I see you. You are super woman. You work full time, you are raising awesome kids, a genius dog, and a spouse. (Or some other permutation of work, family, and saving the damn world.) You keep the house running smoothly, you call your senator regularly. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When someone needs help you are the person they come to. So. When was the last time you asked for help?
It’s a good bet that you can’t remember, it has been that long.
I’ve been there, I get it. But sweetheart you cannot save the whole world by yourself, you weren’t meant to. We are in this together. So without further ado let’s talk about how to ask for help.
This should be easy. All you have to do is turn to the person next to you and say “I need help.” But you and I know that it’s rarely that easy. And the reasons why that is are complicated and not trivial. You aren’t the only one out there who finds it incredibly difficult to ask for help, I dare say our culture down right insists that you don’t ask.
I cannot count the number of times I have had a person (usually female) look at me sand say “I just don’t want to be a burden.” Maybe you say that you don’t want anyone to “make a fuss.” Or that you don’t wan folks to go out of their way for you. However you say it, the message is clear: to ask for help would be to inconvenience and burden others. And we can’t have that.
The Gift of Need
There is a persistent myth out there that need is a weakness. To need something is a failing, it shows lack of self reliance and (this is the big one) personal responsibility. And that’s about the worst thing you can say in our individualistic Western culture. But I have to tell you folks, personal responsibility and self reliance are modern inventions that have created isolated people and broken communities.
As a priest I spend a lot of my time with elderly adults, folks who have spent more time circling this sun than the rest of us. Some of them have been in relationships for longer than I have been alive. The one thing those long (happy) relationships have in common is need: they are people who know they need one another.
There are the elderly gentlemen who have stepped out of their cultural norms and learned to cook as their wife went blind, the women who have taken on the bulk of heavy lifting as their husbands grew more and more frail. Let me tell you folks, those husbands who had gone from burning a pot of water to cooking their wife dinner positively glowed with pride at their ability to take care of the woman who had taken care of them for so long.
To care for another person is part of what makes us human. And the spiritual practicing of accepting care is the mark of a maturing spirit. Think about it. As children we have no choice but to be cared for, we cannot survive without the care of our parents and other care-givers. We don’t have a choice in the matter it simply is. As we grow we tend to begin to reject that caring, watch a toddler throw a temper tantrum because his Grandmother tried to tie his shoes for him and you’ll know what I mean.
Teenagers become utterly indifferent to their care and loving of their parents and it is all a natural process that lets us actually become adult persons. However, the journey doesn’t end there. Despite what our toddler selves might like to think (I do it myself!) the end goal isn’t independence but interdependence.
We’re Not Super Women
Here’s the thing. We’re not super women. I’m not, you’re not. And that’s not something to be ashamed of. There are things I am horrible at (I’m told it is not normal to forget the laundry in the washer for a week, most people apparently remember to put it in the drier). You do to. The other truth is that we’ve got limited time and energy. There will always be more that needs to be done than we can accomplish by ourselves, always. There is no planner, or app, or productivity tool that will change that.
Getting up an hour, or two, or heaven help you three earlier in the morning still won’t mean you can accomplish everything yourself. When I first started grad school I remember being dismayed to realize that I had over 400 pages of assigned reading every night. I’m a fast reader but even I had to admit that wasn’t possible. And when I complained to a professor about it she laughed. My dear, she said, the work will never be done. That is what the reading assignments are supposed to teach you.
So. You aren’t super woman. Which means you need help. My regular way of asking for help is composing long complicated emails (or texts) in my head that get more and more passive aggressive because why hasn’t my husband realized I need help yet???? This does not work. Here’s what does:
1. Be Honest With Yourself
This is huge for me. I spend a lot of time thinking “no, no, it’s fine” when it isn’t. When I’m exhausted, or tired, or frustrated, or just don’t know what I’m doing. I have been known to be so impatient to get something done and so unwilling to admit that I’m not great at it that I drilled six holes in the wall trying to hang a set of hooks that were secured with two screws. That coat rack is still not level.
