I was in 5th standard at school. Ms Rebecca, our craft teacher who also happened to teach us Maths had assigned us the task of stitching two cushion covers.
It was among the very first needlework crafts we were assigned. We were given a demo of the backstitch (also called the machine stitch) that we were supposed to do on the pieces of cloth provided to us.
I have always been a slow learner with scattered attention despite my best intentions. I can vouch to have watched the demo carefully and clearly, yet I wasn’t too sure as to how to go about the assigned task.
I started stitching after generously wasting time in drawing the markings as per the measurements explained. In my heart, I was praying that the craft lesson get over soon and I sneak the cushion covers in my bag to try my hand at it at home.
As luck would have it, the teacher soon spotted my time-splurging manoeuvres and came to my desk to see what was I up to. I was left with no option but to get to the task. I struggled, pricked my fingers but kept stitching.
I could see my classmates approach the teacher if they needed help and Ms Rebecca was more than happy to assist, but going that route was never on my mind.
Asking for help was just not my thing.
There was another (vain) reason for that. I was an ace Maths student who solved sums accurately every single time. Ms Rebecca was always full of praises for me. So this time around, I wasn’t prepared to let her see me struggle or perform badly.
When I had stitched one side of the cover, the teacher asked me to come and show her my work. I took my own time to walk ten steps, all the while noting how all the other students had already completed stitching two sides and were working on the third.
One look at my work and Ms Rebecca asked me to take off all the stitches and to start again. I had clearly anticipated this happening. My prayers for the class to get over got zealous but weren’t answered.
Panic set in, as I could feel Ms Rebecca’s glare on me. She waited for me to ask for help, but I didn’t.
I was restless. I could feel my chest tighten, my mouth felt dry, my palms were sweaty. I felt weak, almost trembling.
With shaky hands that were now numb to the pricks, I started removing the big bold stitches from the cloth. I was almost done, just when the bell rang and the class got over. We were asked to continue the work in the next class (which was a week away) and to leave our needlework kits in the class cupboard.
I had already made up my mind to take the work home and that’s exactly what I did. I quietly sneaked the cushion covers in my school bag while leaving the rest of the needlework kit in the craft cupboard.
Over the years I grew up to be no longer afraid of the needlework but one thing stuck.
My struggle with asking for help.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever struggled to ask for help.
Raise your hand if you’ve felt like an idiot after asking for help.
If you’re anything like me, you’d be wildly waving your arms right now.
Requesting for assistance for an assignment at work or help with household chores or even with caring for my child while I am sick can make my tongue stick to the floor of the mouth.
Somehow the notion of self-help rings a bell of self-reliance in my mind.
Isn’t self-reliance paramount and even expected of us everywhere?
Pulling ourselves up in order to solve our problems is considered a matter of character.
From the aisles of the grocery store to shopping malls to the library and even the volumes of self-help books that are bestsellers, simply reinforce the idea that we are better off if we try to do everything on our own.
Why don’t we ask for help?
I’ll be honest, asking for help often makes me break into a cold sweat, irrespective of how reasonable my request, how noble my intentions or even if it would be beneficial for the person helping me.
I delay, dilly dally and even phrase it in a complex, wordy request which would either confuse the other person or reinforce my feelings of being stupid, needy or blatant incompetent.
Yet like anyone else, asking for help isn’t something I could avoid all the time.
But every time I had to run through the ordeal, those 10 seconds of actually asking for help came after hours and on some occasions even days of rehearsing and phrasing the perfect request.
Looking back, I can clearly recall that in childhood my queries often went unanswered or met with replies that left me feeling inadequate in every possible way. This nurtured the shame that made asking for help get tougher for me at every turn in life.
I would rather hastily put a band-aid than ask for help if I cut my hand.
I’d rather not do a project than reach out to my neighbour for help.
I’d keep postponing making that phone call asking for help and incur losses than ask for help in a particular area.
The list is eerily long.
And the underlying danger in all these situations is that stalling can often lead a small problem to become a crisis.
Another limiting belief that sometimes keeps me from asking for help is:
What if my asking for help leads me to complete surrender and losing control over the project or situation (something that happened to me a lot of times in my early years of joining the workforce)?
How would I ever return the favour?
My fears aren’t baseless.
