I was dumped by my boyfriend in my mid-twenties while living in New Jersey with a close friend from high school. I turned to her for support. She was there for me the way Charlotte was there for Carrie after Mr. Big stood her up on their wedding day. She sat at my bedside when I cried. She did all the household chores, and despite her disdain for grocery shopping, she did all of that too, so I had time to heal.
Just as Carrie came back to life in Mexico on what would have been her honeymoon, I too returned to myself–and the cleaning and grocery shopping. I did so with a deep appreciation for the support my friend gave me after the certainty of my future was wiped away like a layer of dust from the shelf.
We were still living together a few years later when I noticed she had stopped sitting at the kitchen table as I chopped vegetables for chicken stir fry. Instead, she’d walk in the door after work, rush by me–Louis Vuitton tote on her shoulder–and bound up the stairs closing her bedroom door decisively behind her.
I had no idea what was wrong and asking her wasn’t getting me anywhere. This went on for weeks until one evening she emerged from her room. She wasn’t in the armor of her designer clothes but in the red and black plaid, fleece pajamas she wore when we used to sit on the couch to watch “NYPD Blue.” She confided that she and her boyfriend of nine years had broken up. That’s what was driving her to her room every night: the same pain that sent me to my bed, tears wetting my pillowcase. The difference was I had her quiet, calming presence in those moments while she stifled the sound of her crying behind a closed door.
Now the door was open, I tried to return the kindness and compassion I’d received, but I felt confusion and a smidge of resentment. Why didn’t she allow me to be there for her as she was there for me?
What I couldn’t understand in that moment I came to understand later. This wasn’t about me. It was about her inability to ask for help.
Couples therapist Esther Perel joined organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s podcast “WorkLife” to discuss a topic of interest to both of them: relationships at work. Grant’s research is focused on the workplace and although Perel supports couples in crisis, she understands her relationship expertise is invaluable in professional settings too.
During their discussion, they landed on the subject of this blog post: asking for help. They have divergent relationships with the act of asking for help. Grant’s is a more familiar reaction. He talks openly about his discomfort with it. He seems to view asking for help as a failure and a weakness.
Perel sees it very differently.
A Healthy Relationship with Asking for Help
When Esther Perel is asked to do something new or unfamiliar, her first thought is, “Who can I ask to help me with this?” She doesn’t see it as a badge of honor to toil away on her own. It’s more efficient to ask someone with expertise rather than stumbling around in the darkness for bragging rights that she did it alone.
What is most striking is the obvious ease Perel has with the act of asking for help. She loses no energy to it. She doesn’t associate the act with weakness or failure, or success or strength for that matter. It’s simply a pragmatic and efficient means of accomplishing her goals, gaining emotional support, or both.
Beyond her comfort with asking is her complete detachment from the answer she receives. If the person she asks for help can’t provide it–or chooses not to–she moves on without grievance or embarrassment. Similarly, when she is asked for help, she responds in kind. If she can help, she does. She doesn’t feel obligated or imposed upon. If she can’t, she declines without guilt or remorse.
That, my friends, is a healthy relationship with asking for help.
Maverick or Martyr?
Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated for many of us, including Grant and my friend from high school. Perel attributes some of the difficulty to culture and upbringing. In her words, “I fundamentally understand that I depend on others. My two parents are sole survivors of five years in concentration camps. They lost their entire family, and boy did they never think that they survived on their own. This notion of self-made never existed for us. I believe in the communal structure, and I depend on a lot of people for a lot of things.”
American culture is highly individualistic. While patently false and at odds with human survival and psychology, many Americans believe they need to go it alone which gets in the way of their willingness to ask for help. It’s both unhelpful and unhealthy to buy into that myth but many do.
Often, these are the same people who give tirelessly to others. While that sounds charitable, it is ill-advised. If all we do is give–without the balance of being on the receiving end from time to time–we end up feeling both depleted and resentful. Giving to someone and then resenting them for it is not charitable. It’s martyrdom. Sure, we can blame them for asking, but what if we pointed a finger in the other direction–back at ourselves–and ask why we aren’t setting healthy, self-respecting boundaries?
The reasons people sign up for one-directional giving differ. Some are propelled by religious beliefs that espouse they need to live in service to others. Others derive a sense of competence, or even superiority, by creating a narrative they don’t have needs of their own. They simply help fulfill the needs of others.
The Pitfalls of One-Directional Giving
Whatever the reason is, it’s important to acknowledge the pitfalls of this way of being in the world. Being a one-directional giver assures you’ll attract takers. You may wonder why everyone around you is so comfortable constantly withdrawing without ever making deposits. Again, you need to look at yourself.
Something all those takers have in common is a relationship with you. One-directional givers are the yin to a taker’s yang because people who desire more reciprocity in their relationships will be frustrated by one-directional givers’ unwillingness to ask for or accept support.
You know how good it can feel to help others? One-directional givers deny those around them from feeling that sense of reward. They tell themselves they don’t want to burden others by asking for anything, but many humans are wired to give. If we weren’t, there wouldn’t be volunteers or charitable donations. In a way, you are taking from others when you don’t let them give to you.
That’s how I felt in my mid-twenties when my friend didn’t allow me to support her as she had supported me. In the moment, I felt nurtured by her generosity, but when I was on the other side of her closed door, unable to give back the care I had received, my relationship with her support changed. I felt like a taker, and as someone naturally wired towards giving, it felt–for lack of a better word–icky.
The ability to ask for help has a multitude of benefits. It can protect you from anger, resentment, and burnout. It can strengthen your relationships by fostering reciprocity and cooperation. And it helps you save time and aggravation by allowing you to efficiently draw on the knowledge and expertise of others.
Thomas Edison said, “I regard it as a criminal waste of time to go through the slow and painful ordeal of ascertaining things for one’s self if these same things have already been ascertained and made available by others.” Said another way, there is no point in reinventing the light bulb.
I challenge you to consider where you could benefit from some help:
- Are you going through a difficult time and need a supportive ear?
- Are you trying to break into a new organization where a colleague could make an important connection?
- Do you know someone with expertise in an area where you are struggling?
Follow Esther Perel’s lead. Ask yourself, Who can help me with this? Then ask for their help.