When someone I know is dealing with a difficult situation, I typically feel extremely “Put me in, coach!!!” — like, Please, I’m begging you, let me do something to help ease your load a little bit. Walk your dog? Buy you dinner? Proofread the text you’re thinking of sending your ex? Truly, IT WOULD BE MY HONOR. I don’t think I’m the only one who operates this way; a lot of people — especially those who have experienced trauma or just a classic old-fashioned Rough Time — are oriented toward reaching out, toward showing up.
But when I am the one in a difficult spot? Well, then, thanks so much for offering but I’m perfectly fine to handle this on my own!!! Or, at least, that’s what I used to tell myself, when I was less comfortable with vulnerability, and any kindness made me feel five seconds away from turning into the Darth Vader shower head meme.
The fact is, asking for/accepting help is incredibly difficult for a lot of us—even those of us who know, logically, that no one can get through life alone. It can be terrifying to admit that the thing you’re dealing with is maybe a bit too big for you to handle by yourself, or that an experience or situation has impacted you in a real, tangible way.
If you struggle with asking for help, I suggest starting very small. Instead of jumping in with huge, high-stakes asks, practice with requests that are relatively low-stakes, and do it when things are going pretty well for you in general. My approach? Begin by accepting help from people you feel comfortable around but aren’t particularly emotionally entangled with, when they ask or offer. In practice, this might look like…
- Responding “it’s not clicking for me just yet—would you mind talking me through the process again?,” when the person explaining something to you says, “Does this all make sense?”
- Responding with “that would be great, actually” when a smart coworker you trust offers to read over your big project before you submit it to your manager
- Saying, “you know, I might take you up on that” when your sibling-in-law volunteers to watch your children so you can get a little time alone to recharge
Or, you can take this shortcut: When someone says, “Let me know if you need anything,” let them know if you need anything.
If you’re not sold on this idea, allow me to address some of the common excuses people give for not allowing other people to show up for them.
Reason: “They didn’t really mean it.”
Counterpoint: They did, in fact, really mean it! But also, what’s the worst that could happen if you follow up with, “Hey there, you told me a few weeks ago to let you know if I need anything, and there actually is something I could really use right now”? There’s no harm in taking people at their word in this case. If they didn’t mean it, well… they’ll learn a valuable lesson about not letting their mouth write checks that their ass can’t cash (and you’ll learn a valuable lesson about that friendship).
If you’re worried that what you need in this moment is too much or too burdensome to ask of this friend, think about how long you’ve known them, how positive and mutually beneficial the relationship feels overall, and what level of intimacy you’d say the two of you are at. Is this person a relatively new friend who you’ve never talked to about your personal life? If so, then sure, it might not be the best idea to ask them to come to your doctor’s appointment and hold your hand during the exam. But it might be perfectly OK to ask a buddy who has always demonstrated kindness and thoughtfulness to give you a ride to your doctor’s appointment. Don’t get me wrong: It’s great to be considerate and think about whether you’re asking too much of other people. But so often, this results in our never allowing anyone to take care of us, and shouldering these tasks entirely on our own.
Reason: “The thing I need is weird or unconventional and they’ll think I’m a freak if I ask for it.”
Counterpoint: Humans are smart and capable of nuance. I genuinely believe that most people would rather do the right thing for you than whatever society deemed “right” 50 or 100 years ago. Even if they’ve never been asked to do something “unconventional” for a friend in need before, they will probably understand if you respond to their “let me know if you need anything” with “This might sound strange, but I could really use someone to come keep me company while I do my dishes and laundry. My place is a mess, I’m overwhelmed, it’s giving me a ton of anxiety, and I just need someone to be here with me while I deal with it. I’ll treat you to pizza to make it worth your while.” They may even be flattered —because you’re showing that you trust them and are willing to be vulnerable with them, and letting them know that they too can ask for something unusual when they really need it.
Reason: “I don’t actually really need help, I’m fine.”
Counterpoint: You’re not fine.
How to Tell Someone Their Help Is Extremely Not Helpful
When you are going through a difficult time, people will likely attempt to support you. And some folks will, inevitably, get it wrong. If someone else’s behavior is making your bad situation worse, the best thing you can do—for both of your sakes—is to gently correct them and communicate that what they are offering is actually not what you need right now. If you want, you can explain why—a generous move that may ensure they don’t make the same mistake in the future, with someone else—but you don’t have to.
What to say
“I really appreciate how thoughtful you’ve been since I told you about my situation; it means a lot to me to have a friend who cares about me so much. But right now, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by these efforts to make me feel better. Could I ask you to stop fussing over me and instead give me a little space? I promise I’ll tell you if I need something.”
“I know some people in my situation find anecdotes like the one you just told me helpful, but I find them really stressful and scary. Could I ask you to not share stories like that with me in the future?”
“To be honest, I’m not in a place where I’m ready to look at the positives of this situation just yet. I’m still really hurt and angry, and I just need to be hurt and angry for a while.”
“I know you mean well when you say, ‘He’s in a better place,’ but that phrase isn’t helpful or comforting to me right now.”
“Can I ask you to do me a favor and stop sending me articles about using crystals to treat cancer because ‘oncology is a scam’? These articles aren’t helpful to me and are kind of stressing me out.”
And if it feels right, you can add something like:
“What I do need right now is [a hug/the name of a good lawyer/someone to organize a meal train/not to talk about this when I’m at work].”
In most of these situations, it’s best to focus on yourself and your preferences instead of criticizing the other person’s behavior. Because in a lot of instances, the person won’t have done something universally wrong; they will simply have done something that you don’t appreciate. Like the old adage says: One person’s “how essential oils cured my cancer” article from alternativehealingmooncircle.net is another person’s treasure!
It might also make sense to ask a trusted third party to intervene on your behalf, particularly when you’re dealing with something really serious. That might sound something like this:
“Hey, Ash, it is so incredibly kind of you to offer to sing at the memorial service on Saturday, but Kyle has reiterated to me a few times that the service is meant to be family only. The best thing you can do to be supportive right now is to respect their wishes.”
If the person who is missing the mark is a close friend, you might want to be more direct and vulnerable—because not saying anything can do long-term damage to the friendship, and because you (presumably) do want and need their support in a different way right now. In that case, you might say something like this:
“Taylor, my miscarriage has left me completely devastated. I’m angry and heartbroken and furious, and hearing you say ‘everything happens for a reason’ makes me feel the complete opposite of supported. Please don’t.”
“I know you’re trying to cheer me up by telling me to focus on the positives of getting fired, but it’s actually coming across as dismissive because I’m still really upset. Can you please just be upset with me for a little while?”
“Hey, I know you mean well by sending me these articles related to my diagnosis, but they are actually making me spiral the fuck out. I’d like to request a break from all cancer-related literature until further notice.”
They might honor your request! They might not! But at least now you can feel less guilty about ignoring their daily affirmation DMs.
Excerpt from The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People © Rachel Wilkerson Miller, 2020. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold. experimentpublishing.com