Why is it difficult to ask people for help?


Many of us have difficulty in asking people for help. It does not matter whether we are at work, at home, or at a fund-raising event, asking help from others drains much mental energy and makes us even feel guilty many a times.

Amanda Palmer in her book The Art of Asking addresses this problem by sharing her experiences on asking, connection, and trust. The book is about getting uncomfortably close to vulnerability. Moreover, uncomfortably close is exactly where we need to be if we want to transform this culture of scarcity and fundamental distrust. Amanda makes us see into those parts of the humanity that need to be seen the most.

She begins by saying asking is the basic building block of any relationship since almost every significant human encounter boils down to the act and art of asking. Still, asking is tough even though others are willing to give. Why?

It is not so much the act of asking that paralyzes us—it is what lies beneath – the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak. The fear of being seen as a burdensome member of the community instead of a productive one.

American culture, in particular, has instilled in us the bizarre notion that to ask for help amounts to an admission of failure. However, some of the most powerful, successful, admired people in the world seem, to me, to have something in common: they invariably ask, creatively, compassionately, and gracefully. Moreover, to be sure: when you ask, there’s always the possibility of a no on the other side of the request. If we allow for that no, we are not asking; we are either begging or demanding. However, it is the fear of the no that keeps so many of our mouths sewn tightly shut. Often it is our sense that we are undeserving of help that has immobilized us. Whether it is in the arts, at work, or in our relationships, we often resist asking not only because we are afraid of rejection that because we do not even think we deserve what we are asking for. We have to believe indeed in the validity of what we are asking for—which can be incredibly hard work and requires a tightrope walk above the doom-valley of arrogance and entitlement. Moreover, even after finding that balance, how we ask, and how we receive the answer—allowing, even embracing no—is just as important as finding that feeling of validness.

According to Brene Brown, the perception that vulnerability is a weakness is the most widely accepted myth about vulnerability and the most dangerous. When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable or from being perceived as too emotional, we feel contempt when others are less capable or willing to mask feelings, suck it up, and soldier on. We’ve come to the point where, rather than respecting and appreciating the courage and daring behind vulnerability, we let our fear and discomfort become judgment and criticism.

Following this logic, we can assume that the likelihood of someone yelling GET A JOB from their passing car is indirectly proportionate to their crippling fear of getting up on the figurative box themselves. Alternatively, to strip it down to its essence: Hate is fear.

At its core, asking is collaboration. Just like mastering music, and painting, asking can also, be learned, studied, perfected, and improvised.

Asking thrives not in the creation of rules and etiquette but in the smashing of that etiquette. Which is to say: there are no rules. Alternatively, rather, there are plenty of rules, but they ask, on bended knees, to be broken.

The surgeon knows that her work is creative work. A machine cannot do it because it requires human delicacy and decision making. It cannot be done by an automaton because it requires critical thinking and a good dose of winging-it-ness. Her work requires a balance of self-confidence and collaboration, a blend of intuition and improvisation. If the surgeon, while slicing that vulnerable brain, hits an unexpected bump in the process and needs to ask the person beside her for something essential—and quickly—she has absolutely no time to waste on questions like:

Do I deserve to ask for this help? Is this person I am asking trustworthy? Am I an asshole for having the power to ask at this moment? She only accepts her position, asks without shame, gets the right scalpel, and keeps cutting. Something larger is at stake. This holds true for firefighters, airline pilots, and lifeguards, but it also holds true for artists, scientists, teachers—for anyone, in any relationship. Those who can ask without shame are viewing themselves in collaboration with—rather than in competition with—the world. Asking for help with shame says: You have the power over me. Asking with condescension says: I have the power over you. However, asking for help with gratitude says: We have the authority to help each other.

We are almost asking for help always in some form. We often tell people ‘what’s the harm in asking.’ However, asking is not easy. Asking makes us feel ‘not enough’ and causes a sense of shame. We find it difficult to ask our real friends for a favor. We can request a raise at work but, we find it hard to ask for a hug. Why?

Brené Brown writes: In a 2011 study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, researchers found that, as far as the brain is concerned, physical pain and intense experiences of social rejection hurt in the same way…Neuroscience advances confirm what we’ve known all along: emotions can hurt and cause pain. Moreover, just as we often struggle to define physical pain, describing the emotional pain is difficult. Shame is particularly hard because it hates having words wrapped around it. It hates being spoken.

Musicians find it easy to ask people to pay for their work on behalf of a band. However, soloists find it hard to ask people to pay for their work. Why? Because the former feels legitimate while the latter feels selfish.

Sometimes, people just want to find their ways to help others but, unless we ask people for help, we may never know that.

By receiving from others, by letting them help you, you aid them to become bigger, more generous, more magnanimous. You do them a service…It is only because giving is so much associated with material things that receiving looks bad. It would be a terrible calamity for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever removed God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being…

Maria Popova, one of my favorite personalities on the web, leaves us with a brilliant food for thought as an afterword.

Such is the way of life indeed, but only if we are nursed on an early and steadfast security in asking: The hallmark of great parenting is unconditional love, in the warm embrace of which the child’s needs are met, often without having to even ask; and when she does ask, the parent doesn’t shame her for asking. In our judgmental black-and-white culture increasingly incapable of nuance, we might be tempted to dismiss this duality as a particular form of hypocrisy that discredits Thoreau’s creative legacy. However, make no mistake: it was, in fact, a unique form of wisdom that only adds to his genius—the wisdom of recognizing that the art of giving and the art of receiving are compatriots in the kingdom of creative culture, essential to each other’s survival.

The magic of our own era—2,500 years after the dawn of dāna and a century and a half after Thoreau and many decades after Miller and Nin and Stein—is that the average person probably interacts with more individuals in a single week, online and off, than the average Buddhist monk or transcendentalist philosopher or even socialite writer did over the course of a lifetime. In a sense, we are constantly reparented by one another, our needs incubated in the collective nest of culture. It’s magical, and also scary, but mostly magical to be able to ask complete strangers for those soul-nourishing donuts—and to be able to offer one another these allegorical donuts of dāna as we unlearn everything our transactional culture has taught us about “the market,” relearn our natural openhanded generosity, and slowly remaster the art of not-having-to-ask.