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Editor’s note: guest post by Sophie Lizard.

There’s a certain pride in solving your own problems, isn’t there?

Maybe you made it through a tight month financially by selling some items on eBay.  Or maybe you somehow managed to get your dog to vet, your kid to the doctor, the groceries for dinner, and your report for the boss–all without inconveniencing anyone but yourself.

Doing things for yourself is empowering.

But if you’ve ever struggled onward with heroic determination rather than ask for help when you really needed it, you’ll know that independence comes at a price. Sometimes, it’s a price you’d be silly to pay.

It’s not the load that breaks you down; it’s the way you carry it.

Lena Horne

Many people these days find themselves over-committed, overwhelmed, and anxious.  Unfortunately, too many think the solution lies only in self-help.

A much needed complement, though fraught with fear and guilt for many, is to ask for help from others.

Not only does this help relieve your own burden, but studies show that human contact and kinship alone can help reduce anxiety.  It turns out getting help for yourself actually serves everyone.

To make that happen though, you have to ask.

And that scares the crap out of you just as much as it does me. So, let’s beat that fear today.

Why Are We So Terrified of Asking for Help?

The reasons we give for not wanting to ask usually involve misconceptions about reciprocity, vulnerability, and scarcity.

The reciprocity misconception is the mistaken notion that every time someone helps you, they’re losing something and you’re gaining it, so you owe them a favour in return or it isn’t fair to ask.

Fear of vulnerability is behind thoughts like, “I mustn’t let them see that I’m not coping.” We’re afraid that people will think we’re weak, lazy, stupid or incompetent if we ask for help. This fear works two ways: we don’t want to lose people’s respect, and we don’t want anyone to take advantage of our weaknesses either.

Scarcity makes you think that no help is available. You tell yourself there’s no point in asking, because everybody’s too busy to help anyway. Or you don’t know how to find someone who can help you. Or you can’t trust anybody to get it right.

But none of those are the real reason. Those are the rationalisations of a decision we make irrationally.

The facts don’t support those rationalisations. The ‘Ben Franklin effect‘ refers to the fact that getting someone to do you a favour generally results in them liking you more, and being even more willing to help you out next time. Repeated psychological studies show that we consistently underestimate people’s willingness to help a stranger out, too.

So, what’s the real reason?

Pure terror.

Most people are just plain phobic about asking for help. It sends their physical and emotional stress levels way beyond what you’d see if they had purely rational reasons for not wanting to ask.

You know how to spot the people who don’t have this phobia? They’re usually the happiest and most successful person in the room. Any room.

To be one of them, you need to beat your fear. The cure is gradual exposure and practice. You ready?

Step 1: Map Out What You Need

If you don’t know what kind of help you need, then it’ll be tough to ask for it successfully.

Start by listing some of the things you desperately need help with. You don’t need to be detailed. My list this week would say something like, “Find & buy Christmas presents. File tax return.”

Add a few things that may not be urgent, but that you’ve needed for a while and never quite got around to: “Hang pinboard. Sell old baby stuff.” Now, while you’re feeling casual about your list, throw in at least one ridiculously big thing you’d love some help to achieve. Mine is, “Win a well-known blogging award.”

Pick your top 3 things from your list – the ones that you really can’t manage without some kind of help. Write down your core reason for wanting to achieve each of these 3 goals, and the main reasons you need help. So I might note that I want to make everyone’s Christmas happy with a thoughtful gift, but I’ve left it pretty late to start shopping and I have no idea what anybody wants.

Look at your list and start naming (or describing) people who might be able to help you. Soon you’ll start to see the path to freedom.

For example, I could ask the family gossip to tell me who wants what this year, and which gifts have already been checked off their wish lists. Then I could ask my friend who loves online shopping to help me find and order the presents, and I know I can pay most retailers a little extra to send them gift-wrapped and ready to go. Done!

Step 2: Start Simple

OK, so you have some not-so-important things on your list, right? And since they’re not so important, it won’t matter much if you ask for help and don’t get it.

You on board with that? Great.

