How to choose a good shrink? Ask for help!

The smartest thing I’ve learned to do: Ask for help

betty ming liu Relationships 11 Comments

My parents taught me to solve my own problems. Never go to outsiders for help. In breaking this childhood cycle of isolation, I’ve learned to reach out with wonderful results. But the struggle remains: I still find it hard to ask for help. In times of need both large and small, my reflex is to save face and shut people out.

I was raised to view h-e-l-p as a four-letter word fraught with false pride and obligation. My Chinese immigrant dad used to says things like, “help the family first” and “your family knows what’s best for you” and “you can only trust your family.”

Since my father was a miserable, stressed-out businessman, I did not want what he had. So as a grown-up, I’ve gradually learned to ask for help. The process began with paying for it. Of course, hiring talented people and enrolling in courses has enriched me tremendously. I’m proud of being responsible, of doing the research and shelling out the cash to get what I need.

By my early 30s, I had a network of trusted health care providers, including a shrink. Later, I added  a list of contractors who worked on my house and fabulous teachers from art classes. But my definition of help was still very limited.

My checkbook kept me in charge. I could only accept help if I had control. If anyone got too close or displeased me by their words or behavior, putting distance between us was as easy as cancelling an appointment.

Now, though, I’m busy tearing down the childhood walls completely. I’m realizing that being human means vulnerability. For me, that involves giving freely and receiving freely. Emphasis on the word “free.” Ugh, this can be hard because I’m good at giving but not receiving. You can count on me to make a dish for your pot luck dinner. But I hate to inconvenience others.

The other day, I was venting about this issue to a new friend. She listened patiently, without interrupting. When I was done, I felt guilty for taking her time. Wondering out loud, I asked if there was anything I could do to help her in turn. She laughed and said she was only sharing what she’d been given. That’s just how she rolls.

the smartest thing i've learned to do is ask for help

Here’s another example. I recently hesitated to schedule a car repair because neither my daughter nor boyfriend would be around to shuttle me back and forth from the mechanic’s garage. I booked an upcoming date anyway, figuring I could call a taxi for the $30 ride in each direction.

But then I thought about wasting $60 on round-trip cab fare. While imposing on family for a lift would’ve been normal, I waffled for hours about about contacting even really good friends. I finally made a timid ask via email, framing it in multiple disclaimers.

It’s okay if you don’t have time! I know this is so last minute! I can always call a cab! Don’t worry, I have a Plan B! Blah blah blah. 

You can guess what happened next. Almost instantly, my friends agreed to take me to and from. Why was the ask such a big deal?

I understand that my dad had legitimate reasons for his attitudes about help. My parents hailed from war-ravaged countries where trusting the wrong person could destroy them and their families.  Lucky me, though. I have options, including letting go of childhood traces of control freakishness. And, letting people in.

Blathering on about myself is easy. But you’re much more interesting. If you are able to ask for help, how do you do it? And yes, I’m asking for your help!

Comments 11

  1. All I can say is I so feel your issues. You nailed ‘my issues’ right down to the current car rotting under me because I can’t impose on anyone to give me a lift to the shop! My family has Native American/ African American roots but my mother and your father could have been first cousins once removed. We (children/grands) all have Dysfunction with a capital ‘D’ but I’m steadily working on reducing mine. Keep writing and much peace to you!

    1. Post

      Debra, we are definitely long-lost family. I had to finally deal with my car because it involved an air bag recall. Somehow, the issue felt “important” enough for me to “impose” on dear friends who could care less what I was asking for. Am I nuts or what? But writing about myself helps me get over myself. I hope that commenting publicly helps you to get over yourself too! Thanks so much for dropping by.

  2. My mom was raised by Chinese immigrants in the US, and she always taught me to ask for help because she herself had to learn to do that throughout her schooling since she was going into a field where no one in her family had any sort of background in. Conversely though, we’re both in male-dominated fields where we need to often assert ourselves in such a way where we have to prove that we are qualified, which makes asking for help really difficult sometimes. I think it takes baby steps to get comfortable with it!

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      Juliette, what an interesting perspective. So it sounds like your grandparents were immigrants and your mom is second generation like me! Good for her, that she learned to ask for help! And more power to both of you for being double-minorities in your professions, which is super-challenging because of stereotypes about women, Asians and non-whites in general. Thank you for sharing your story. Sending positive career vibes your way. :)

  3. Hi Betty I was recently introduced to your column. Love it and definitely can relate. A lot of your stories are about my upbringing and life.

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      Sui, glad you can relate. Sometimes I feel like an idiot who is blogging into the wind. But even then, writing always helps me sort through my feelings. And usually, someone drops by to offer support. So thank you so much for joining the conversation!

  4. I just wanted to highlight something in your post. “Ugh, this can be hard because I’m good at giving but not receiving. You can count on me to make a dish for your pot luck dinner. But I hate to inconvenience others.”

    I was raised just like you, but maybe a little less pressure to avoid taking help. Anyway, I have now come to realize that there is an inherent hypocrisy/paradox in this quote above. If all we keep do is keep giving, we will run dry one day, emotionally, materially and in many other ways. It is hard to set the right boundaries, but parents ought to teach that, but most parents I know focus on teaching how to “no” to all offered help. Thank you so much for sharing your story…..

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      Average Guy, I’m grateful that you can relate. If your parents eased up at all on the “just say no” attitude, that’s a plus right there. At least you’re self-aware of the issue. The hardest thing for me is accepting the kindness you can’t pay for: unconditional love from people who care. But I’m making progress too!

  5. Asking for help has always been a struggle for me. I much prefer to “do it myself” even if it’s not the wisest move! Now, entering week 4 of recovery after bilateral knee surgery, I find I have no choice but to ask fro help from friends and family (including Betty!). Still it’s not easy and the only way to justify it is to know that I will “pay back” the favors latter. silly isn’t it! thank you for a great column Betty; perfect timing.

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      You’re welcome, Mary. The paying-back the favor thing is in my genes too. So hard to simply accept the generosity of others. But I’m grateful for their support. And good luck with the knee recovery!

  6. Another form of help is “paying forward.” Recently an old friend of mine took in a very nice young man who had lost his home and is enjoying having the company. His large, rent controlled apartment has the space and he is in a position to help the young man find a job and get on his feet – all very platonic. I mentioned I thought he was doing a good thing and he said “I’m just paying forward what you did for me.” 40 years ago, when my friend was a young man, his parents threw him out because he came out as gay. He came and stayed with me for over a year, until he got his life together. I never thought of it as much of a favor. I had a big house and was glad of the company, but evidently he felt the need to repay in this way and it did make me glad. It seems like a little help given can be a seed planted. The harvest may be a long time coming but it can be surprising.

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