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Accepting help

Like many of us, I’m spending too much time on twitter, so this week’s theme is inspired by a tweet:

Me: [Asks for help]

Everyone: Here! Let me help!

Me: No.

I’ll confess, I didn’t just come across the tweet this week (so I was paraphrasing as best I remembered), but it lingered in my mind.

Why is it so hard to accept help?

Ever since I was a teenager, I was usually the first person to say to all the people closest to me, “If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.” I’d say it early, and maybe say it too often, or I’d add a lot of specifics so they’d know I really mean it. (“It’s okay to call me at 3am! Just call twice, so it gets through Do Not Disturb.”)

I still do this, but it was only some years ago that I finally recognized one of the primary reasons why: I’m terrible at accepting help. I’ll almost never ask for it and even if it’s offered I’m reluctant to accept; I never want to put anyone out, or feel like I’m pressuring them into doing something they might not want to do. (I have become a bit better since I noticed, but change is slow.) Naturally, I project this trait onto others and overcompensate — if it’s hard for the people I love to ask for help, I want them not to have to.

I’ve seen a version of this in yoga: I’ll suggest someone use a prop for some support, like a block under the hand in triangle pose. Most of the time I’ll hear “Oh, that’s better, thank you.” Sometimes though, people refuse.

“I don’t like using props.”

I don’t ask for help because I don’t want to put anyone out. But it’s not putting the block out to use it for support!

So there’s also something else going on: I’ve seen the steeliness in their eyes, as they reject the idea of support, as if somehow it reflects poorly on them or diminishes the value of their pose. We feel as though we should be able to handle things on our own, or that accepting help takes something away from our achievements and our success.

One of the few nice things about the moment we’re in right now is that we recognize we’re all sharing a common struggle. So I feel like I’ve seen (and experienced) more friends reaching out to friends, or even an outer circle, to check in and see if everyone’s okay right now, to offer any help they can. And it seems more people have been willing to accept the help that they need, I suppose because they acknowledge that this is an unprecedented time.

And you know what? We’re doing those things not just for the loved ones in our lives, we’re doing it for ourselves. For our own peace of mind, knowing the people we care about are taken care of, and to give ourselves a sense of meaning and usefulness at a time when we can feel so impotent. It’s true at any time, but it becomes clearer now: one of the best ways to make yourself feel better is by helping someone else.

Carolyn Hax has talked about when her mother got sick, and said one of the greatest gifts her mom gave her was not trying to be stoic at the end, and accepting her help. No one wants to be a burden, but it can be a gift to accept someone’s help.

We worry that by accepting help we’re inconveniencing others, when in reality it might even be that the opposite is true.

Or we worry that to need help is to somehow diminish our value and detract from our successes. That to prove our worth we need to achieve great things, and achieve them primarily on our own.

I’d argue a different definition of success: To have a network of people, maybe just a few or maybe many, who care about you and want to support you is, to me, a life of great success. Cultivating that love and those deep connections is the success that I strive for.

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