As humans, we need interconnection with others for our survival. We also crave it. We have an innate desire to feel cared about and safe with people. But we can also feel very uncomfortable accepting care and help, depending on our life experiences.
For the context of this article, “asking for help” means: asking for support, for care, for physical or practical assistance, for someone to listen, for someone to make a change, for someone to consider our needs, and for someone to stop or start doing something.
These are all vulnerable requests and it’s no wonder that it’s hard. Let's look at some specific dynamics that make it hard to ask for help, why it's worth it to try anyway, and how to get better at asking for support.
Powerful societal and cultural messages
Especially in the U.S., there is a high value placed on independence and not “needing” or “relying” on others. Societal and marketing messages reinforce the high status that comes with being a rugged individual and self-reliant and “strong.” And we have also woven into our culture a lesser-than status for those who need or ask for help and the label of “weak” for those who accept it.
It’s even a source of pride for some people that they “never asked for anything” and “did it all” on their own. While this approach can certainly bring a sense of pride, it also brings along its companion emotion: loneliness.
Experiences growing up
Our upbringing shapes how we view the acceptance of help and whether it’s safe to trust others to assist us. Our attachment style is developed in our formative years and sets the foundation for how we perceive ourselves (as love-able & deserving or not) and how we perceive others (as safe & trustworthy or not). This attachment framework impacts our willingness to verbalize our needs and trust others to fulfill them. Do any of the following statements resonate for you?
“I’ve only been able to count on myself.”
If we experience a lack of consistent care & attentiveness from our childhood caregivers, we end up feeling less trusting of all people in general. If our needs are rejected or unmet, we figure out how to be self-sufficient and hide our needs.
This can make it feel painful or unnerving to ask for care and attentiveness from people even in adulthood. Letting others help or offer support contradicts our patterns of taking care of ourselves and/or pretending not to have needs at all. It’s also pretty hard to admit we can’t do everything ourselves, if that's what we have always done.
“I feel like I don’t deserve help.”
When our needs are chronically unmet or rejected, we assume that we are unworthy or that we are asking for “too much” or being “too much.” This leads to feelings of shame and low self-worth. As we age, it’s hard to expect a different outcome with people than what we experienced growing up. Simply the thought of needing something from another person can trigger those old feelings of shame.
“I don’t want to feel like a burden.”
Those early messages from caregivers that our needs were not worthy of time or attention created a belief inside that our requests were burdensome. That we ourselves are wrong and burdensome. We carry this into our other relationships: with teachers, friends, romantic partners, co-workers. The idea of asking for help gets connected to an idea of almost oppressing someone else. And very few of us want to willingly feel like we are oppressing other people. So we avoid asking and instead suffer in silence...“This is my problem, not theirs.”
“I’m only valuable to people because I don’t need or ask for anything.”
This belief is rooted in those feelings of unworthiness from childhood. When we learn early on that we can only really rely on ourselves, we can create a belief that we must have all the answers. Having all the answers or being able to figure things out on our own helps us feel more secure with the scary idea of trusting ourselves.
What can happen next is that we twist this into a belief that our independence and intelligence is actually the only good stuff about us. We convince ourselves that simply asking someone for help could shatter the elaborate structure we’ve built our fragile self-esteem on top of.
“I don’t want to seem needy.”
Perhaps you have been in a relationship that felt imbalanced. Maybe it felt very one-sided and the other person kept leaning on you for help or support without attending to you much at all. That dependency feeling made you uncomfortable and resentful and now this is what you fear creating in someone else if you ask for help.
It’s easy for us to equate extreme examples as likely outcomes, rather than observing a broad range. There is a big difference between asking someone to help us move into our first home and someone calling us daily to download their problems and see if we could watch their dog again and maybe spot them some cash again this month and “oh yeah, oops I forgot to return your tool set.”
“I’m worried others will feel resentful or hold it over me.”
If we have been treated with frustration or criticism for having needs, it’s easy to continue imagining that people will resent us just for asking. Beyond that, we can fear that mental “scorekeeping” is happening in relationships, because we are not used to being treated with consistent affinity and acceptance.
Even some well-meaning friends can push this button by saying things like “but you’ve got to come with me…I came to your thing last month.” We can fear feeling indebted if we ask for or accept help. Feeling beholden to someone feels like a loss of control & autonomy… and most humans would absolutely prefer to retain as much control as possible.
I don’t want to be disappointed.”
The idea of finally asking someone for help and being let down seems almost unbearable. If we have constructed this whole belief system that no one is trustworthy and we can only count on ourselves…but we drop that narrative for once only to have it reinforced when our friend fails to come through…well that would be devastating.
