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.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #1

Asking for help can turn the most self-assured, square-shouldered among us into a nail-biting mess.  We may cast about vague wishes to no one in particular, blame others for our woes, or procrastinate until our problem has become an emergency.  You’d think asking for help would be preferable to all this misery, but taking action is tough for almost everyone.

Here are 5 common reasons why we stay silent, along with strategies for how to get the help you need without swallowing your pride:

Reason #1: Fear of being a burden.  We worry that asking for help takes something away from our helper.  We assume our helper will view the task as an unwanted load.  Suspect this fear if you say to yourself, “She has better things to do,” or “He has so much on his plate already.”

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Remind yourself of this: First, people love helping.  Not only does helping strengthen social ties, it makes helpers feel good about themselves.  The most primitive part of the brain—the same reward pathway activated by food and sex—lights up in response to altruistic giving.  Graciously allow your helper to give you a gift of help (a gift you could really use); she or he will likely be delighted for the chance. And, if your helper is truly too busy or overburdened, trust him or her—just as graciously—to tell you so. 

Second, think how you’d feel if the tables were turned.  If a friend were in your shoes and asked you for help, how would you feel? Most likely, you’d feel flattered and happy to pitch in.  Trust that others will probably feel the same way.

Then, try this: Ask for something specific.  “I could use some help,” is fuzzy and borderless, but “I’ve been totally drained ever since I started that medication.  I could use a hand taking the garbage bins to the curb on Thursdays for garbage day and bringing them back in on Fridays,” is clear and well-defined.  However, steer clear of micromanaging.  If your helper agrees to take on your task, trust that she is competent and let her do the job.  Try something like: “I appreciate you asking if there’s anything you can do!  As a matter of fact, I’d love some help with laundry—it’s hard for me to lift the baskets since my surgery.  What timing works best for you?” 

Think how you’d feel if the tables were turned.  If a friend were in your shoes and asked you for help...Most likely, you’d feel flattered and happy to pitch in.  


Reason #2: Fear of admitting we’re out of control.  This fear is particularly common when we realize a long-ignored problem, nose-diving relationship, or hidden addiction is getting out of hand.  It feels like you’ve failed, or that you can’t handle it by yourself.

Remind yourself of this:  Sure, you could try by yourself, but why would you want to?  Sometimes control isn’t the right approach.  For example, you can’t stop a wave, but you can surf it.  And surfing, we can agree, is better with a buddy.

Then, try this:  Think about your problem as if it were an actual object separate from yourself.  Then, picture you and your helper teaming up against the problem.  Pull a Clint Eastwood and imagine the problem sitting in an empty chair.  The problem is no longer “you” or “me,” but a rampant, raging “it.”  Call the problem “it” when you discuss it together.  This is called unified detachment, a couples therapy technique pioneered by Dr. Andrew Christensen at UCLA and the late Dr. Neil S. Jacobson of the University of Washington.  Try this:  “This credit card debt really needs to get fixed before it screws up our lives even more.  It’s taken on a life of its own.  Can we chip away at it together?” Then get on over to Money Girl, who can help you fix any financial mess.


Reason #3: Fear of owing a favor.  Most of us don’t like to feel indebted.  It cools our response to a helpful favor and makes us uncomfortable, as if our helper has one up on us.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.