Why It can be difficult asking for help
Asking for help
There are times in life where all of us will need help or support of some sort. For many of us, asking for help can be one of the hardest things to do. Sometimes people will choose to try to deal with problems on their own rather than seeking help, often suffering terribly and for great periods of time in the process.
This can lead to people ending up in situations and with new problems that are exponentially worse than if they had sought help when they first realised something was wrong or that they needed support. On one end of the spectrum this can lead to people hitting plateaus in their learning, careers and activities they enjoy. On the other end, the consequences are far more serious. People can stay stuck in poor relationships, bad jobs and unhelpful ways of coping with life that only get worse as time passes. Many minor mental health problems can end up spiraling out of control into more serious ones if they are not treated in some form. Treatable illnesses can, if not addressed early, end up becoming complex medical problems; sometimes even leading to death.
Often, it is only when things get so bad that there is no other option left, that then help is finally sought. And often when people do get the help they need, they feel frustration at the time lost and the excessive suffering they and others endured from not seeking help earlier.
Why asking for help can be so hard
Why is it then that for many of us it is so hard to get the help and support we need? There’s not a single answer to this, but there are some factors and beliefs I have noticed working as a counsellor that seem to come up a lot for people who struggle asking for support. Also before going further, when I write about asking for help, I’m not referring to those times and problems where we could do something but would rather someone else did it. Rather, I am referring to times when we get stuck with a situation that we cannot resolve on our own, when we come to our limits.
A common reason why people don't ask for help is that they feel like they would be judged for it, whether that be by others or more often than not by themselves. Asking for help or for support can feel to some like they are failing; that they are not coping with life. There is usually an accompanying belief that when something goes wrong in their life, they should be able to address things on their own. Getting help from someone else is seen as weakness of character and almost cheating somehow.
Needing to be strong and not weak
Past experiences can lead people to find asking for help as risky and exposing, and feel it to be an admission of weakness and limitation. It can require a level of vulnerability and humility that for many can go against their sense of self and how they should be, and how they should be seen, in the world. An example of this can be seen with many men, who are brought up with the idea that to show vulnerability or weakness is not part of being masculine. If this belief is very firmly held then, then asking for help or support that requires vulnerability from them often does not even feel like an option. This can be exacerbated in environments where there is a lot of competition and an expectation that people should be able to figure things out for themselves.
Not wanting to be dependent upon others
Another common reason why some people don't ask for help when they are stuck is a fear that it will lead to them becoming dependent upon others. Here, there is a belief that whilst support might be available from others it is viewed as unreliable and inconsistent and the only way to avoid relying upon someone else is to do things yourself. There is usually an issue with trust and ability to be vulnerable with others that is behind this. This can lead to problems in working with teams and groups and can manifest in behaviours such as micromanaging and poor delegation.
Help is allowed - but only in some areas of life
Others may find that they are happy to ask for support in some areas of life but other areas are completely off limits. For instance a person may feel fine going to the doctor if they feel physically sick, but would feel highly averse to seeking professional help if they felt mentally unwell. Other areas include feeling able to ask for help with fitness from a personal trainer but feeling unable to get help with public speaking or career development.
In these cases then often there is a different set of beliefs for different areas of life. In the areas of life where people feel able to ask for help or get support they understand them as areas in which they can grow and/or there is no social stigma to getting help there. In the areas where they feel unable to, there is often a belief that things are innately fixed here and no amount of outside influence will change things.
Feeling unworthy of help
Some do realise that help is available, but they don't feel worthy of receiving it and so do not seek it. Often people with this belief minimise their own needs and feel that other people’s needs and suffering are more important than their own. They can feel that their problems aren't worth addressing until others problems are resolved. Frequently they will spend a lot of time trying to help other people with their problems, usually getting very frustrated in the process but neglect supporting the one person they actually have control over; themselves.
Where do these beliefs come from?
It can appear that sometimes our beliefs don't make much sense or that they don't serve us very well but we still hold to them closely. So why is this?
Many of the beliefs that we hold are not our own but come from the environment we are in, as well as the environment we grew up in. We are constantly bombarded with messages about how we should be, what we should think along with what we shouldn’t be, do and believe. Some of these messages are very obvious, many are far more subtle and out of our awareness. These messages are swallowed by us without us really processing if this something we agree with and want to live by. We do this partly because we are social creatures and learn from what is around us. At times we have to adapt to the rules and norms of our environment out of necessity. It would be exhausting and very time consuming to fully process every idea and belief we were ever exposed to.
There are advantages at times to accepting ideas without necessarily taking the time to process them and see if this is something we want to live by. An example of this would be if I went driving in America, it would be in my best interests to accept that driving on the right hand side of the road is the appropriate thing to do, regardless of what I may feel on the merits of driving on the left! The disadvantage is that we may take on beliefs that later in life or in different environments don't serve us well.
