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Do you struggle to ask for help?

During the Covid lockdown I started doing the shopping for some neighbours who were isolating because they’re immunocompromised. I’d volunteered to be a Helper through my local council, who paired us up – it was just coincidence that we happened to live two doors away from each other. We’d waved and smiled as we went past, but never spoken before.

They were hugely grateful for everything I did. If I couldn’t get something on their list they’d be almost embarrassingly pleased that I’d got everything else. Every week they’d ask if it was ok for me to do it this week and it’s no problem if I couldn’t. Once they rang me to ask if I could possibly post a letter for them as well. There’s a post box in Tesco so it wasn’t a challenge, but they still asked.

The thing was, I was going to Tesco every week for myself anyway and it took hardly any more time to get their shopping at the same time. And my clinic was closed so it wasn’t as though I had anywhere else to be. Grocery shopping was the highlight of my week for a while and as someone who has made a career out of helping people, I was also very happy to be able to do them that small service.

After I’d been doing their shopping for about 6 weeks I was chatting to them and they said the hardest thing they’d found about the whole Covid thing was having to ask for help, because they never have before. They’re both in their 70s (although I’d have put them nearer 60), so that’s a long time to be independent.

That got me thinking. I’ve always been pretty independent myself, and rather than ask for help I’d spend hours trying to work out for myself how to do something – or just avoid doing it altogether. I’d climb on the furniture rather than ask my much taller husband to reach something for me. I’d directly disobey instructions from my managers to work with other people because it meant admitting I didn’t know something. (Incidentally this is not good for your career).

There are advantages to this, particularly if you live on your own. It’s often quicker and easier (and sometimes cheaper) to do something yourself than ask someone else to do it, and you know it’s going to get done the way you want it done. I have learned not to ask my husband to hang laundry, because he has no concept of pegging things out straight and everything ends up a very strange shape. You never know when you might end up having to do something for yourself, so it’s no bad thing to know that you can. I’m a firm believer in everyone knowing how to change a wheel, rewire a plug and unclog the sink. And you get a sense of satisfaction when you do something for the first time and it comes out well. There’s a set of shelves on my wall that I put up using all the proper power tools, much to my husband’s amazement, and I feel good about myself every time I look at them. Not least because I have in the past been known to put shelves up using Blu-Tac. This is all well and good (well, not the Blu-Tac) but like anything that has two sides to it, in other words like everything, it can be taken to extremes.

I’ve fallen off things trying to reach high cupboards. I’ve broken things trying to complete DIY tasks that I didn’t know how to do, or lift things that were really far too heavy for me. I’ve spent a lot of time working out how to do something, badly, that someone else could have shown me how to do – or done themselves – in mere minutes. And I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘Why didn’t you just ask me?’ a lot of times.

It’s even worse when your reluctance to be helped extends to preventing people from helping you when they’re actually offering, or even trying, to do so. This makes you look ungrateful and can be very hurtful for the helper. Not good for your interpersonal relationships.

So why? Why don’t I – and millions of other people - just say ‘Can you give me a hand with this?’ I have a theory that it’s because of fear.

Fear of looking incompetent

Fear of admitting you don’t know or can’t do something

Fear of being a nuisance or a burden

Fear of being refused

Fear of ‘owing a favour’

Fear of looking as though you can’t cope

Fear of losing independence

Fear of appearing lazy

Fear they’ll do it wrong

Any or all of these fears can be behind why you don’t like asking for help, whether it’s just a vague dislike or a pathological avoidance. For me, it was most of them!

What to do?

You can of course just carry on doing everything for yourself, and never asking for help from anyone. It’s a valid strategy that can serve you well – it’s worked for my neighbours for 70 years. The problem with that is when the time comes when you have to ask, (and it will) it will be very, very hard. This is why you get old people living in one room of their houses and using carrier bags as a toilet because they can’t get up the stairs any more. You see them on TV and think ‘why didn’t they just ask someone for help?’ Well, fear is why.

Assuming you don’t want to end up the sort of person who shits in a carrier bag, it might be a good idea to start training yourself now to ask for help when you don’t really need it, so you can do it easily when you do.

If your reluctance isn’t very strong you can probably just force yourself to do it, and discover that it’s actually not as hard as you thought it was.

If your reluctance is too strong for that, there is a longer and more time-consuming approach.

The first step is to work out why you’re afraid, and where that came from. My mother, who was fiercely independent, trained me from an early age to believe that you can’t rely on anyone but yourself. That was what her life experience had taught her. So for me, asking for help was like an admission of inadequacy as a human.

This stage can be hard.

The next step is to work out how to overcome that fear. This stage can be much harder.

Fear is a primal emotion and its purpose is to keep you alive, so it’s generally quite hard to ignore. It doesn’t matter that you’re unlikely to die as a result of asking someone to hand you cereal from the top shelf at the supermarket. As far as your brain is concerned that’s equivalent to playing chess in the outside lane of the M4. Your brain can have some very funny ideas sometimes.

It can be easier to start off by asking someone to help you with something you can do easily for yourself. This is because knowing you can do it, and knowing the person you’re asking knows you can, means you won’t feel as though you’re admitting some kind of weakness. So try asking your partner to pass the butter or your friend to carry your coffee to your table because your hands are full of shopping.

Another approach is to ask for help with something you couldn’t possibly be expected to do on your own, like carrying a double wardrobe up the stairs. You would have to be superhuman to do that. So you wouldn’t need to fear being judged on your inability to do it.

(By the way, I don’t advocate carrying double wardrobes up the stairs as an academic exercise in asking for help. Wait until you actually need one carried).

A third strategy is to bargain. ‘If you help me carry this wardrobe, I’ll help you build your shed’. This works if you know the other person has a specific need that they can’t manage on their own too. Just saying ‘and then I’ll owe you a favour’ can be too scary; partly because that very sense of obligation can weigh on someone emotionally, and partly because you don’t know what you might be asked to do in return and how willing or able you’ll be to do it.

If you know naturally helpful people, try hanging out with them. Sooner or later they’ll be unable to resist their natural helpfulness and will do something for you. Resist the urge to cry ‘I can manage, thank you!’ Note that they’re not carrying your coffee because they think you can’t carry it yourself (unless you have a disability that affects your ability to carry coffee, of course) but because it’s a natural thing to do for someone.

Consider how you feel about paying someone to do something for you, whether it’s clean your oven, service your car or rebuild your house. I’m not talking about how you feel about spending the money – it’s whether you’re comfortable paying someone to do something you could, or could not, do yourself. Is it different when you’re paying as against merely asking? If you go to a coffee shop you’ll carry your own beverage and snack to the table, but if you go to a restaurant someone will bring it to you. Is that ok? If it is, why, when your friend carrying it for you for nothing is an obligation?

Are you happy to help other people? There are a few people in the world who think nobody should ever ask for anything, but the chances are you aren’t one of them. (If you are, then that’s a different conversation we might have another time). So assuming you are willing to help others, whether or not you’re specifically asked, why would you assume nobody else is willing to help you?

And if none of those help, you can come and see me to work through your fears until you’re happily dependent on others like the rest of us.

If you have enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend.

Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If you would like to contact her in confidence you can reach her at or via her website at

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