How To Start Asking for Help When You’ve Never Done It

Learn how to ask for help, even if you’ve never done it (photo credit: Gustavo Fring).

I somehow grew up with the notion that asking for help was not okay. In fact, I was the giver of help, not the receiver. It felt like a duty. When I got into 12 step recovery, one of the most important lessons I learned was to reach out for help from others. The process of learning how to do this, and why it wasn’t an option before, was very enlightening. I hope that reading this will enable you to start asking for help, or asking for help more often.

Reaching out for help is not that easy.

One might think that learning to ask for help is as simple as deciding to do it, then doing it. But if you were socialized to not ask for help, it’s not that simple. I was someone who helped others. In fact, you might say I “rescued” others (though I did plenty of just plain “helping” too!). Some of this stemmed from the patterns of codependency I developed in my family of origin.

For me, the process went something like this: First I had to believe that it was okay to ask for help. In fact, it’s quite beneficial. Then I had to learn how to ask for help and from who. Then I had to practice. Practice, practice, practice. As I continued to practice and got positive reinforcement for doing so, it became a habit.

Types of help.

There are a couple of different kinds of help I’ll be discussing here. One is emotional support. This is where I was absolutely incapable of seeking help before recovery. The other is what I’ll call “concrete help.” This includes things like what to do, who to call, what resource to use. For me, reaching out for help started with learning to seek emotional support. My ability to reach out for that kind of help expanded into asking for concrete help. Though I’ll be talking primarily about reaching out for help on emotional issues, the principles are the same for concrete help.

Why we believe reaching out for help is not okay.

There seems to be a pervasive notion in our culture that asking for help is somehow weak. First, this assumes that weakness is bad or wrong. It’s not. Weak is just weak. It’s not bad, wrong or a moral failing. Second, there also seems to be an assumption that we should have all the answers. This is especially true for people who have achieved a certain measure of success (in academics, finances, career or relationships). No one should be expected to have all the answers. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have. Wise people know how much they don’t know!

Seeking additional perspectives on an issue can be extremely helpful. Other perspectives bring more clarity. One of the reasons diversity in the workplace is so important is that multiple perspectives create processes and solutions that are effective in a wider range of scenarios. Such solutions are also likely to custom-fit the circumstances.

You may feel like you’re burdening others by asking for help. This may stem from the fact that you feel burdened by others asking for help from you. This was the case for me. Because I was a rescuer, and it felt like a duty to me, it also sometimes felt like a burden. However, if you’ve never asked for help, you are not likely to become a burden on others when you begin to ask for help. The fact that you are concerned about this shows that you’re not likely to overdo it once you start asking for help. Learning to ask who to reach out to will be helpful with this.

You may feel that if you ask for help that you’re letting go of control. You don’t have to accept the help or advice that you ask for! And if control is a real issue for you, this article might be helpful.

Not reaching out for help is not working!

For many of us, especially those in recovery, not reaching out to ask for help is not working! Our lives are unmanageable. Yet we continue to “go it alone” and try to figure things out for ourselves. For many of us, this is despite decades of evidence that we can’t “figure things out.”

Your pattern of self-reliance may have stemmed from negative reinforcement in your early years. If you reached out for help repeatedly and didn’t get it, or were ridiculed for it, you learned not to ask. That pattern probably followed you into our adult years.

If you’re someone who appears to be successful, you’ve been positively reinforced for being self-reliant. Before I got into recovery, I looked on the outside like I had my shit together. And in some respects, I did. But internally, I was a mess! There was not one area of my life that wasn’t dysfunctional. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I got into recovery. I had a high tolerance for chaos and dysfunction because it was “normal” to me, so things didn’t seem dysfunctional.

It is okay to reach out for help, in fact it’s quite beneficial.

The notion that asking for help is somehow a failure stems partially, or perhaps entirely, from this being an individualistic culture. We have myths about sheroes and heroes being people who go it alone. But there’s no one who has accomplished anything entirely on their own. Take eating as an example. You can’t get food without depending on those who came before you. Someone developed agriculture, food processing and distribution, as well as all the industries required to support the food industry. Even if you grow your own food, someone taught you how to do that.

Life is about learning and growing. We learn and grow more easily and quickly if we ask for help from others. This is why sponsorship is such an important part of 12 step recovery. This is why mentorship is such an important part of the business world. We learn from those who have gone before us.

As a reminder, I learned to ask for help in the context of 12 step recovery. The process I had to go through may have been more painstaking than the process you need to go through. I’m still going to outline that process here for those who have extreme difficulty asking for help like I did. If that’s not you, take what you want and leave the rest.

Who to ask for help.

