I Need Help!

“Do you need help?” My spouse will call this out from the next room when I am grumbling about my latest technology glitch. Why is it so hard to ask for assistance? I am married to an engineer and computer science teacher for heaven’s sake! And how do we know when help is truly needed, or someone just needs a little moral support?  We need not be too stubborn or proud to tell people what we need.

Recently I blocked the toilet at my friend’s house, while I was providing two days of post-surgery care.  She was not afraid to ask for help, but a plumbing malfunction was the last thing she needed in her immobile state! My efforts to solve the problem were clearly not working. Water was coming perilously close to the toilet rim, threatening to spill over again. My helpful husband was coaching me by phone: “If it has a wide opening, it’s a sink plunger, not a toilet plunger. But just keep plunging until you get a seal.” Easy for him to say. “Keep pushing!” he repeated emphatically. You would think I was giving birth.

I had hoped he would offer to come to my rescue. But I realized I was just going to have to ask for help. He cheerfully appeared at the door soon later, with correct plunger in hand and quickly restored the toilet to full function. And I mopped up the floor. This is a good metaphor for life!

When Others Misread the Help You Need

Efforts to fix our crud can sometimes create more of a conundrum. I remember a season when I was dealing with health challenges and had sunk into a deep funk. My normal tricks to cheer myself up were not working. A well-meaning friend at Bible study later said, “Who thinks she should go on medication?” Everyone raised their hands. It felt humiliating to have a private decision publicly made for me. I did not want a new thing to worry about, such as potential side effects, compounding the issues I already had. Eventually I emerged from the fog, without the help of pharmaceuticals. When I finally resorted to seeing a therapist, I was first told she was on stress leave. Even the professionals need help!

What is stopping you from getting unstuck from a challenging situation? And what can you do to move forward? Leo Babauta in “Zen Habits” provides a few useful suggestions. This may be particularly helpful as we reflect on habits and goals for the new year. The good thing is every day is a fresh start!

Tips for Getting Unstuck

  1. Turn towards the difficulty. Not much will change until you face it, as wearisome or hopeless as it may seem.
  2. Make a decision. What is your rock bottom to commit to action? Avoid the “should” and take the first step. Be intentional!
  3. Be compassionate to yourself. Disappointment and discouragement are part of the process; protect your self-esteem by being kind to yourself.
  4. Do it with others! Finding a group or a challenge makes it less painful to do hard things and helps build accountability.
  5. Set a time to practice and keep up the practice. Sometimes consistency is all it takes to get unstuck! Make a date with yourself or with someone else.
  6. Small victories, slow change. Celebrate every victory! Sometimes just getting dressed and out the door is worth celebrating.
  7. Progress, not perfection. Trend in the right direction, even with detours. Don’t dwell on the misses: Build up gradually and keep moving forward.

When We Don’t know What We Need

Have you noticed that when you are experiencing an affliction, people will say “Let me know if you need help.” This is not the time where frazzled folks have the wherewithal to ask for help. It would be another item on their to-do list. Most don’t have the mental band-with. More helpful is a card, meal, or sitting with someone in silence and just being present is the greatest gift. When I was at one low point, I did not know what to ask for, of God or anyone else. As someone prayed over me, I literally felt God’s calming presence wash over me.

Sometimes don’t know what we need until we are gifted with it. I remember when I received an unexpected card at church one day. It was signed by “Christmas Angel” with a generous check inside. How did this mystery angel know of our financial state? A fickle financial situation with a fledgling start-up left us with low cash reserves. But God knew, and touched someone’s heart to help. The amount was the exact amount needed for a trip to visit my twin sister for the holidays, a treat we had not experienced in years. And just the pick-me-up and encouragement I needed during that stressful season. I departed in a December snowstorm from a city that rarely gets heavy snow. Every flight showed “Cancelled.” Except mine. It felt like a Christmas miracle!If I had not been vulnerable to share my struggles, others would not have known of my desires or needs.

Why IS it So Hard to Ask for Help?

Sometimes we do not want to feel indebted to others.  It’s hard to ask for something without feeling like you must give something in return. Or we may not trust others to come through for us. We may also be too unwilling to be at the mercy of other people. My boss once accused me of micromanaging, and not enlisting other people to help me (They did indeed neglect to do the task I was fretting about, but it was a good lesson regardless!) It takes trust to give up a little control and power to others. Or sometimes we just think we can do it better or faster, which is why I did not always ask my kids for help!

Psychoanalyst, professor and executive coach Manfred de Vries covers some of these concepts in a Harvard Business Review article. In “Why It’s Hard to Ask for Help,” he uses the example of employees who do not wish to impose on their bosses or colleagues, or their family. They figure everyone else has enough on their plate as well. And don’t want to be a bother. But sometimes we overlook the fact that others may want to help you and we are taking away that opportunity. “Although humans are social creatures, ready to both give and accept help, many of us do not actually ask for it,” says professor de Vries. Over time this can make us miserable and bitter, he claims.

Independence and Control

I have experienced this within marriage, I hate to admit. Because I am too stubborn and proud to ask for help. And I expect my spouse to somehow read my mind and know my needs. Now he recognizes the frazzled look when I start searching for my keys or cell phone. He is only too happy to help, once I admit I could use a hand. Most of us like to maintain a basic sense of control or competence. Needing someone’s help to complete a simple task takes vulnerability and threatens our independence. Worrying about what people think can make us feel inferior, so we may resort to dealing with things on our own. But our partners can have insecurities too. It’s easier for them when they are given specifics, so they can help us more effectively. And not have to guess.

