Need to know
When I picked up my seven-year-old daughter from school on a recent afternoon, the first thing she did, before even saying hello, was hand me her water bottle: ‘Mom, can you open this for me? The lid’s too tight.’ I asked if she’d had any water all day, and she shook her head no. As she took a large swig, I imagined her suffering quietly with thirst all day long.
Why didn’t she just ask her kind and caring teacher to help unscrew the lid? I asked my daughter, and she said she had thought about it, ‘but I didn’t want her to know I was too weak to open it myself. And she was busy.’
Although it might seem obvious to you, as it did to me, that she simply should have asked for help, doing so can be much harder than it seems on the surface. That’s true for adults, too. Asking for help can feel so uncomfortable that we would often rather suffer in silence, or try to do everything ourselves. As a clinical psychologist, I have seen this pattern frequently among my clients over the years. Whether it’s an executive who has trouble asking employees to take on projects, someone with a medical condition who needs help with daily tasks, or a working parent who needs more support, people from all walks of life can struggle with asking for help.
And it’s not just my clients – my daughter’s struggle hit close to home for me. I have a strong independent streak, and I’m often reluctant to ask for help. Since I was a teenager, I’ve been proud of my self-driven nature. As a lifelong feminist, I have found security in knowing that I don’t have to depend on others to make it in the world. Sometimes it feels easier to carry a heavy load by myself and not say anything about it. I even have an aversion to people trying to do too much for me – I often feel uncomfortable and even a little guilty when receiving help. Back in graduate school, my PhD advisor reminded me, as I was finishing up my dissertation, that I should come to him for help. How many hours had I spent struggling to write up my research methods and figure out statistical analyses on my own, when his decades of experience could have helped me?
For many of us, the tendency to not ask for help has been strongly reinforced over time. Many of us live in cultures in which individual performance and independence are prized. Certain branches of my family were American pioneers who set off for a new life in covered wagons. They imparted a stoic disposition, in which vulnerability and dependence on others were to be avoided, and this was passed down through the generations. My mom still shoos everyone out of the kitchen when she cooks holiday meals because it’s easier for her to do everything herself. By the age of seven, my daughter had internalised the belief that asking for help, even with a small task, would reveal her weakness.
And yet, the ability to ask for and obtain help is a valuable life skill. Over time, carrying a heavy load without enough support can lead to burnout – the exhaustion and disengagement that results from the chronic stress of having too many demands and not enough resources. A lack of perceived social support has been associated with poorer mental and physical health outcomes. Research suggests that everyday acts of benevolence can increase the wellbeing of both the recipient and the helper.
The help you need at any given time might range from something relatively minor, like covering a work shift, or getting a ride somewhere, or a word of advice, to something weightier, like help with caring for a child, or financial assistance, or support for a medical or mental health issue. No matter what the challenge is, recruiting help from others can save us time and effort and provide much-needed emotional support, reassuring us that we don’t have to carry the load all on our own.
Years ago, I knew someone who was struggling with a sudden, urgent financial problem. A family member had financial resources to spare, but there had recently been some conflict and estrangement between them, making the idea of asking for help all the more daunting. This person was embarrassed about the situation, and it was tempting to keep it hidden. Yet it was clear that their family member’s support could help avert major long-term consequences, such as problems with housing, and they were at a loss for other timely solutions. In the end, even though it was a tough conversation, they decided to reach out and ask for help – and the family member was willing to offer it.
Perhaps you see yourself in this person’s story, or in the other examples. It’s not always easy to ask for help but, fortunately, it is a skill that can be improved. If you tend not to ask for help often, you might wonder whom you should ask or the best way to approach a request. The guidance that follows will help you learn and practise this skill.
What to do
Check your assumptions about asking for help
If you are inclined to avoid requesting help, it’s important to examine any thoughts or beliefs that might be getting in your way. These could include:
- Negative associations: you might associate help-seeking with a negative view of ‘taking handouts’ or think that someone is lazy if they can’t do something themselves.
