Today I’m writing about something that I’m trying to become better at: asking for and accepting help.
For as long as I can remember I’ve run away from all forms of assistance. From the “Let me do it!” response I would have as a child whenever my parents tried to help me with a task I was struggling with, to trying on tip toe to reach the cereal on the top shelf at the grocery store rather than asking to clerk to get it down, to pretending I understand something only to spend hours later trying to figure it out on my own. I’ve also let my stubborn independence limit me in more serious ways, such as trying to overcome bulimia for years on my own.
I used to believe that the only way to be truly successful was to be independent. Fiercely independent. I believed asking for help was like admitting defeat. If I needed help I had failed, I was inadequate and unworthy of success.
But what I've recently learned is that valuing extreme independence actually limits achievement and success. Everyone needs and would benefit immensely from the help of others.
So why are we so reluctant to ask for help?
Here’s what I’ve come to believe:
There are two main reasons why we don’t ask for help: feelings of SHAME and feelings of UNWORTHINESS.
As children we observe the adults around us trying to do everything themselves, we see the flashy portrayals of independence = success in the media, and we quickly learn to shut our mouths rather than risking being laughed at by of our peers for asking a “stupid” question. This is the shame factor.
The unworthiness factor comes into play in more subtle ways.
Children are inherently curious. They ask questions about everything. But at some point it stops being cute, and we begin to tell them “Don’t bother so-and-so, she’s busy.” “Don’t pester him. Can’t you see he’s in the middle of something.” We learn to stifle our curiosity and our requests for assistance.
But not only do we stop asking, we stop accepting help even when its offered. For example, somebody finds out we don’t know something (our secret’s out - gasp!), and then we hear the words, “Can I help?”
Sometimes the answer will be ‘yes, please’, but in my experience too often the response is, “Its ok.” or “Don’t worry about it.” or “Thanks for the offer, but I’m fine.”
Of course, shame is likely still at play here, but I also believe there is an element of unworthiness. I know in these circumstances I’ve often felt that what I’m struggling with is not worthy of wasting someone else time. I've felt an unwillingness to impose, fear of being a burden, or a feeling of guilt that we won’t be able to return the favor.
So that’s it for why I believe we so often don’t ask for or accept help. Now... (you guessed it!) here's why neither of those reasons are good enough and why we should ask for help more often.
First, I’m going to let you in on a little secret, a wonderful hard learned truth: NO ONE IS 100% INDEPENDENT. NO ONE.
No one has ever learned anything or achieved anything on his or her own.
And I’m going to be as bold to say that no one ever will. We all receive help in everything we do whether we formally ask for it or not.
For example, you are having a conversation with a colleague, and rather than asking a question about a concept you are unfamiliar with, you pretend to understand and then go and Google it later. Does that mean you learned it on your own? NO! It does not. It just means you are getting help from a much less engaging source. You are learning from the person who wrote the content that you are reading on the internet, with the assistance of their editors, internet service providers, and the author’s friend from the coffee shop who made her believe she could write the article in the first place. I could go on but I think you get the point.
The only way to learn anything new is from each other and the world around us. Period. So if this is true, why is it so shameful to receive help from others?
Simple answer: it is not.
No one knows everything and no one can do anything alone.
Say that to yourself until you believe it because it’s the truth. There is nothing shameful in not knowing something or not being able to do something alone. If there was we would all have to be ashamed of ourselves every day until we die. I know from experience what living like that feels like. It is completely unnecessary, and a diminished way to live. So get rid of the shame.
Secondly, receiving help is not a one-sided equation. Helping usually benefits the person receiving the help, yes. But helping also benefits the person giving the help. Helping is rarely a burden on the giver. To understand the truth of this, just think of the last time you helped someone else. How did you feel? Burdened? Angry? Imposed upon?
Not likely. I would venture to say that you probably felt pretty amazing. Maybe you were grateful to be given the opportunity to impart some wisdom. Maybe you felt excited that someone else has a similar interest. Maybe the advice you offered reminded you to practice what you preach, and motivated you to make some positive changes in your life as well. Whatever the case, the overall effect was likely that you felt like a valued, worthy, contributing member of society.
The truth is we all love helping, teaching, and sharing our knowledge.
So next time you think you are going to burden someone by asking a question, instead think about the happiness and meaning you could bring to the person’s life by acknowledging what they have to offer the world is valuable.
I know some of you are thinking, ok maybe this is true in some circumstances, but I’ve experienced times when I’ve asked someone a question, and the person on the other end looked at me like I was wasting their time, or actually told me to stop wasting their time.
I would say firstly, you are right – not every person will be happy to help you with every problem. And sometimes, the person may be less than willing to help because they have their own problems going on, or their own schedules are overflowing. This is unfortunately much too common among lawyers, and can result in a lack of mentorship at work and hours of wasted time trying to figure things out on your own.
This attitude is a part of the legal profession’s culture that needs to change. But I also know there are a lot of amazing lawyers out there would be happy to help, and even grateful for the opportunity to provide some guidance, if only they knew it was wanted and appreciated.
What I’ve learned is, firstly, there is no reason to refuse help when its offered. Secondly, there is no reason not to ask for help anytime you are frustrated or struggling, the key is seeking help from the right source. In my next post I will discuss some strategies for doing just that.
For now, here’s what I suggest.
Stop stressing out about trying to do everything on your own. (And by this I don’t mean to say we should stop putting individual effort into our own endeavors. Of course we should.) All I’m saying is don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling with something. Give yourself a break, lose the shame, and embrace the offer of assistance that is knocking on your door, or go out there and ask for it. It will not only make your life easier, but also will likely brighten someone else’s day.
We all have unique contributions to make to the world and each other.
Let’s help each other reach our goals, it’s the only way we’ll get there.