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How to Ask for Help

Asking for help seems simple enough, but if you’ve ever needed a hand, you know how hard it can be.  Clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains why it’s so challenging and shows you how it’s done.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
January 21, 2014
Episode #001

Page 2 of 2

Remind yourself of this:  In a study of gratitude and indebtedness in couples, Dr. Sara Algoe and colleagues at UCLA found that responding to little favors with gratitude—not a sense of indebtedness—was associated with relationship connection and satisfaction for both the helper and the helped.  The researchers called gratitude a “booster shot” for the relationship.

Then, try this:  First, before asking for help, consider both yourself and your helper.  If your potential helper has a history of using guilt and obligation to manipulate you, seek out a different helper.  Help given reluctantly and with strings creates a debt.  Help given freely and with joy is a gift. 

Next, assuming your request for help is fulfilled, shift your feelings from one of indebtedness (“I owe her!”) to one of gratitude (“That was so nice of her!”).  You’ll know you’ve gotten it right if you feel inspired, not required, to give her a thoughtful gift in return.  When you’re on the receiving end of a favor, simply say: “Thank you!  I really appreciate that.”

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Reason #4: Fear of appearing weak.  Or fear of appearing needy, incompetent, broken, incapable, stupid--take your pick.  Regardless, worry that we’ll appear less-than is the most common roadblock to asking for help. 

Remind yourself of this:  In your own head, remind yourself that having someone to ask means you’re supported and connected.  Reframe your problem as an opportunity to consult with an expert and reframe yourself as a savvy fixer using the best tools available.

Then, try this: Match the request with someone you consider an expert.  Perhaps your cousin recently underwent a breast biopsy and can coach you through the mammogram you’ve been avoiding.  Maybe your neighbor’s middle school whiz kid can help you improve your terrible website.  In any case, ask for help as if you’re inquiring about expert instruction; they’ll take it as a compliment.  Try this: “I remember the last time you looked for a job, you got lots of interviews right away. You must have a magic touch.  Writing my cover letter is driving me crazy.  Would you mind looking at my draft and giving me some pointers?”  Other helpful phrases include:  “Can you show me?”  “Can I pick your brain?”  “Can I get your perspective on something?” and “It’s been a long time since I’ve done this; can you give me a refresher?”

***

Reason #5: Fear of rejection.  Once burned, twice shy?  Did someone say no when you really needed it?  If you’ve made yourself vulnerable and were met with a metaphorical slap in the face, it makes perfect sense why you’re reluctant to try again. 

Remind yourself of this: First, look at your previous rejection another way: does their refusal to help say more about you or more about them?  Some folks aren’t great at reading social scenarios.  Some get scared.  Others are, unfortunately, self-centered.  Regardless, your potential helper’s own issues may have tripped up the situation, not necessarily yours.  Don’t give up so easily.  Assuming your request is reasonable, try again with someone else.

Then, the next time you have to ask for help, de-catastrophize.  Pretend your fear comes true and your potential helper does say no.  How bad is that?  What’s the worst that can happen?  A "no" probably does nothing more than keep you in the position you’re in.

Then, try this: If you’re still worried about the possibility of rejection, say so to diffuse your own tension.  Any reasonable person will get the message and handle you with care.  For example, try this: “I’m hesitant to bring this up, but I was wondering if I could ask you a favor?”

Asking for help is hard, but so are most things worth doing.  Bottom line: give graciously and receive graciously.  Consider it karma.  Consider it paying it forward.  Consider it takes a village.  In any case, consider it smart. 

References

Algoe SB, Gable SL, Maisel NC.  (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships.  Personal Relationships, 17, 217-233.

Jacobson N & Christensen A.  (1996).  Acceptance and change in couple therapy: A therapist’s guide to transforming relationships.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Moll J, Krueger F, Zahn R, Pardini M, de Oliveira-Souza R, Grafman J.  (2006). Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 103, 15623-8.

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Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine.  Ellen graduated from Brown University, earned her Ph.D. at UCLA, and completed her training at Harvard Medical School.  In her clinic, she treats everything from depression to trauma to panic, but she has a special place in her heart for anxiety disorders.  Ellen is also an active research scientist and develops therapy programs for individuals and families living with chronic illness.  She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons, ages 5 and 2.    

Can you help image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions.   

 

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