If we look at our culture in the West then, a lot of our values and the norms of our society emphasises individualism, self-reliance, strength, and independence. These aspects aren’t inherently right or wrong but sometimes the ways that they can be interpreted can lead people to act in ways that aren't good for them or for society as a whole. There are a lot of stories and cultural narratives that come with our culture such as “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and the idea that “anything is possible if you just try hard enough!” that can be interpreted by people to reject the role of seeking help in support in order to grow as a person.
Individuals might form beliefs around asking for help as a result from the experiences they had as well as the environments they grew up in. For example, a child that asked for help or support either from a parent or other authority figure like a teacher and received an unhelpful response, or one that led to them being punished, could easily lead to a negative association being made to the process of asking for help. The severity of this would depend on the experience and how often this occurred.
As human beings we are highly adaptable to our environments to protect ourselves and ensure our survival. One way a child might adapt to such an environment would be to stop asking for help. This might have been necessary to survive in that environment but if this adaptation to an environment becomes a fixed way of responding to all situations, in later life in more supportive environments it can lead to individuals not seeking help, even though it is what they may need and it is available.
A different way of looking at seeking help
If our beliefs and learnt behaviours are what prevent us from taking the actions we need to grow and develop as humans, the good news is that we can unlearn them and adopt new ones that better fit us and how we want to live our lives. To start this process, one way would be to acknowledge and develop your awareness of what your beliefs currently are. One way to do this would be to take some time to write down and consider what comes up for you in terms of thoughts, emotions and beliefs when you think of asking for help. Once you start to collect your thoughts, emotions and beliefs you can start to chew over in your mind if these thoughts and beliefs are really yours, are they serving you and do you want to hold on to them?
You might also want to consider reframing some of the beliefs you might have around asking for help. Here are some ideas to consider.
Seeing getting help as a sign of strength
There is nothing in itself wrong with wanting to be strong. The trouble lies with how what to be strong or to be self-reliant is understood and when this need to be strong stops us taking action to help ourselves. Unfortunately many see that asking for help or seeking support is not a sign of strength but a sign of weakness and not something strong people do. And yet the irony is that asking for help is often an act of great courage and bravery. People who will seek help and feedback from others and use this knowledge to learn and grow are generally the people who are successful, live meaningful lives, are grounded in reality and for whom many would see as ‘strong’ people. They understand that seeking help when they are stuck allows them to be strong. If they were to rely only on themselves, they might get so far, but there is a limit to what anyone can achieve, learn, do and reach on their own.
Accepting our interdependence with one another
The idea that we are separate from our environment, totally independent and completely self sufficient might make for interesting stories but in reality is untrue. Unless you survive on your own on a desert island, which most people wouldn't be able to do, you already rely upon others for the food you eat, the products you consume, the electricity and gas in your house, the security of the peace we live in amongst countless other things. Our whole society is built on the understanding that we can only survive and prosper through working together and supporting one another. Part of successfully working together with other people is being able to recognise when we need support so that we can grow and develop our abilities and range of skills.
This is not to say that we should not take responsibility for ourselves or become unnecessarily dependent upon others. It is to recognise the limits of our influence and power and to work with others where it can benefit all.
Asking for help as an act of self-responsibility
One helpful reframe is to see asking for help as a way of taking responsibility for your life rather than it being an act of dependency. Getting support for something that is a problem or you are finding difficult is a way of being proactive rather than passive. Often when we don't ask for help with a problem or when we are stuck with something we can end up becoming more dependent upon others which can create resentment in them and lead to conflicts that would have been avoidable.
I witnessed an example of this in an old job I had where one member of staff would repeatedly interrupt other members of staff during their work to get them to use some software she didn’t know how to use. This happened time and time again with the same problem and it created a lot of disruption and frustration with those staff being interrupted. If that person had instead asked for help from someone so that they could learn how to use that software they would have taken responsibility for their knowledge gap there. That would have reduced their dependency upon others and ended the interruptions and frustration the other staff experienced.
Recognising and respecting your own needs and boundaries
Part of being able to ask for help appropriately and effectively is realising that we are only human and we all have limitations and personal boundaries. We need to know where these are for us. Cultivating your awareness around your limits and boundaries will increase your ability to know what is within and outside of your control and where outside assistance can help you grow and develop.
For those who don't feel worthy of help or repeatedly sacrifice their own needs for others, could greatly benefit from prioritising their own needs. Often when we find ourselves repeatedly helping others and neglect our own selves we are subconsciously projecting that desire of being helped onto other people with the hope that someone in turn will help us. Unfortunately such a projection robs us of much of our own agency and power.
One way to help with this is to recognise that we all have a personal responsibility to make sure our own needs are met and at times part of meeting that responsibility will be seeking help when we are stuck.
How counselling can help
If you find it difficult to seek help or support and would like to change this, counselling can be a way of supporting you through this. Counselling can help by developing your awareness of what your needs are so that you are more in tune with yourself. It can also be helpful in working with shame and self worth and help you feel more self-accepting and provide a space for you to explore your beliefs and experiment with trying new ways of being and making sense of things that may better suit your life.
Currently I am offering counselling sessions over the phone and online using webcam. If you are interested in finding out more about counselling or booking an initial counselling session email me at email@example.com or call or text me on 07480 441993.