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Asking for help can be awkward. But it doesn’t have to be.

by Jeremy Deaton

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“If you ever need anything—any time of day or night—just call. I’m here for you.”

Anytime I’ve said that, I’ve meant it. But, anytime someone has said it to me, I’ve doubted their sincerity. It can be difficult to believe that people really want to help, and that can it make it even trickier to ask for it.

During moments of doubt, we can remind ourselves that our colleagues, friends, and loved ones are human, too. And sometimes, they need a shoulder to cry on.

Asking for help can feel like an imposition. We may not want to burden our peers—busy people with kids, spouses, jobs, and problems of their own. We might worry that we won’t be able to return the favor. Humans are hardwired for reciprocity, and it can be difficult to ask for something if you have nothing to offer in return.

But most of all, it can be tough to make ourselves vulnerable.

A request for help may feel like a sign of weakness—we generally avoid seeming inadequate, incompetent, or needy. Americans, in particular, place a premium on self-reliance, and it can be difficult to overcome the pressure to go it alone.

Experts suggest shifting perspective. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, gave a TED talk on vulnerability, in which she said, “vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” [Editor’s Note: To hear how we changed perspective, listen to the Packcast on Change.]

Brown urges parents to teach their kids, “You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” We can bring this lesson to bear in our own lives, too. Rather than viewing vulnerability as a marker of weakness, we can choose to see it as a sign of strength. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help, which is a fact we often recognize in others before ourselves.

When a friend reaches out to you, do you refuse to help, or greet them with open arms? Your loved ones are equally sincere when they offer up support. As Charlie Chaplin said in his oft-quoted speech at the end of “The Great Dictator”, “We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.”

If we stay silent or refuse to ask for help, we contribute to a culture of isolation and perpetuate patterns of avoiding vulnerability. When we ask for help, we give others permission to do the same. By practicing reaching out when you need a shoulder to lean on, you can help transform the culture toward openness and generosity.

This skill has applications beyond personal life. Business leaders prefer employees who feel comfortable asking for help. Companies work more efficiently when employees collaborate and share responsibilities. Organizations benefit when members seek the aid of more knowledgeable colleagues.

In the words of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “We’re all imperfect, and we all have needs. The weak usually do not ask for help, so they stay weak. If we recognize that we are imperfect, we will ask for help, and we will pray for the guidance necessary to bring positive results to whatever we are doing.”


Artwork by CHRIS MARKLAND

Jeremy Deaton

By day, Jeremy writes about climate and energy for Nexus Media. His work has appeared on Popular Science, Business Insider, ThinkProgress, and Grist. By night, he is a recovering musician, avid runner, and guacamole connoisseur. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.

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