I’m going to start with “who” to ask for help first because for me, that really mattered. I needed to start with safe people. By “safe” people, I mean people who were not going to ridicule me for asking for help. One of the reasons I learned not to reach out for help is that I was ridiculed for doing so as a child. It was assumed that there were many things I should know, and if I didn’t, I was somehow deficient. Saying, “I don’t know” was not an option. Mind you, this was passed on to me by those who had the same thing done to them. They didn’t know any different.

For someone who has never asked for help, choosing someone you’re comfortable with is most important. We’re making ourselves vulnerable in a way we never have. We need to be selective about who we’re willing to be vulnerable with, or we’ll never do it! Once you start getting used to asking for help it gets easier. Then “who” you ask won’t be quite as important. But to begin, your comfort with the person is more important than whether they’re the best person to help you.

Getting started is the hardest part.

When you’re first getting started reaching out for help, the act of asking is more important than getting the actual help. Of course getting help is important, that’s why you’re doing it. But beginning to do so is the hardest part. It needs to be as easy as possible or you’ll never begin! Starting with a “safe” person makes it much more likely that you’ll do it.

In 12 step recovery, we have a community of people to go to. This is one reason 12 step recovery works so well. There’s a built-in support network of people who have gone through, or are going through, the same thing as us. One of the keys to success in 12 step recovery is sponsorship. Sponsors are 12 step group members committed the program. You’re usually in safe hands when asking a sponsor for help. They volunteered to be a guide for others in recovery. They do this because someone did it for them, and it strengthens their recovery to work with others in recovery.

A common saying in recovery is “find someone who has what you want and ask how they got it.” This is good advice anywhere. Mentors are also typically good people to ask for help. If someone has offered to mentor you, they’ve volunteered to be there as a guide and a support. There’s no need to feel like a burden with such people.

My process of learning to ask for help.

The fact that I’m in 12 step recovery is very important to this story. It provides context for my process. There are still lessons to be learned here by those who are not and never will be in recovery.

Somehow I grew up with the notion that I had to do everything myself. That I wasn’t supposed to reach out to others to ask for help. It wasn’t an option for me. In fact, I was the helper, the fixer, the rescuer. God forbid I should tell somebody *I* needed help!

One of the things I’ve learned in recovery is that we are compulsive, obsessive and addictive in isolation, but we heal in community. We need connection. Humans are wired for connection. That means we need to reach out to others and connect. This includes asking for help.

Beginning was the hardest part.

The first time I did the 12 steps I did them in a group with three other women. At one point, one of us said to the group, “I was going to call one of you guys when I was really upset but I talked myself out of it.” We soon realized we all did that! Each of us would have the impulse to reach out (after we learned that was a thing that people do!) but then we’d talk ourselves out of it.

We decided to make a pact. The next time any of us wanted to reach out for help, we wouldn’t talk ourselves out of it. And then none of us reached out for help! Even though we made a pact to reach out, we still couldn’t do it! That is how difficult this can be. Eventually, we started reaching out to each other, but it took an enormous amount of effort to start. It took lots of practice for me before asking for help became customary. In fact, reaching out for help is my #2 most important tool of recovery (pausing being my #1 tool).

When I started thinking about reaching out for help, my thought was, “What are they gonna do anyway?” Let’s say I was crying. I’d think, “What are they gonna do?” What I’ve learned over time is that they don’t have to do anything but listen. What we need at such times is connection. We need to be connected to another human being when we’re upset.

Close up of woman with years in here eyes.
Learning to reach out for emotional support when you’re upset is transformative (photo credit: Luis Galvez).

When you’re learning to reach out for help, whether it’s for emotional support or concrete help, you’ll have to be willing to be a bit vulnerable. That was really what I was worried about, not what they we going to “do.” I can see now that I was afraid that they’d judge me. Getting over that fear was another important part of my recovery.

Personal insights from reaching out to others.

I learned that I had a whole bunch of negative subconscious thoughts about asking for help. I thought that asking for help meant that there was something wrong with me. That I was inherently flawed or completely broken or some other awful thing. I was afraid people would think I was needy or incompetent. Learning to care much less what others think of me and much more what I think about me has been extremely helpful. That is a topic for another essay!

The flip side is that I had ideas of my own superiority when I was being helpful to others. Coming to see such things about myself was painful, but necessary.

I also learned that courage is contagious. When I see others have the courage to ask for help, I feel courageous myself. And when I have the courage to reach out, that courage builds within me and it gets easier each time.

Coming out of isolation.

I also realized that I felt terribly alone. Recovery has taught me that I’m not alone. There are many others out there like me, struggling to learn to ask for help. Others who are isolating themselves in fear of being vulnerable with people. I had no idea how much I’d isolated myself until I started reaching out to others. I’ve also learned that help is awesome! I love help!

