Help! How hard is it to say that word? According to a new study in the journal Psychological Science, it can be difficult; even though most people are naturally inclined to help others, many of us struggle to reach out when we’re in need, the Stanford University team of researchers discovered.
One reason for that, the study suggests, is that we tend to underestimate others’ willingness to provide help and overestimate how inconvenienced people would feel by the ask. “As someone who has conducted this research, I still hesitate to reach out for help,” says Xuan Zhao, PhD, the study’s lead author.
Giving and receiving help is a natural part of both humanity and functional society. So why can it feel so uncomfortable to ask for it—and how do we perfect the art of doing so? Here’s what the research and experts who study the topic have to say.
Why it can be so difficult to ask other people for help
There are all kinds of reasons why we may struggle to reach out for assistance. To start, there can often be fears around asking for help: a fear of appearing weak or incompetent, of being rejected, or of burdening others, says Dr. Zhao. (Mostly all these fears are unfounded, she adds.) And some other research suggests that people tend to inaccurately assume that others are more self-interested than they are—a mis-calibration that may lead us to incorrectly believe people aren’t motivated to help us out.
Cultural norms can also play a role. “Most Western societies like the US are very individualistic; self-reliance is the leading principle and while that can be beneficial, like anything, you can take it too far,” says Wayne Baker, PhD, faculty director of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and author of All You Have to Do is Ask. That’s one reason why it may feel wrong or selfish to ask for help.
In more collectivistic, community-oriented societies—including many East Asian and Latin American countries—asking for help can often be a normal part of the culture. “Communities that have historically been under-resourced or less privileged also tend to have more of a culture of communalism,” tells Pooja Lakshmin, MD, founder and CEO of Gemma, a digital mental health platform for women, and author of the forthcoming book Real Self-Care. “Receiving and offering help is not something that is looked down upon. It’s just part of the social contract.”
Of course, even collectivist-leaning groups aren’t immune from the barriers to asking for support. “The problem in many of these communities is that you’re not supposed to put your needs ahead of the group’s needs,” says Dr. Baker, and making a request for personal help might feel like you’re doing just that. In other words, most of us could probably use a little, uh, help in this department.
How to get better at asking for help when you need it
No matter the reason you avoid asking for help, getting comfortable doing so is an important life skill—and absolutely something you can learn. “As humans, we’re first and foremost social beings. We crave connection with each other,” says Dr. Lakshmin. Isolation and a lack of social support, she explains, can lead to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and burnout.
And that brings us back to the good news, which is, again, that most people are willing and able to help. “It’s just that they can’t help you if they don’t know what you need,” says Dr. Baker. Here are seven ways to grow a little more comfortable making the ask:
Psych yourself up with science.
Just to drive this point home: Most of us are deeply pro-social and want to help. There’s evidence that being of service may promote feelings of happiness, increase self-esteem and social connection, lower stress levels and blood pressure, and even help us live longer. And despite our (often misguided!) fears, people tend to view those who ask for help as competent (not weak), according to Dr. Baker.
“Knowing what the research says can be empowering,” he says. “Realizing that this isn’t just one study, but study after study after study showing the same things can help you remind yourself that most people are willing and able to help”—and probably won’t look down on you for doing so.
Make asking for help a habit.
To get more comfortable reaching out for help, Dr. Lakshmin recommends starting with small asks that feel “relatively manageable.” Maybe you politely ask a tall stranger to grab your heavy carry-on from the overhead bin. Or perhaps you ask one of your neighbors to pick up your mail while you’re on vacation if you all share a long driveway.
Nervous? That’s normal. It means you’re trying something new, which can be uncomfortable, says Dr. Baker. “You’re working to become desensitized to the fear of what might happen when you ask for help,” Dr. Lakshmin adds. Over time, having some “success stories” under your belt will help build your confidence in asking for help with the bigger stuff, like feeling overwhelmed with a work project or struggling with a mental health issue.
Make SMART requests.
A SMART request is an acronym for an ask that is specific, meaningful, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound. According to Dr. Zhao, requests that meet these criteria are more likely to benefit both parties. Before you reach out, it can be helpful to pause and think about *exactly* what you need (specific); why you need it (meaningful); what resources—like information, a budget for a project, or emotional support—would help you make progress (action-oriented); what this person may be able to assist with (realistic); and when you need things by (time-bound).
The SMART strategy can not only increase your chances of getting what you really need, Dr. Zhao says, but it may also reduce the chances of the requestee feeling overwhelmed by your ask or unsure of how to help. This blueprint can be especially useful in settings like work environments, where you might need specific resources or skills from someone, but where asking for help may feel a little trickier or more formal, she adds.
Normalize asking for and receiving help in your social circle.
Emotional closeness matters when it comes to asking for help—especially in more casual settings like home and community. “A safe space allows people to honestly discuss their failures and needs,” says Dr. Zhao.
One way to build emotional closeness: Normalize caring for your friends, family, and community. That might look like both helping others out—by, say, offering to feed a neighbor’s cat while they’re away for the weekend, or picking up groceries for a depressed friend—and by accepting help yourself. Dr. Lakshmin says that in her private psychiatry practice, the latter is something most of her patients struggle with.
If you’re having a hard time, start by challenging yourself to say “yes” and accept a few offers for help that you normally wouldn’t (say, a neighbor offering to take your kids to the park with hers when you have a migraine, or a coworker covering for you for a few hours so you can get to a doctor’s appointment) and see how it feels. “When you accept support, you can see how genuinely people are willing to help you,” says Dr. Zhao. “This might make you rethink your hesitancy to reach out to others.”
Try the “reciprocity ring.”
Want to institute a culture of asking for help? When you’re with a group of people—in a work setting, with friends, with a crew of volunteers—consider suggesting this activity that Dr. Baker created: Go around in a circle and have everyone ask for something they need, in work or life. It could be something small like an extra pair of hands on a project or something bigger like help finding a new ob-gyn.
It’s called a reciprocity ring, Dr. Baker explains, and it can normalize the act of asking for help because everyone participates. And aside from setting a supportive tone, the activity often results in instant help in the form of connections, emotional support, resources, or more, he adds.
Be curious about rejection.
Okay, here’s the truth: Sometimes people are going to tell you that they just can’t help you. It happens. That’s life. The key is to learn something from the “no” instead of taking things personally, according to Dr. Baker.
“Look at rejection as information, and be curious about the reason,” he suggests. Maybe the timing was bad or maybe they don’t have the resources (or answers or tools) required to help you. Reflection can help you form future requests (maybe you realize that you need to give people a bit more time to plan to help you, or that you should think more about who to ask before you reach out) or even change your request. For example, your editor friend may not have time to proofread your website, but maybe they know someone who might.
Consider talking to a therapist.
Ever feel like you know you need help, but you just don’t know…what that could look like? Ever burst into tears when you even *think* about asking for help, or when someone asks what you need?
These are some indicators that you might benefit from professional mental health support, says Dr. Lakshmin. “Basically, these signs mean that the parts of your brain that feel all the feelings are on overdrive,” she explains. “You can’t access your prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is going to allow you to delegate and think logically about what you need.”
Working with a therapist can help you unpack your emotions in a safe space, figure out your needs, and make a plan of action for getting them met.
No matter how you go about honing your help-me skills, it’s a worthwhile pursuit—for everyone involved. “The person who is being asked to help also gets a huge benefit from being in that position,” Dr. Lakshmin says. “They are strengthening social ties and they are able to feel generous. Asking for help is quite generative for both parties.”