Counselor's Corner

Why We Don't Ask for Help

by Cyndi Bryant, LCSW

“You're too proud for your own good!” This was a common refrain that I heard from my mother as I was growing up.  My father had another way of putting it. “You’re doing things the hard way,” he would say.  

 My parents were not referring to the effort I spent teasing my ‘80s hair until it was high enough for a trip to the mall. Nor were they talking about our disagreements about what kind of clothes I should wear. They were referring to my resistance to asking for help and accepting it when offered. In short, they were calling me stubborn. I recognize that as the youngest in my family, I always wanted to prove that I could do what the older ones could do.  As a female growing up in the 1970s, I also wanted to do anything a male could do. Does that sound stubborn to you?

I would like to say they were wrong, but of course, they were right. I would like to say that I have completely outgrown my reticence to ask for help, yet I still recognize my own impulse to handle things on my own, even at times when I’m really overwhelmed or out of my comfort zone. I do my best to recognize and manage this tendency in myself, and I was excited recently when this issue was the focus of a podcast I enjoy, The Savvy Psychologist by Ellen Hendriksen, PhD.  Dr. Hendriksen, who teaches psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the Stanford University School of Medicine, listed five reasons that people typically hesitate to ask for help:

  1. Fear of being a burden 

Dr. Hendriksen reminds us to remember how much we ourselves like to be offered the opportunity to help – and how unhappy it would make us if a friend or loved one didn’t ask for needed help. To minimize the fear of being a burden, she also suggests asking for something specific, as opposed to making a general plea for “help.”

  1. Fear of admitting we’re out of control

Admitting that a long-ignored problem has gotten out of hand can feel like failure, Dr. Hendriksen notes.  She recommends that you think about your problem as an “actual object separate from yourself,” then picture yourself and your helper teaming up to handle it.

  1. Fear of owing a favor

Dr. Hendriksen cites research showing that responding to a favor with gratitude, rather than a sense of indebtedness, boosts relationships. Try it – and notice how good a simple “thank you” can feel, whether you’re giving or receiving it.   

  1. Fear of appearing weak, needy or incompetent

This is among the most common reasons we don’t ask for help, and Dr. Hendriksen suggests that rather than feeling inadequate, we simply appeal to someone else’s expertise. If they’ve done it before and you haven’t, then it’s natural for you to ask for advice, instruction or assistance.

  1. Fear of rejection

If you’ve previously been turned down when asking for help, you may not be eager to repeat that scenario. If this is your obstacle, Dr. Hendriksen recommends that you “de-catastrophize” the situation by imagining that your very worst fear does come true. What if they do refuse to help you? Consider that even if that happens, your situation won’t be any worse than it will be if you don’t ask.  

In my own experience, professionally and personally, people often don’t ask for needed help because it would conflict with the way they view themselves. Do you think of yourself as a helper, a giver, a caretaker? Are you part of the “Greatest Generation” that served without hesitation? Are you an “army of one”? Are you like Dory in Finding Nemo, believing that if you “just keep swimming” it will all work out? When we recognize the mental obstacles that keep us from asking for help, then we can more clearly see when we need to move past them.

If you want to explore this subject more, I recommend you listen to Dr. Hendriksen’s podcast, “How to Ask for Help” at https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/savvy-psychologist, or call CJFS to explore how counseling can help. 

The Licensed Clinical Social Workers at CJFS help individuals and families live more fulfilled lives through counseling, care management and much more. For more information, visit cjfsbham.org or call 205.879.3438.


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