September 4, 2016

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!