A sense of independence, while admirable, can stem from our upbringings. I grew up in an era where kids nearly raised themselves. We roamed freely outdoors like free-range chickens, repeatedly summoned back to the house at dinner time. Another human need is to maintain control- of our time and our space. We dislike interruptions. This sense of control over managing tasks may explain not wanting to pull away from them, whether stopping to feed ourselves or asking for help. My husband will always ask to sit in my chair when he works on my computer problem. Even that I hesitate to surrender. I will fixate for half an hour on a problem that will take him a few minutes to fix.

Fear of Rejection

A fear of rejection is another area that can prevent people from asking for help, Professor de Vries says. We often assume that people will say no. I can testify to that. I once tried to corral a group of students into moving desks for an upcoming event. When I received only one offer to help, I resigned to doing it myself. Then I regrouped and confidently told them what I needed from them. While I struggle at deciphering maps, and could not quite understand the cryptic instructions accompanying it, the kids quickly interpreted it for me.

Worse still, is when we consider ourselves unworthy of receiving help, or the gift of someone’s generosity. Self-esteem, or lack thereof, can impact all kinds of social situations; even high-power executives can struggle to ask for help! Those in caregiving roles with nurturing personalities can be susceptible to this too. We can be so inclined to gain affirmation and meaning helping others, that we fail to speak up for what we need. This can lead to burnout, or “blockage.” (A fitting word, given my earlier plumbing example!) What is stopping you from getting unstuck?

Collaboration and Cooperation

I felt less stuck in my personal relationship, when I opened myself up to receiving help from my partner. Then home projects became collaborations instead of chores to struggle through alone. They evolved into problem-solving sessions instead of solo pity parties. Granted, we have very different styles of working! I am impulsive and plunge right in, while he is methodical and carefully maps out everything before getting started. He tackles one task at a time until completion, before commencing the next one. Whereas my workspace resembles a hurricane that has left a trail of destruction through the house.

In his Harvard Review article, Professor de Vries wrote “When you place your trust in others, you show them that you value them, and this deepens the relationship. In turn they will trust you enough to ask for help.” I have noticed this with my adult children. As I have learned to set aside my own concerns, they are more inclined to involve me in their lives.


Interestingly, I have a son who has no problem asking superiors for help. When he needed a higher income to qualify for a loan to purchase a home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he asked his boss for one. He was awarded a huge raise at a time when many technology professionals were being laid off. Similarly, when he wanted this highly technical job at age nineteen, he gave his reasons why he would be ideally suited over other candidates. And they created a special position just for him. Somehow, the kid who had struggled with dyslexia landed this amazing opportunity from an internship, at the age of nineteen. Since he shows great interest and eagerness to learn, his brilliant engineer and astrophysicist colleagues are happy to share their experience.

Letting go of control is the first step towards self-advocacy. We often don’t want to be a burden, and the idea of asking for help can even cause an emotional reaction. Interestingly, MRI studies have revealed emotional reactions trigger the same centers of the brain that physical pain would. What helps reduce the discomfort is seizing the right time to request help. Don’t ask people when they are already overstretched or facing a stressor of their own. Be considerate. And remain calm and confident with your request.  

This is particularly challenging in a work situation, where displays of struggle or weakness may give the impression that you are incapable of fulfilling your responsibilities. I nearly lost my job over this once. But with a little support from a colleague and mentor, I rose to become a top-producing employee and my supervisor became my biggest fan.


We all have times where we need to commiserate with others when we are feeling frustrated or alone. Yet, whether at work or in our personal lives, we need not complain that others are not helping. It’s just that most of us don’t make our needs clear, or know what we really want, according to Wayne Baker at the University of Michigan. Or we do not know who and when to ask for help. We build productive connections when we collaborate with those around us, and this increases our confidence too.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s research on human civilization shows the earliest signs of humans helping each was 15,000 years ago! The barter system of trading throughout the centuries is another example of people relying on others for help. History demonstrates that we are all social beings and inter-dependent. At times the “help” we receive is not always beneficial, because people assume what we might need. (For example, the spicy chili a neighbor brought my mom after colon surgery was a kind gesture, but maybe not the best choice!) But more often, we are afraid to ask for help or tell others what we need. And people are hesitant to ask how they can be most useful.

Creating Community

Somewhere in the history of self-reliance and the notion of the self-made man, asking for help became seen as a sign of weakness.  Having the courage to admit you need help is the first step. Actually asking for support or advice is the next step. But if we humbly receive it, we can build confidence, increase competence, and build community. We are also helping the person who finds meaning in contributing their skills and knowledge to others.

As I tell students who are reluctant to share their writing drafts: we cannot improve upon that which we are not willing to share. Remember to show gratitude to those who help you, and then pass it on to others in need of a hand or an extra set of eyes and ears. As the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “Though we are many, we are all joined together as different parts of the same body.” We are stronger together! Instead of trying to go through life with a super-achiever mentality, we can perform our best when we recruit other parts of the body to help.

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