I’m not good at making things be level. When I take photos the horizon is always running down one direction or the other. There are lots of things I’m great at, and quite a few I am not. And the first step is being honest with myself about my limits. I’m not awesome at everything. I do not have time or energy to do everything. That’s not shameful or a failure.
2. Be Specific
I have the bad habit of being incredibly vague when I ask for help, because I hate asking. By just sort of implying that it might be nice if someone sort of did a thing that was sort of like this… You get the idea. And as you might have guessed it doesn’t work. I’ll hint, or make some off hand comment and nothing happens. And then I’m annoyed, or feel ignored, and what I needed still hasn’t been handled.
My husband is slowly training me to be clear and specific. If I want him to the take the garbage out saying “wow we need to take the garbage out at some point” is not helpful. Amazingly (hah) he really would prefer for me to simply say: “would you please take the garbage out now?”
In fact most people want to be told clearly and precisely what we need. I’ve discovered that most folks really do want to be helpful. We just have to ask.
3. Let Go Of It
So here’s the thing, sometimes I ask someone for help and they gladly do the thing, but they don’t do it my way. Sound familiar? We have got to let that go. There is more than one way to do just about everything. Just because I have always done something one specific way doesn’t mean it’s the only way to accomplish that goal. Learning to ask for help is at least partly about being willing to let go of our need to control how something gets done.
Part of learning how to ask for help is practicing letting go of control. And that is a spiritual practice most of us could benefit from. And sometimes by letting go that need for control we might discover a real gift. We just might discover a talent or ability in our friend or family member that we didn’t know existed. By giving them the freedom to accomplish something in their own way we get to know them better, and we’re given the gift of difference and surprise. It turns out for example that my husband is excellent at making pies, even though he totally doesn’t do it the way I would.
You remember what I said about grad school readings? One of the chief reasons we were assigned so much text was to help us learn how to prioritize. Most of us got pretty darn good at glancing through our assignments, picking out the most important bits, reading those, and letting the rest go.
It has been a valuable skill in the rest of my life as well. Learning to prioritize has helped me learn how to ask for help. It has helped me see most clearly what matters most to me, where my time and energy is most needed. Which helps greatly in the letting go that is necessary to hand something over to another person.
Believe in your own value
This isn’t really a step, but it is perhaps the most important part of learning how to ask for help. In my experience the chief reason we have so much trouble asking for help is a persistent belief that we will be inconveniencing another person with our ask. And that generally stems from the belief that we are not worthy of the time or attention of others.
I wish I had a magic bullet for this one, but there is no such thing. I do have a helpful exercise though. When you hesitate to ‘bother’ someone else with your needs stop for a moment and imagine the situation is reversed. Imagine the person in question (a friend, spouse, family member or colleague) in real need of your help. Would you want them to ask you for that help? Your answer is likely yes (though if it is no there may be things going on in your relationship that need to be addressed). If you would want someone you care for to ask for help, it is likely they want the same thing for you. Believe that, and ask.
Believe the actions of others
And finally, believe people when they show you who they are. If someone you care for deeply response to requests for help with indifference, ridicule, or annoyance there’s something wrong. It could be your friend is simply overwhelmed with their own troubles, but if the response you get from them is consistently dismissive then they are showing you how little they value your relationship. Believe them! Remember that relationships have seasons, and that not all relationships are meant to last forever.
We human beings can accomplish amazing things together. It is not necessary for any of us to go it entirely alone. Asking for help honors the skills and abilities of the people around us. It helps build relationships and communities of people who act out of care and compassion. The way we live impacts the shape of the communities we are a part of, and so our actions have deep and lasting impact far beyond our own lives.
Let your children, parents, friends see you ask for help. Normalize the idea that none of us are super heroes and all of us need help. Be bold in your belief that we are all in this together and you just might find that your example will spread.
Keep practicing, if only because you want the world to be a place where the people you love can ask for the help they need.