I have a couple of friends who seek pleasure in being the 2 am friends. They are always up for help and are pretty warm and gracious in doing so. But anytime I offer my help, they simply decline my offer. They never let me be helpful or be useful to them.
This awkward lack of reciprocity has pushed me to avoid seeking help from these friends. Simply because it doesn’t feel right to always be at the receiving end. I value their friendship and would love to be helpful to them, but they simply don’t make me feel as if they trust me enough.
And then came a time in my life where I built a life of self-sufficiency where everyone around me was a taker. People who would simply disappear every time I needed help.
Something that was one of the major reasons for my divorce.
It took me a lot of introspection to realise that beyond the very obvious reasons why I struggled to ask for help, I lacked one major life-skill.
The art of asking for help.
I’d often overprepare for the moment to the extent that I’d miss the fine cues of the moment of action.
Anxiety would take charge over my mind and panic would set in, making me blurt incomprehensible, direct requests that even the most generous person would turn down simply because they couldn’t follow a word of what I was saying or the context.
All was okay, till I became a parent.
One day, my 4-year-old daughter got home from school feeling very sick. She started vomiting the minute she got down from the school bus. When we got home, she’s mentioned she had had a bad stomach ache all day at school.
I was shocked to hear that and asked her why she hadn’t told about it to her class teacher. She said she felt too afraid to approach her and chose to rather be in pain than ask for help from the teacher.
This was an alarming situation.
Though I got busy taking care of my baby I knew I had to address the situation on a deeper level.
My child’s inability to ask for help even in a crisis was a direct indicator of me failing at modelling the same to her.
I had to stop trying to play the self-sufficient, do-it-all, know-it-all, SUPERMOM.
It was harming me and my little girl.
I can remember losing sleep every time Pari mentioned she wanted to be a superhuman just like me.
Superhumans can figure everything out on their own. They can tolerate any amount of pain with a straight face and they NEVER ask others for help but are always ready to help others.
It was the start of my journey of letting my vulnerable, imperfect, normal, authentic self show in all I did.
Trust me, it wasn’t easy.
It was a struggle to be my own self who was lost in the layers of false identities I had given myself in an effort to become a super mom.
I had to give up the false mask of perfection and make the ask.
As a dedicated, super-involved parent, it was my first instinct to reach out to help my daughter every time I noticed her struggle.
It was super-tempting to jump in and help even without being asked for it.
And that was exactly what I had to change.
I started by modelling how to ask for help. Courteously but without an iota of shame, resentment or a feeling of inadequacy.
And while I taught my child to feel free to ask for help, I had to show her how to be prepared for a NO and how to not take it personally.
This didn’t happen overnight. It started with a lot of work on my part.
I had to learn to be patient with a decline of my requests by my child.
I had to learn to act like a big-hearted adult who knew when to step back and not reach out unless asked for help.
Teaching kids kindness, helpfulness and generosity is key but there’s more
As a parent, if you’d ask me what core values I’d love to teach my child, kindness, concern for others and a generosity of heart would always top the list.
However, if you’d ask my child the very same question (which I have on a number of occasions) the answer is nowhere close to mine.
My daughter always says I valued her achievements and happiness over anything else.
It’s not a matter of communication gap, but of what I’m conveying to my daughter through my actions.
Kids learn what’s important not by listening to what parents say, but by noticing what gets their attention.
As I slowly analysed the gap I noticed a key area that needed work.
I was encouraging my daughter to be strong, to stand up for herself and to be an achiever no matter how many failures tried to stop her but in this effort, I wasn’t making her see how it all began with taking care of our selves.
How we had to embody all these virtues in our own life before being comfortable in extending the same to others.
My daughter is always prompt in sharing her snack or reaching out to a friend who is in need but seldom asks for her help because in her heart she feels she’s acting weak or needy.
It’s not about her, it’s just a projection of my core values on her.
My world changed when I heard Brene Brown say:
Nothing changed instantly. It has been a long, arduous journey of teaching myself that I am worthy irrespective of any circumstance I am in.
I had to let go of the shame I had associated with being needy or letting my imperfect self show.
In short, I had to teach myself unconditional self-love. At its core. Something that I practised till it became automatic like breathing.
What you need to let go of?