- Self-criticism: you could be your own worst critic and think that asking for help means you are incapable or weak.
- Concerns about how you will be perceived: you might worry that someone will think less favourably of you if you ask for help.
- Self-sacrificing beliefs: you might buy into a self-sacrificing narrative, believing that you should put the needs of others before your own. You might worry about burdening someone with your needs.
- Overestimating the likelihood of rejection: ‘No one is going to want to help me out,’ you might assume – ‘why would they?’
Even though these types of thoughts and beliefs about asking for help are quite common, they are often inaccurate. People are likely much more willing to help than you realise. Research suggests that we tend to underestimate the likelihood of someone saying yes to a request for help. Most people feel good when they do helpful things for others, and prefer to think of themselves as generous and willing to help when they can. If you fear that someone will like you less if you ask them for help, consider the opposite possibility: people might actually like you more if they’ve done you a favour. Expressing vulnerability and openness, by acknowledging that you could use help, can lead to deeper connection. When people help you, they may develop a vested interest in the outcome.
In the case of asking for help or advice from a knowledgeable expert, you might worry that the person will think you are ‘stupid’ or incompetent. Yet there is evidence that asking for advice can actually increase perceptions of the asker’s competence. People feel proud to see their expertise acknowledged and will often be happy to share it with you.
So, when you catch your mind kicking in with unhelpful reasons not to ask for help, step back from your thoughts and see them for what they are – your mind’s incessant chatter. Remind yourself that your thoughts aren’t always accurate, and you don’t always have to listen to them. Instead, you can let these self-critical thoughts and worries come and go, without letting them run the show.
Make a decision to ask for help
If you know that you could use help with some need or challenge but are wavering about whether to ask for it, you’ll need to make a decision.
In some situations, you might have valid concerns about the interpersonal impact of a request, or it might simply be easier and less stressful to do something yourself. If the challenge you face is a one-time situation, and getting assistance would just complicate matters or slow you down, then asking for help might not make sense. When deciding whether or not to ask for help, however, consider balancing the short-term discomfort of asking against potential long-term gain. If a demand is weighing on you, or you struggle with a problem repeatedly, getting help could save you time or reduce stress in the long run, making it worthwhile to ask.
My friend and colleague Jill struggles with asking for help, like I do. When her husband’s grandmother died, Jill felt it was important to support him by travelling across the country for the funeral. Since they were unable to bring their children with them, this meant asking three different friends to pitch in for a few days of child and pet care. In the long term, however, it was worth it to Jill to face the short-term discomfort of asking in order to support her husband and his family.
In making your decision about asking for help, you might find it helpful to zoom out and consider your values – the kinds of qualities and actions that are consistent with the person you want to be. Here are some values-related questions you might ask yourself:
- What is most important to you in this situation?
- Long-term, will asking for help bring you closer to an important goal?
- What feels most consistent with the kind of person you want to be – asking or not asking for help?
- How much do you value speaking up for your needs? How about courage? Independence? Openness?
- How much do you value having open and supportive relationships?
Choose whom to ask
Once you have resolved to ask for help, you’ll need to decide who would be the best person to ask. Sometimes the choice is obvious but, if it’s not, think about who has the skill set, ability or knowledge that you most need. In some cases, seeking professional help might make the most sense, especially if a task requires special skills that most people don’t have. For instance, if you are struggling emotionally, and it seems that the support of your friends and family might not be enough, you could reach out to a mental health professional.
If you plan to ask a friend, relative or coworker for help, you’ll want to consider relationship dynamics. Ideally, you’ll find someone you trust – not only to help you effectively, but also to respond to your request in a way that will enhance, rather than damage, your relationship. You might consider asking someone you have helped before, as people often like to tip the balance toward reciprocity. You might reconsider if it’s someone you’re planning to ask for help with something more important soon or someone who has responded poorly to requests in the past. But don’t rule out a person just because they have declined to help you once before – they might actually be more likely than you think to agree to help the second time, because of the discomfort of saying no twice.