Contact the person who might be able to help you, and simply say, “Can I ask you for some help with [whatever it is]?” Rehearse the question beforehand, if it helps you to feel more confident.

If they say no, that’s fine. Thank them anyway.

To give a very personal example, after my daughter’s birth and my return to freelancing, I was dismayed to realise that I’d mislaid my sexuality. I needed help to remember what sexy felt like, and to act on it instead of putting it off.

So, despite my deeply irrational embarrassment about the whole situation, I asked my fiance to take his shirt off while he did the housework. I felt silly asking, and half expected him to laugh at me, but he agreed and it was great!

Step 3: Add Details

Choose one of the most important helps from your list, and add more details:

  1. List all your reasons for wanting this help.
  2. Note how helping you could benefit the person you plan to ask.
  3. List the objections you think your ‘askee’ might raise.
  4. Write down the answers or explanations that might help to dissolve those objections.
  5. Read it through and make sure you believe every word.

Now that you’ve had some practice, let’s go and get you something you really need.

Step 4: The Big Ask

Approach this in a similar way to the smaller helps you’ve already asked for: start simple. Get in touch with the person who can help you and say, “Hey, can I talk to you about [whatever it is]?”

Once you have their attention, explain your ‘big ask’. You may want to use a more formal structure when you’re asking for a favour as an employee or a customer, and a friendlier approach when you’re asking someone you know socially.

So for your boss, an example would be:

“I could really use some help with [whatever it is], because [your main reason].  I also think this would be good for you because [the main benefits you listed earlier]. I know you might feel that [the main objections], but I’ve given this a lot of thought and [ways to dissolve the objections]. What do you think, is that a possibility at the moment?”

For a neighbour, you might prefer:

“I’m really stuck with [whatever it is]. I know [the main objections] and I don’t want to impose on you, but I’m desperate to get this done because [your main reason]. If there’s anything you can do to help with even a small part of this, or point me in the right direction, I’d really appreciate it and [the main benefits of helping] might work well for you, too. I even have an idea about [ways to dissolve the objections]. Do you have a couple of minutes spare to talk to me about it?”

Be prepared to explain your idea in detail, and discuss any objections and their solutions. If your request is accepted, fantastic! If it’s rejected, listen carefully to the reasons for the refusal. You may be able to tweak your request by asking for something slightly different that would still be helpful, while eliminating the deal-breaking issue.

Step 5: Check Yourself Out

Look at you, brave help-finder! Now that you’ve faced and defeated your fear of asking a few times, look back and consider how it went.

What did you ask for? How did it go? Is there anything you would do differently if you could repeat the asking experience?

Each time you go through this process, it builds up your confidence, resilience and insight. With practice, you’ll be able to seek out the help you need, when you need it, and ask for in a way that doesn’t make anyone feel stressed – not even you.

You deserve the help you need. Go get it!

Sophie Lizard helps writers and non-writers make a living blogging. Check out her free resource, The Ultimate List of Better-Paid Blogging Gigs: 45 Blogs That Will Pay You $50 or More, to get started!

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23 Responses to 5 Steps to Fearlessly Asking for the Help You Need

  1. Thanks, Jen, for letting me share this post on Everyday Bright.

    And thanks for your free Everyday Courage challenges, which got me thinking about this irrational fear to begin with. I deeply appreciate your insight and advice!

    • Proud to have you and your wisdom on Everyday Bright, Sophie. Thank YOU!

    • On
    • November 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm
    • Denise Loughlin
    • Said...

    Fantastic, authentic advice! Applies to all of us, thanks for such an honest post!

    • Thanks Denise, I’m glad you think so! And you’re very welcome. Honesty is what makes me tick! :)

  2. Fantastic advice and really could see how doing this over and over will make it easier each time to the point of eliminating that fear.

    • That’s right, Mike – like with any fear, practice (even practice alone at home before you try it for real) really works to reduce the anxiety surrounding this issue.

      Hope you get everything you ask for!

  3. Good thinking and great ideas, Sophie. When facing a battle with fear, it’s always best to be well prepared! Thank you, too, for generously sharing your Ultimate List =)

    • Ninja Baker, what a fantastic name! Thanks for taking the time to comment – it means a lot to me.