It can feel easier to just hold on to the narrative that others are unreliable and not test it. But this is a form of black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking. We assume that one example will prove the rule and this keeps us stuck in the harmful belief system.
Why it’s worth it to start accepting help.
You can have deeper closeness in your relationships.
When we allow people to be kind or helpful to us, we feel closer to them. And they in turn feel closer to us. The whole bond is strengthened.
Letting others express care and affinity for us deepens the connection and fosters a dynamic where give-and-take can feel natural and stable. The vulnerability of accepting help also leads to deeper emotional closeness. Most humans really do like being seen as helpful and enjoy the opportunity to provide support.
You can get your needs met.
People can only meet your needs if they know them. Relationship dissatisfaction is most often rooted in unmet needs. We want our friends and partners to reach out more, to remember special days, to include us in things, to stop doing the things that annoy us, to know when we are struggling.
But most people are not great at reading minds. We are all so caught up in our own stressors and obligations and needs, that we simply let other people down when it comes to imagining what they need. You are much more likely to get your needs met if you simply ask.
You can feel less alone.
If being needy & dependent is on one end of the scale, and being solitary & independent is on the other, there is a very broad range in between. You can find a spot in that range that feels tolerable.
Remember that others feel warmth towards us when they are able to connect to us through an act of service or kindness. That warmth acts as an encouragement for them to stay close. Additionally, you will experience a sense of appreciation and relief that you finally didn’t have to do something all by yourself. It feels good to be cared about, even if it’s scary to trust it at first.
How to address the discomfort of accepting help.
It’s challenging to tackle that deep-down discomfort. If we learned early on that asking for help was either a bad thing or a waste of time, we developed an important survival tool: I'll just take care of it myself.
The idea of abandoning a belief and protocol that has been necessary to our survival can make us feel anxious, insecure, frightened and even physically sick. Small, tolerable efforts over time can help you create a positive shift.
1. Redefine what it means to ask for help.
In order to get better at asking for and accepting help, we have to stop seeing it as selfish or burdensome or likely to go poorly. Try adopting and repeating to yourself some of these alternative definitions of asking for help:
Reciprocity is a healthy way to establish trust and closeness with others.
Reaching out for support decreases loneliness.
Stating specific needs increases the chance of getting needs met.
Sharing feelings helps others know how to care.
2. Remember that everyone is different.
Just because we were treated a certain way growing up or have been treated poorly by certain friends or partners, it does not mean that everyone will be like this. Our brains are designed to form patterns and it’s simple to assume that all future human interactions will be like our past ones.
What’s tricky is that our brains don’t focus much attention on all the times where someone was actually reliable or caring or helpful. Those situations weren’t threatening, so your brain didn’t sear them into memory the same way. We vividly remember the painful ones and assume future interactions will be painful. Remind yourself that everyone is different and every interaction with a human has the potential to go differently than past interactions.
3. Reflect on overlooked examples from the past.
On that note….Give yourself a little assignment to go back through your history of interactions with people. Was there a co-worker who was actually pretty reliable? A coach or teacher that seemed to care and genuinely want to help you? A classmate who willingly offered guidance when you got stuck on a concept? A neighbor who pulled your trashcans in without you asking? A customer service staffer who really worked to resolve things in a positive way?
It’s so easy to overlook the positive interactions, but thoughtfully reflecting back on the total of your actual experiences can help balance out your deeply held beliefs that asking for or accepting help is something to avoid.
4. Reorient what you focus on.
Try to start noticing examples of other people being helpful and caring. Even if the kindness is not aimed at you, it will help create a shift inside if you are able to start gathering more data that people can in fact be trustworthy.
Try to look for interactions that seem to reflect reciprocal care and responsiveness. Observe any closeness and sense of connection you can see in these relationships. After this practice of noticing trends in other relationships, you can shift towards paying more attention to who in your life is actually helpful and reliable and trustworthy most of the time too.
5. Reverse the roles
Think about how you feel when someone reaches out to you for help. Do you enjoy feeling helpful or meeting the needs of others? What is it like for you when a friend asks for advice? How does it feel after you have done something nice for someone else? Do you feel good about yourself when you donate time or resources to a cause that needs it? Remind yourself that when you avoid asking for help or support, you deny others the positive feelings of giving that support.
If you would like to get better at sharing your needs and asking for support, it's best to start out with people who are most able to respond well. Don't go to a dry well hoping for some fresh water. Relationships where you have felt hurt or unable to ask for your needs are best to address after you have some practice.
This may mean trying it out with a new connection where the slate is clean. It can also look like focusing on very small interactions, like asking a store clerk or waitstaff for assistance or something special.
As always, be gentle and compassionate with yourself as you try to make changes. Your future self will thank you for your willingness to try.