praise and reward independence, you are conditioned to take pride in your ability to overcome obstacles on your own.
However, when you overvalue self-sufficiency, you are likely to undervalue the benefits of depending on others. You may develop misbeliefs such as “I can do this better so I won’t bother asking,” and “You don’t understand what I’m going through and it is too much trouble to explain”.
Furthermore, you may start to treat help as a transaction, thinking that if someone helps you, they are better than you, or that you owe them something in turn. This egoistic mindset not only sets you up for self-sabotage in the short term but also risks letting manipulation get in the way of your relationships in the long term.
How to shift this mindset:
Learn about the power of vulnerability, about crying as a healthy emotional response to feeling sad, frustrated, or overwhelmed, and about admitting to your mistakes and imperfections. After all, these are things that make us all human and real.
Although being vulnerable is often viewed in a negative light by societal standards, when we let our guards down and open ourselves up, we also get in touch with our emotions, relieve our mind of stress, and allow ourselves to connect with people on a deeper level.
4. You suffer from mental disorders.
In addition to intensifying your fears and self-esteem issues, mental conditions distort your responses to challenging situations.
For example, people suffering from depression are prone to feeling unmotivated and exhausted to do even simple daily tasks and often resort to procrastination as a temporary escape or avoid their problems altogether. Meanwhile, those with anxiety have difficulty making decisions because they are consumed by their spiralling worries. Social anxiety, in particular, also leads to feeling overwhelmed by the possibility of having social interactions.
People with these conditions are all more likely to retreat into their shells in the face of difficulty.
How to cope
Getting therapy is by far the best remedy for those with mental health issues. It is often said that mental illnesses are silent killers because they cause the patient to withdraw themselves from their usual support network. As such, recognising your symptoms and looking for a professional who can give you tools to address them is, in itself, a courageous breakthrough.
If your conditions are mild and you don’t have access to or cannot afford therapy, the next best alternative is to reach out to people who you trust and know will always have your best interests at heart. These are people with whom you have built a strong, healthy, and committed relationship and can be a family member, your best friend, your partner, or your manager.
5. You do not know how to ask for help.
Maybe you weren’t taught how to ask for and receive help when you were growing up. Maybe you don’t have healthy role models to look up to. Maybe all you see on social media has been filtered through rose-tinted glasses and makes it seem like everyone is doing so well on their own.
Consider yourself the more fortunate if you fall into this category, because it is possibly the easiest to overcome. Nevertheless, it isn’t any less important, because you are still battling against your limiting beliefs.
How to educate yourself
Firstly, asking for help is a skill that is not born but learned, and there are plenty of resources available online and self-help books that give you practical advice on this.
Despite the varying breadth and depth covered, my personal takeaways are to be polite and sincere and to not project pressure onto the other person. In return, instead of burdening yourself with shame, guilt or an urge to pay back, a simple “No worries, I understand” or “Thank you” (depending on their response) goes a long way.
Secondly, there are many stories about the power of getting help that we may be unaware of, from books and articles about successful people to videos about simple acts of kindness. They help us normalise showing our limits and give us faith in human’s compassionate nature.
If you enjoy engaging with people, polls, surveys, or interviews with your family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours about their experiences can be just as inspiring. Through these mediums, you may be surprised to find that you are not alone and may even get your hands on personal tips to manage, just like in my conversation with my friend.
Three Reminders to Keep You Going
Treating the root cause of the problem is the crucial starting point, but the journey as a whole is far from quick and easy. You may have good days when you feel like you’re making progress. Then it may sometimes become too much to handle, and you may start to doubt if it would ever be okay.
Whatever your situation, these are three reminders that I find incredibly motivating, for when you can’t seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
1. “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” – Mark Twain
What these baby steps are for you would be determined by your current level of discomfort.
For example, I often feel uneasy about even trivial favours, such as asking someone to reach a high shelve at the supermarket or pass an item across the table, so whenever I notice this feeling, I make myself stop, resist my natural instinct and give it a try. People are much more likely to agree to tasks that do not require effort, so these opportunities are perfect for slowly building up confidence and trust.
On the other hand, if you are uncomfortable with asking people you are close with, you may find it easier to ask a stranger. If you are shy, anxious, or self-conscious, being outside of your usual settings is another option. Knowing that your chance of seeing a complete stranger again is exceptionally small, so it does not matter what they think of you, can give you added comfort and reassurance.
2. “Whatever makes you uncomfortable is your biggest opportunity for growth.” – Bryant McGill
To be able to implement effective changes, you sometimes need to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Setting rules not only gives you goals to aim for but also acts as your progress monitor.
This is one habit I find most effective in the fast-moving workplace where expertise and confidence are highly regarded. When I realise that I get stuck, I immediately set myself a deadline, for example, spending the next day working on it by myself, then whatever happens, asking for help. Aiming to ask for help at least once in the following week, or for 4 out of the next 10 times, works similarly.
The bottom line is your objectives should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound). To foster this into a habit, consistency is also key, so it is helpful to keep a journal or mental notes as you go along.
3. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Mahatma Gandhi
If you’re reading this, I truly trust that you are a sympathetic, compassionate, and generous person who has a much harder time receiving than giving.
You may think of your reluctance to get help as a weakness and be tempted to focus on correcting this. However, according to the strength-based approach in social care and personnel management, it is as important, if not more important, that you embrace your gift. That’s by offering your kindness to others, such as helping a parent with a buggy on the train, giving your friend a hand moving house, or giving your junior colleague advice on a challenging task.
Being kind not only helps you lead a fulfilling life but, especially when that kindness is appreciated, also makes you feel valued and boosts your self-esteem. What’s more, it will one day come back your way in one form or another, and help you when you are in need.
The next time you are about to blurt out “I’m fine,” “It’s okay,” “No, thanks” or “Don’t worry about it” when you are having a hard time, I hope you will pause, remind yourself of the love and support you deserve, of how needing help is normal and of the ways that can turn it into your friend. Asking for help is a powerful strength, not a weakness, and it is within you to make it flourish.