I realized that I don’t actually have to know everything. Of course I understood that intellectually, but now I really get it. And other people often have really good ideas! It’s an enormous relief to get other people’s perspectives. In my case none of this thinking was conscious. It was all below my consciousness.

Regardless of why we’re in recovery, everybody in recovery is really good at isolating. The things is, we simply can’t recover in isolation. If we could have, we would have! Most of us have tried f***ing everything before we came into recovery or we wouldn’t be there!

Another thing I learned about reaching out to other people is this — if I’m ruminating over my problems and can’t stop, I pick up the phone and call someone. I ask them how they’re doing. I also learned that if the person says, “I’m fine, how are you?” then I reply, “Actually I’m trying to get out of my own head right now. Tell me about you.” This takes the focus off my problems.

When I reach out regularly and stay connected to others while I’m doing well, then it’s infinitely easier to reach out when I’m not doing well. It’s like I’ve exercised and strengthened my reaching-out muscle.

Reaching out to a Higher Power.

I was a spiritual person and had my own notion of a Higher Power before I got into recovery. However, my spiritual life was nothing like it is now because of recovery. (Quick note for those not in recovery — it’s not necessary to believe in God to work the 12 steps of recovery. It’s only necessary to believe that there is some power out there that’s greater than you. It could be gravity, nature, spirals, the theory of evolution, anything that’s not you. All you have to believe is that there’s something greater than you so that you have something else besides yourself to rely on).

Back to me. My relationship with my Higher Power (HP) is absolutely key to my recovery. I reach out to my HP on a very consistent basis. Often it’s to ask for guidance. Or, I hand things over that I don’t know how to deal with. This includes things like frustration, anxiety, obsessive thoughts. I never did this before recovery, and it’s made my life so much more peaceful and serene.

Examples of times I reach out for help.

I reach out when…

  • I’m afraid
  • I don’t know what to do I
  • I’m concerned about someone
  • I have a simple or complex decision to make
  • I don’t know how to do something
  • I’m not sure where to go for help on something

It’s really amazing when I remember to ask for help. That’s the thing though — remembering. What helps me with remembering to reach out is the “pause” that I talked about in my last article. If I’m able to pause, then I can reach out to another person or my HP.

Results of reaching out for help.

There are scores of ways in which my life has become better and easier because of reaching out for help. Three ways in particular come to mind. The result of all of them is that I’m able to achieve a level of peace and serenity that I never knew before reaching out for help. It’s astonishing, really.

The first is that I can now cry on someone’s shoulder when I’m upset. That may not seem like much to many people, but to me it’s an enormous shift. I remember the first time I did it. I cried on someone’s shoulder and it felt like a large part of my grief was sucked out of me. I couldn’t explain it.

I’ve since learned that it’s common that our grief is diminished when shared. That one-time thing where I cried on someone’s shoulder has turned into something I’m easily able to do. I can actually sob and cry in someone else’s presence, which I was not capable of doing. I’ve heard that our joys are multiplied and grief is divided when shared, and that’s been my experience.

Another area where I’ve learned to reach out for help is what I’ll call “unsolvable problems.” A few weeks ago, I was presented with a dilemma by a dear friend. I had absolutely no idea how to handle the situation. The words, “I have no idea how to navigate this” came out of my mouth. In years past, that thought wouldn’t have even occurred to me. I certainly wouldn’t have said it out loud.

There were two things I did immediately after saying that to her. One was that I prayed to my HP for guidance, which provided an enormous amount of relief. The pressure I felt to know what to do was released immediately. The second was that I said, “I’m going to call my sponsor.” And I did. And she was extremely helpful. She helped me to put the situation into a much larger context and helped me focus on doing the right thing.

The third area where I’ve grown tremendously is in my business. As a solo-preneur, I can’t possibly handle every aspect of my business. I don’t have the skills, nor do I have the time. In years past, I wouldn’t have asked others to help me make decisions about my business. I would have tried to do it all on my own and burned myself out. Now, I pay coaches and others who have expertise in areas outside my zone of genius. In years past, I would have tried to go it on my own. Now I know, that doesn’t work. We’re meant to connect with others. We’re not meant to go it alone.

Recap of my process to learn to ask for help.

Many of us have been made to believe that asking for help is somehow wrong. The truth is that asking for help is smart. Getting other people’s perspectives leads to better solutions. The trick is learning how to ask and who to ask when you’re first starting to reach out for help. It pays to start with safe people to make it as easy as possible to begin, which is the hardest part. Safe people are those who are likely to support rather than ridicule you. Then you have to practice until it becomes a habit. Once it becomes a habit, it will be easier to ask the best person to help you, not necessarily the safest person.

If you like this article, you might need help with setting boundaries. If so, you might want to check out this page on my website that has a bunch of free resources for those who need help with setting boundaries.

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