Consider the best time to ask
Unless you’re facing an urgent problem, it’s generally better to give someone plenty of time to respond to a request and to provide help at their own pace. If the person you are asking is prone to emotional ups and downs, do your best to time the request to when they seem to have the emotional capacity to process what you’re saying and make a good decision. Someone might jump to a response too quickly if they are in a rush or stressed out. Be aware of catching someone in a moment of stress and, if you know they are in an irritable mood, you might want to wait. When in doubt, you might even explicitly ask them if they have the bandwidth to be asked for a favour.
Consider asking someone for help when you see them in person, if you can. Face-to-face conversations can help to foster a sense of connection. There’s even some evidence that when people make requests over email, rather than in person, they tend to overestimate the likelihood of getting what they want. In today’s virtual world, however, in-person requests aren’t always feasible. An upside of text or email is that they might give the person a chance to think over the request before responding.
Ask in the face of discomfort
We often have to be willing to feel discomfort in order to do important things. As you are gearing up to make your request for help, you might notice that your instinct is not to do it. It’s helpful to consider the emotions that might underlie this reluctance, such as:
- fear of being disappointed if your request is rejected;
- guilt, shame or embarrassment about needing help; or
- anxiety about not having complete control over what the other person will do to provide help.
The first step in handling these emotions is awareness. Simply notice your discomfort and label the emotions that show up for you. You can even practise ‘emotion surfing’ by watching your emotions rise and fall over time.
When uncomfortable emotions arise, you can always choose to take action anyway. Any time you have previously stepped outside of your comfort zone to do something hard or uncomfortable, that was a small act of courage. Similarly, you can take the risk of asking for help, even if you feel awkward or uncertain about how it will go.
Use assertive communication skills
When the conversation is likely to be a difficult one, and especially if your emotions are running high, you might not know the best way to ask for help. Assertive communication can help you make a request that is both direct and respectful. This style of communicating is the happy medium between aggressive and passive communication.
- Aggressive communication is controlling. It can feel to the other person like a demand or attack, and it can evoke defensiveness, fear or resentment. Even if the other person responds by doing what you want, an aggressive tone might result in damage to the relationship.
- With passive communication, in order to steer clear of potential conflict, you do not express your needs directly. You might avoid conveying what you need or do so in a timid and tentative way. Over time, resentment can build if you are too passive.
- Assertive communication is the sweet spot in between, where you both express your needs directly and care for the relationship by being respectful. The goal is to resolve the issue at hand and increase understanding. It includes both sharing your perspective and being open to hearing the other person.
To communicate assertively, simply be honest and open, and state the request directly and with respect. For instance:
- ‘I’ve been struggling with ____. Would you be willing to ____?’
- ‘Could you help me out by ____?’
- ‘I was wondering if you could do me a favour and ____.’
- ‘Could you please ____ for me next Tuesday?’
Think of the ask as a polite request you are making, not a demand on the person. They might choose to say no, and that would be an acceptable response. In Influence Is Your Superpower (2022), Zoe Chance writes that ‘if [the people you’re asking for help] feel coerced, they’ll resist – either in the moment or later – by looking for a way out’. Research even suggests that the wellbeing benefits of helping others might be diminished when the helper lacks control over the decision to help. In giving someone true freedom to choose, you will feel more confident that, if they say yes, they did so because they want to help you.
Sometimes, your goal might be to get help, no matter what. Perhaps you are in a bind, desperate to get someone’s assistance. In that case, you might need to be especially assertive in asking, and ask multiple people until you get a yes. Other times, being considerate and preserving your relationship might be your bigger goals, in which case you could soften the ask, or make it clear that it’s OK to say no. I recently asked a colleague to give me feedback on something I had written. It was a last-minute request, and her time is valuable, so in my text message, I tacked on the words ‘please say no if you don’t have time’. I wanted to make sure she didn’t feel obliged to say yes under pressure, and it would have been fine if she couldn’t do it. But if my need had been more urgent, I might have chosen not to include those words.
