Asking for Help

From the back seat, he coached me, “Mom, you should apologize to Dad”.

I had just finished snapping an abrupt and snappish response to the driver of the car, who was also, um, my husband. I knew what I had done was wrong, but I was more focused on being mad, defensive, and frustrated.  But then, given the prompt, I realize I’ve been a total heel, and so I did as I was told.

After 5 minutes of silence, another piece of advice: “Dad, you should accept Mom’s apology, cause that’ll make you both feel better”. So hubby does.

But the thing that saved me (well, realistically, us) was asking for help. I am aware at how short-fused I can be, and that I want to “use my words” rather than be snappish. So, I had asked my son for help a few days before this scene.

I told him that I can’t change something that I can’t really see. And because I hate this particular behavior I do, I tend to not acknowledge that I’m even doing it, to myself or anyone else. (For insight on this dynamic, just read Kathryn Schultz great, phenomenal book on Being Wrong.) So, I had asked if he could help me know when I did it… and he started pointing it out. Sometimes I get yelled at from across the room, sometimes he tugs at my sleeve to tell me I’m doing it, and several times, he’s come over and covered my mouth with his hands. As if to say, shhh to all this snappishness. All of this is his effort to help me. And it works pretty well. It gives me the immediate feedback I am looking for. And while I’m certainly not perfect — not nearly — around this snappishness issue, I’m certainly getting clearer when I am doing it so I can practice being more kind in my words, and especially, my tone.

It’s a funny thing, asking for help. I remember how I used to wish I “didn’t have to”. Doing so used to evoke a feeling for me of the many poor people in India, where I was born, with hands out. Asking for help was equivalent to being needy. And who wants to be needy? I thought of it for the longest time as a weakness with someone holding power over me as if I was in a cage and I needed them to set me free. Even worse, it evokes for me a sense of dependency on others.

Perhaps what limited in the past was that, back then, I felt the need to “prove something”. Or perhaps I was still unclear how to trust other people to care for my interests alongside their own. I know I used to give plenty of help but then “secretly” hope others would help back. Which is neither effective, nor upfront.

I don’t know how exactly my perspective changed, but life experiences have a way of doing that, don’t they? Asking for help can be a sign of great strength. Just in the act of naming something that I want to be better at, I am closer to my goal of attaining it. Asking for help creates this invitation to claim for myself that which is important, but it also adds a learning loop, which often brings with it a system of tools and measurements.

Instead of being dependent on others, asking for help is actually a way to say “we are interdependent”. It is saying that the system we have together (in this case a family but for sure this also relates to work dynamics also), is something we co-create. To ask for help brings people closer together because then “we” are working on a problem together. It builds trust amongst people actually because it shows a vulnerability. And that connects us a way that facts and the jockey of position does not. And to be quite frank, I am in need. I need help to learn and grow and become more the person I aspire to be…At work, I need to build and shape ideas so they can help us win in the marketplace. I do need others. And we need each other. That is how the world actually works.

So now, this is my truth: rather than doing alone that which I cannot do alone (you do see the irony of that, right?), I ask for help. Because I want to be better. Because I want to build bigger ideas. Because it is necessary in the end for growth.

And, I take the help when it is given, too. This seems worth pointing out explicitly. It is this delicious combination that I credit as key to almost all my forward motion.

I wonder if it’s the same for you? Do you ask for help? (enough?) Is there something you want to ask for help on now? Who would you ask it of?

6 Replies

  1. I appreciate, applaud, and admire your candor here! I’ve worked hard to learn how to ask for help in recent years and still struggle with feelings that I a) should be able to figure “it” out on my own; 2) that I won’t get the credit I deserve if I don’t do “it” on my own 3) that I’ll ” owe” those who help me; 4) that people will take advantage of me; and/or 5) that I won’t be able to clearly formulate the specific ways in which I need help. Now, having shared all these crazy thoughts, I confess that I love helping others however I can (sometimes even instead of seeking out help I need). In any event, this is the backdrop to my latest transition from graduate school to a new position (job plus other things) that capitalize on my talent and interests – yet it has been going more slowly than I thought. I have sought and received help, yet something is still missing in my process…..thanks to your post here for helping me face this issue square on.

    1. Ah, that is a great list of why many of us don’t ask for help. I’m sure other readers will see themselves in this story. Thanks for sharing. There was a piece of research I had read years ago that I wasn’t able to find for this post but it showed how relationships grew exponentially stronger if one asked the other for help.

  2. Nilofer, love it. I spent the day with thoughts about corporate cultures, status, openness to correction, and various similar ideas floating around in my head, then came upon this after work.

    Mitchell, thank you for the well-articulated points. I could echo it all, because you said it better than I would!

    We willingly help others because it gives us status, and we’re reluctant to ask for help because it takes away from ours; that is the usual paradigm. Not that it’s always the healthiest/most constructive.

    The best takaway for your kiddo, however, is not the status of correcting a parent, but seeing firsthand that 1) grownups aren’t perfect — though the example they set is important, and 2) the best of us are works in progress, striving for improvement at any age.

  3. Nilofer,

    I follow your posts to HELP me become better in managing myself 🙂
    Awesome post by the way.

    Relating this to my work place, since I joined my current work, lots of changes happened when it comes to asking for help. The time I joined he company, I was surrounded with senior workers with a culture that sees asking for help is a humility! As I grew up at work and became senior this has totally changed. Moat of the people senior by then either retired or promoted to different sections and we as a new generation replaced them. My newly promoted manager was surprised when he noticed the way we intreact now! We tend to ask for help among each other which boosted problem resolution because we are now sharing the knowledge instead of keeping it for ourselves!

    Asking for help is a must in great team buildup!


  4. I just found you today from your HBR article. I love your tone and insights. This particular post hits home as the reluctance to ask for help (b/c of ego in my case) caused my first professional failure. I wrote about it here:

    The challenge for organizations is to create an environment where not ALWAYS appearing competent and capable (in spite of reality) is a pre-requisite for advancement. The more humble an organization, the the more humble its leaders, the more focused on actual results it can be and therefore … successful.

  5. Dearest Nilofer,

    What a lovely post! I recently got a lesson in this area, too. My dad was very ill and, as only daughter, I was one of his primary caregivers. A good friend called me and said, “Did you ever see a movie called 28 Days? Sandra Bullock was in it. Her character was an alcoholic and on her first day of rehab, they gave her a sign that said, ‘If I don’t ask for help, confront me.’ I’m going to make you one of these signs.” What a gift that your sweet son is there to confront you, too, in the most loving of ways.

    With love,

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