How to ask for help (and why it's important for your emotional health)
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
Yesterday my daughter went into school feeling nervous about ‘percentages’. She had struggled with her homework and was anxious about her maths test. She came home having got a much lower score than she usually managed, yet she seemed bouncy and happy.
Well, normally she struggles to ask for help (hmm, do you relate to this?!) but had bitten the bullet and approached the teacher before the start of lessons to tell him she didn’t understand this topic and needed it re-explained. The teacher was really chuffed that she’d reached out for help, had booked a time in the lunch break to talk her through it and had given her two raffle tickets for the class jar (they get a prize when they’ve filled it).
What gets in the way of asking for help
I see this in my therapy practice all the time, people struggling with a genuine challenge but feeling unable to ask a friend or professional for support. Here are some common reasons why:
1) You feel ashamed
2) You fear rejection
3) You fear negative judgment (leads to the two above)
4) You believe you ‘should’ be able to do stuff by yourself and so you keep quiet about things you find challenging and are hard on yourself.
5) Comparisonitis – pesky thoughts where you compare yourself to others and think they are better than you
What’s going on?
What I want you to know is that it isn’t your fault if you struggle with the above issues.
One of the reasons is because the cultural norm when you were little was something called fixed-mindset. This is the idea that success or knowledge is a fixed trait rather than one that is gained through practice and connection. In a fixed-mindset, success is the biggest prize, which means you learnt to hide the struggles going on underneath.
On the other hand growth-mindset is the idea that knowledge and skills are gained through practice and persistence. So teachers subscribing to this will praise the process of learning rather than just the ‘right’ answer. Research shows that when we have a growth-mindset we are less likely to feel anxious when faced with a challenge and more likely to ask someone to show us.
When I learnt about growth-mindset a few years ago it blew my mind. During my studies I rarely raised my hand to answer questions because I was convinced others would know the ‘right’ answer and feared letting on I was confused by something, even though someone else inevitably asked the question I desperately wished to ask.
Important resources for developing growth-mindset
If you haven’t ever seen this short (10 min) TED talk by Carol Dweck then I highly recommend it. She explains all about it, an in particular a study into mindset that was the real turning point for me. Essentially when we have a fixed-mindset and are given a challenge our threat-brain kicks in rather than our learning brain, we feel anxious that we won’t be able to do it. Whereas those with a growth-mindset feel pumped at a challenge as they see it as an opportunity to learn something new.
She also gives a very simple way of tweaking how you speak to yourself and others when you haven’t achieved the outcome you are aiming for which is to add the word ‘yet’ on the sentence. Think how different these two phrases feel:
I cannot do percentages.
I cannot do percentages yet.
When I asked my daughter this she told me the first one made her feel like she’d never be able to do percentages, the second one made her feel like she would be able to learn how. This is why Dweck's TED talk is called the Power of Yet!
Another great resource to help you start adopting growth mindset is Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail podcast, where she interviews people we view as successful to help us understand all the learning points they took from ‘failures’ before they got to where they are now.
The impact of neglect or abuse on fixed mindset
Neglect, abuse or attachment trauma leads to a lot of fear and shame. Parenting strategies in situations like this tend to be more punitive and punishing of mistakes, parents may struggle to show patience and willingness to teach. Understandably we try to cope with this with strategies like:
2) working very hard to get things right the first time to avoid criticism
4) pretending we are fine when we are not
5) trying to be independent
None of these marry up well with asking for help so this can become your default coping into adulthood too.
Moreover, these types of experiences will have chipped away at your self-esteem so any challenges are likely to trigger a long-standing negative self-belief such as "I'm stupid" or "I'm bad" which is another layer of your psychology that therapy can support you with.
The impact of parents who are over-achievers
Some people I work with don’t identify with difficult early life experiences, and in fact report the opposite – very committed parents who encouraged achievement in academia, sporting or music. Perhaps they themselves were high achievers too and spent a lot of time working hard. The implicit message here is that success is the goal and often there’s little emphasis on enjoying the process or praise given to the hours spent trying.
This again means that it feels unacceptable to show that you don’t know. You want to skip the learning part and get to the end result as quickly as possible as there lies the praise from your parents that you crave.
How to get improve your confidence around this
Start small. You’re trying something different which means that you’re going to feel uncomfortable. So to tolerate the discomfort you should start with something really small. Some ideas might be asking someone to re-explain something to you; adding ‘yet’ every time you tell yourself you can’t do something; or deliberately setting out to make a mistake in a small way to see how it feels e.g. leaving the raising agent out of the next cake you bake?
You can extend this into asking for practical help too. For example, if you know your friend is picking up their kids from the same club yours do why not suggest a reciprocal collection arrangement?
Why is this important?
When we ask for support or give ourselves permission to get things 'wrong' we stop making our lives small and start to give ourselves opportunities for growth. We also connect to others and are less likely to feel alone. Over time this will improve your self-esteem as you begin to see that you're not the only one who finds things in life tricky. It can also reduce procrastination and overthinking as you are willing to give things a go, and learn and tweak as you go rather than waiting for things to be perfect before you get off the starting block.
I'll leave you with this quote which has helped me with this, write it down and stick it somewhere you can see every day: "imperfect action is better than perfect inaction" (by Harry S. Truman)
Go watch the TED talk I recommended or download the How to Fail podcast and plan how to practice asking for help.
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