Be as clear as possible about what you need
It’s usually best to keep your request simple and specific. Try not to be cagey or vague about what you are requesting – otherwise, the person you ask might feel defensive or worried about what they are agreeing to.
If you aren’t quite sure exactly what help you need, it could be useful to acknowledge that openly. For instance, if you are feeling anxious or depressed and turn to a family member for help, you might not yet know what kind of support you’re looking for. If that’s the case, try telling them that you aren’t sure how they can help you yet and ask if they might talk with you about what would be helpful. You can then figure it out together.
If the person you’re asking for help doesn’t know why you are requesting it, you can give the request some context and justification, but you don’t need to belabour it or try to convince the person. That might come across as a sales pitch or as pleading. Instead, simply state the reason behind the request. For instance, you could say to a neighbour: ‘I won’t get home until nine o’clock tomorrow night. Would you be willing to feed my dog and take her for a quick walk?’ Or, to a coworker: ‘I’m struggling to keep up on this project right now. Could you help me out by taking over this one part of it?’
There’s no need to apologise or minimise your request. Nor do you have to offer something in return. In fact, Heidi Grant, a social psychologist who researches the science of motivation, writes that focusing on reciprocity can backfire, ‘because people don’t like to be indebted to anyone or to engage in a purely transactional exchange’. Try to avoid disclaimers like: ‘I would normally never ask you for this, but…’ or emphasising how much the other person would get out of helping you. In the long run, trying to convince someone or push them into a corner can feel manipulative, and they might end up resenting it.
If someone agrees to help, let them – and receive it gratefully
The person you’ve asked for help has said yes. Great! Now what do you do? In some situations, you might need to provide further details or instructions; you can even offer to give the person a reminder or other kinds of support as they do what you have asked them to do. Otherwise, once someone takes on a task to help you, you need to let go of control. People don’t like to be micromanaged when they have offered to help.
With my independent streak, I sometimes struggle with this. I pick up my kids from school most days, my husband does so once or twice a week, and my mom does it occasionally. On the days when I’m not doing the pickup myself, I start to worry that the person who’s doing it will forget. I’ve been known to remind my mom or husband several times, and even check to make sure they’ve arrived on time. Not only does this show a lack of trust in my husband and my mother, who have never forgotten pickup before, it feels a little controlling to them. If I don’t give up control, they will never take full responsibility for the task. And feeling like I must track it creates a mental load that is stressful to me.
Perfectionism can be a problem for help-seekers, too: if you like things done a particular way, someone who is helping might not quite share your standards. But the benefits of getting help might be such that it’s worth loosening your grip.
After you receive the help, be sure to follow up by expressing appreciation. If the task they have completed is minor, a simple ‘Thank you’ will likely be good enough. If it’s a more substantial form of help, a gift or returned favour might be warranted. These responses will ensure that the person knows you are grateful for their help.
If the request is denied, consider other options
The person you ask for help might turn you down. That’s OK – it happens! Try not to take it personally or get discouraged from asking again. You might wonder if the person you asked is upset with you, or if the request offended them. But perhaps they are simply maxed out and the task would be too much. Accept the answer, let it go, and move on. You can still consider asking that person for help again another time.
Although a ‘no’ can be painful, it can also be an opportunity to gain insight into what you need and to think about alternatives for getting that need met. You might have to be flexible and pivot to a different source of help, or find creative solutions for meeting the need on your own.
Of course, we often have to ask more than one person before we find someone who is willing and able to help. If you get a ‘no’, consider whether this is a request you can make of someone else instead. If so, keeping in mind the guidelines above, go ahead and ask again.
Key points – How to ask for help
- Asking for help can be uncomfortable, but it’s an important skill. It can yield much-needed practical and emotional support and protect you from burnout.
- Check your assumptions about asking for help. Self-criticism, concerns about how someone will see you, and other thoughts and beliefs can discourage help-seeking, but they might not be reasonable or accurate.
- Make a decision to ask for help. There might be pros and cons, but the long-term benefits of asking for help often outweigh any short-term costs.