      I find it’s not the act of preparation that’s most important, but the *feeling* of being prepared. After a bit of practice, you feel more prepared each time with less actual preparation… does that make sense?

  4. You are too young to be so wise, Sophie! ;-) Great points to keep in mind throughout the year – not just at the holidays. Blessings!

    Maris

    • I’m 36… old enough to have grown weary of my own irrational fears! I’ve learned to ask openly for help, but I’m still too scared to beat my fear of spiders. ;)

      Thanks for your blessings and your comment, Maris.

  5. Great insights. Never really thought about how asking for help evokes fear, but it is totally true.

    I spend a lot of time writing emails in attempts to get people to do things as members of large collaborative research projects. Some would call it herding cats. One word that cats respond to is the word ‘help’.

    You can almost guarantee if you write a commanding email it will be ignored. If you write an angry email the response will be at least a bit defensive. Your best bet for getting a response is asking for help.

    “Can you help us be filling in the form by the end of the week?”

    • Thanks Scott, that’s a great example!

      I sent out a group email just a couple of days ago that plainly said, “Please help – I don’t think I can do this on my own!” The response was amazing; more than 50 people emailed me back with advice and encouragement. I was completely blown away by their generosity.

      One interesting result I’ve noticed in a few research studies is that talking about time often makes people more likely to act than talking about money or obligation. So you might get good results with, “Can you spare a moment to help us by filling in the form before the end of the week?”

      • Really like the phrase “I can’t do this on my own”. That rings all sorts of bells and pulls on peoples’ compassion. “Of course he or she cannot do it on his or her own.”

  6. “t’s not the load that breaks you down; it’s the way you carry it.”

    Thanks so much for this fabulous piece of writing Sophie. I can so relate to it (apart from the naked torso housework ;)

    I constantly battle against asking for help due to my fear of vulnerability and that I must cope. Yet I love helping others.

    Keeping this to remind myself! :)

    • If you’re a natural born helper then, like me, you probably spend a lot of your time working to support people, including helping them to get help from other sources!

      That can make asking for help for yourself feel like you’re upsetting the natural order of things. It’s “not like you” to need help!

      But the way you frame it in your mind can make all the difference to your feelings. Asking for help *is* a sign of strength and resourcefulness: you’re using the available means to support you in your mission to help others.

      Hope that helps!

  7. Hi Sophie,

    Thank you for this detailed and honest post. Some of these things,i never really realized until i read this.

    it is common for me to tell myself that nobody owes me anything, but i owe the world everything so i must help. well now i realize may be i have not been asking for help enough. i really must learn.

    thank you once again for the eye-opener.

    cheers!

    akin

    • Help is just like any other resource, Akin: you’ve got to have it before you can give it. Nobody can be a bottomless bucket of help without any support for themselves, and it hurts us to try.

      Next time you come up against a problem you can’t solve, ask someone around you to help! Even if the only help they can offer is sympathy, it does you good to remember you’re not alone.

    • On
    • November 29, 2012 at 7:56 am
    • Megan
    • Said...

    Thanks for this Sophie. I’m absolutely one of those who loathes asking for help in most situations. Aside from the fear you mention what stops me from asking has usually also been the “how.” How does one ask without appearing incompetent, or weak? So thank you for the step-by-step!

    What I really like about your approach is that it’s so solution-oriented. Mentally it seems like way less of a stretch to ask someone to help attain a specific objective then to just ask for help.

    Cheers!

  8. I know all too well how you feel, Megan! The only thing that saved me from being a lifelong coward about asking for help was the realisation that *not* asking for help when you need it is a greater flaw than any ignorance or vulnerability.

    Clarity and confidence go a long way when you’re asking for help. Laying it all out and thinking through the details brings clarity; practice brings the confidence. Once you have both, they kind of nourish each other and it just keeps getting easier!

  9. Great article… We cant go through life successfully without the help from others. so thanks for sharing these tips

    • Thank *you* for taking the time to share your thoughts. :)

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