You need to let go of shame and judgement.
The feelings, the meaning we assign to anything makes the whole difference.
If you look carefully, you’ll see an inherent feeling of shame and self-judgement stops us from saying “I don’t know” without adding an apology to the statement.
Adding that apology makes it feel like it was a wrong thing to not know something.
That assigned judgement brings along its bestie, shame, each time you say you don’t know something.
And that’s exactly how asking for help becomes so difficult, anxiety-driven and awkward.
That has been the case for me.
I’d sound something like, “I’m so sorry to ask you for this, Nisha, but I could really use your help. It’s terrible that I have to ask. I know you are so busy. I just really hate myself for asking. I really should be able to do it myself. ”
Sounds pretty annoying. Right?
But I was (on most occasions) a mumbling, awkward, weirdo who really had no clue how to ask effectively.
Is there a right or comfortable way of asking for help?
The short answer is NO.
However, asking for help has gotten way easier for me when I started following these simple steps:
♥ Be neutral. Don’t assign shame or judgement to ask for help.
♥ Determine your why for asking for help. Being clear on why you need help guides your approach to asking.
♥ Be straightforward and vulnerable. When asking for help, make sure the person knows exactly what you want. Asking in specific terms helps. Not being afraid to let your vulnerability show makes it comfortable and purposeful.
♥ Be mindful of who you ask for help. Asking your best friend for a therapist recommendation when she has never been in touch with any isn’t helpful. Instead, ask a neighbour who has seen a handful would make more sense.
♥ Try asking in person. Asking for help over an email or text message doesn’t make half an impact and leaves both sides confused and often judging simply because of lack of clarity.
♥ Timing your request properly. If you aren’t sure when is the best time to ask, you could always check by asking “I’d like to ask you for help with something. When would be the best time to talk about it?”
♥ Give a way out and have a plan B. Allowing room for the other person to say NO without any guilt keeps the relationship intact. And in such cases, what has been most useful is to ask for a recommendation of someone who might be able to help.
♥ Avoid using shame, guilt or a reminder that the helper owes you help. Using any of these is the recipe for beginning on the wrong foot and often jeopardizes the relationship even when it does produce a favourable outcome on one occasion.
♥ Express appreciation and gratitude. Make sure you make it all about the helper and not about you. Everyone loves to feel respected and helpful. Not just in the moment but even after the work has been done. Everyone loves feeling worthy of being informed about how things worked out because of their participation.
Always make sure you show respect, trust and that you’re willing to listen to the person helping you out.
Why teaching your child to ask for help is a beautiful gift?
♥ Asking for help teaches humility:
A humble attitude is a great asset. Truly humble people know that life is all about making mistakes, surviving the failures, dusting ourselves up and reaching out to ask for help. The need to swallow our pride in the process can set the foundation of the life-skill that would keep us thriving in life.
♥ Asking for help is a great social skill:
We all love being around people who make us feel smart. Nobody likes being around someone who seems to know it all. Asking for help while offering our assistance when asked for it, helps build healthy social bonds.
When I stopped being a helicopter parent (about which I have talked in detail here) I noticed, my daughter started feeling that I trusted her and her capabilities. Simply because I had stopped offering help without her asking me for it.
♥ Asking for help teaches courage:
Make a sad, sullen, helpless expression to have the parent rush to help is a manoeuvre all small children are masters at. This tendency to emotionally manipulate others when practiced as adults to get what you need out isn’t a healthy approach.
Learning to let your vulnerabilities show and asking for genuine help is an act of courage that is worth cultivating for a good life.
♥ Asking for help makes us trustworthy:
We trust those who invest their trust in us. Asking for help shows the people around us, that we trust them enough to show our vulnerable selves to them, to reach out to them at an hour of need.
Social bonds that are built on mutual trust and humility can help us create healthy relationships.
What does asking for help actually convey?
Learning to ask for help has taught me what it means to go out in the world beyond my biases, perceptions and fears.
To be able to bravely ask the people around me to join my journey in life.
To strike up personal and professional partnerships which will help me create a life that is more fulfilling than I what I could have created going alone.
Asking for help is my chance of reaching out to the community as my imperfect and vulnerable self with full understanding that despite my needs I am worthy of love and belonging.
Recommended Reading: Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
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