- Choose whom to ask. Think about who has the skills, ability or knowledge to help you effectively – and who is likely to respond well to the request.
- Consider the best time to ask. If possible, give someone time to consider your request for help, and try to avoid asking when they are stressed or in a bad mood.
- Ask in the face of discomfort. Notice any fear, anxiety or shame that arises as you proceed to ask for help. Label the emotions, summon your courage, and ask anyway.
- Use assertive communication skills. Be open, direct and respectful: eg, ‘I’ve been struggling with ____. Would you be willing to ____?’
- Be as clear as possible about what you need. Try to make your request simple and specific. If you’re not sure exactly what kind of help you need, ask if you can talk it over together.
- If someone agrees to help, let them – and receive it gratefully. Getting help can mean giving up some control. Let the helper take ownership of what they have agreed to do.
- If the request is denied, consider other options. Don’t assume the worst about why someone turned you down. Getting help often requires asking several people.
Creating a culture of help and support
Humans are an ultrasocial species, and we have evolved to cooperate in interdependent social groups. We have long relied on each other to help us care for our young children, stay safe from predators, and maintain enough resources to survive. We are generally motivated to help other people, especially those who are in our group. And yet, in many modern contexts, individual performance and independence are highly valued. Many jobs are solitary nowadays, involving less cooperation and collaboration. In school and work, we are often rewarded for focusing on our own individual achievements.
Can we take a step back in the direction of cooperation by creating cultures in which mutual helping and support are the norm? If giving and receiving help are common practice in your family, neighbourhood or organisation, any one request won’t feel like a very big deal.
I started a podcast with a couple of psychologists some years ago: we are now a team of six, and we try to help each other carry the workload whenever we can. If one member of our team is going through a difficult or especially busy time, we know we can ask others to step up and help out with the next episode or with our administrative tasks. We offer each other help willingly if we have the bandwidth. By fostering a team culture in which it is normal to both give and receive help, we feel more comfortable asking for help when we need it. It makes our endeavour more sustainable.
One way to work toward building collaborative and supportive groups is to routinely offer help to others. Offering support builds social capital in your personal and professional relationships over time, and when you’ve been supportive of others, you are more likely to receive help when it’s needed. Prosocial acts seem to be contagious; people who receive acts of kindness will often ‘pay it forward’ by more frequently helping others. If we have been helped by one person, we might be more likely to help a third person, who is then more likely to help another person, and so on. People tend to do things for the group that the group has done for them in the past.
You can also help to create a helping culture by practising the skills I’ve outlined and by becoming more willing to ask for help. Doing so can reduce stigma and demonstrates to others in your group that requesting and accepting help is socially acceptable. As a therapist, I love it when people (therapists and non-therapists alike) have the courage to speak about their experiences with mental health treatment. Talking openly about getting help demonstrates that we all struggle at times, and that we can all benefit from asking for support.
Links & books
The book Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You (2018) by the social psychologist Heidi Grant includes a section on why ‘asking for help is the worst’ and a chapter on how not to ‘make it weird’. You can also watch Grant’s TED Talk on the subject.
The book Influence Is Your Superpower: The Science of Winning Hearts, Sparking Change, and Making Good Things Happen (2022) by the behavioural scientist Zoe Chance offers practical strategies for persuading others to say yes.
The organisational psychologist Adam Grant’s book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (2013) is a fascinating plunge into the science of how generosity and reciprocity are tied to achievement.
If you want to brush up on your general communication skills, I have written a blog post on assertive communication that includes a free ‘cheat sheet’. I frequently recommend the classic book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (1999) by Marshall B Rosenberg to clients who are working on improving their communication skills.
If you would like to work on being aware of your thoughts and emotions and taking courageous action toward your values, check out my book ACT Daily Journal: Get Unstuck and Live Fully with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (2021), co-authored with Diana Hill, a fellow clinical psychologist, based in California.
You can also listen to my podcast, Psychologists Off the Clock. If you want to know more about the importance of social support, check out the episode on social connection, or the one on belonging.