“Can you help me?”
Four little words. They seem so simple yet mothers everywhere find them near impossible to say.
What makes it hard is the meaning we attribute to asking for help. Without that meaning, asking for help is a neutral activity, neither positive or negative. It just is.
But it often doesn’t feel like that, does it?
Asking for help can make us feel vulnerable.
Here’s what I’ve learned about why asking for help is so hard. We make it mean that:
1. We’re failing, not coping or not a good enough mum
The standards society sets for mums are unrealistically high. We’re told that we need to be the loving and attentive primary carer for our children 24/7, maintain a house worthy of inclusion in a magazine, have a successful career, stay fit, slim, youthful and beautiful, have a healthy, loving relationship with our partner, have a thriving social life, volunteer at school, cook everything from scratch and invest in our own self care and personal interests. All with a smile and definitely no help.
Let’s be honest, this is more than one person can manage. The standards are fiction but they are so deeply internalised in society we don’t question them. Instead we question ourselves. “Why can’t I do this? What’s wrong with me? I should be able to do all this.” We fear judgement about how we don’t meet the standards and guilty for needing help.
I know it looks like the mums around you have it all together. I know social media seems to present you with lots of evidence of this.
This is not reality. What you see is not the full picture. Every mother has something that she struggles with and goes through times when she really needs help.
That doesn’t make us bad mums or failures. That makes us normal human beings. We are social creatures who need each other and who thrive in community. It’s normal to need and ask for help.
2. We’re at risk of being rejected
Our brains want to keep us safe. If asking for help feels risky, our brain will talk us out of it and rejection or lack of acceptance and relationship is definitely unsafe according to our human brains.
Usually rejection in this context means someone saying no, or being visibly not happy to help you, even if they begrudgingly agree.
You may worry that you’ll overstep the line of reasonable expectations in your relationship, that you’ll imposed on them or create a burden. Perhaps they just won’t want to help you. Either way, it feels like rejection or disconnection, especially if you’ve experienced it repeatedly in the past.
It helps to remember how responsibilities are divided here. It is your responsibility to ask for help when you need it. You get to choose who you ask for help. You can think about who you trust, who loves and supports you, who has capacity (based on what you know) and who enjoys the task you need help with. Then you ask.
It is their responsibility to decide whether they can help and give you their answer. It is also their responsibility to manage any emotions that come up for them around your request. They are allowed to say no and they are allowed to not be pleased with your request. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have asked and even if it feels uncomfortable, you will be ok. We can tolerate uncomfortable feelings.
There have been times when I haven’t been asked for help and I wish that I had been. I would have loved to help but the person made the decision for me.
There are also times when I have been asked to help and I genuinely couldn’t. That wasn’t a reflection on the person who asked, or my relationship with them. I simply couldn’t manage it. A “no” may mean the person doesn’t have the time or resources right now, or that they don’t feel confident doing what you’ve asked.
Most people love to help others when they can. Think about how you feel when someone asks you to help them. Do you feel annoyed at the imposition or are you genuinely happy to lighten their load?
3. We have to repay the helper
I had a huge breakthrough in relation to receiving recently. I sometimes found it hard to receive and I realised that it was because I associated receiving with having to give something in return. Once I was able to decouple these two things, I was free to receive with gratitude.
Sometimes we feel that asking for help makes us indebted to the helper. If we know we don’t have the capacity or capability to repay the debt, or we don’t know how to help them it will feel safer not to enter this debt at all.
In reality, people often don’t expect anything in return for providing help, especially not in a one-for-one exchange. In my friendships, we have an ongoing exchange of help where we understand that if anyone needed help and we had the capacity to give it, we would. There’s no need to keep score.
Research shows that simply saying “thank you” is highly valued, as it shows the helper they’re needed and boosts their feelings of social worth. Sharing our strengths, skills, experience and resources also makes us feel good about ourselves.
4. We have to settle for lower standards
Asking for help does require a letting go of control and this can be uncomfortable.
Have you ever said: “I’m the only one who does it properly so I may as well just do it myself”?
There may absolutely be instances where the way something is done is really important, but in most cases, it doesn’t have to be our way or the highway. If we are holding others to unrealistic standards, insisting that things be done our way and constantly criticising and deviations they are going to be less likely to want to help us.
Maternal gatekeeping is when the desire for control or our way is so strong that we block other carers (often fathers) from being involved in caregiving. It can involve looking over their shoulder constantly, giving pre-emptive directions rather than letting them figure it out, giving a running critique on what they are doing and insisting you are the only one who can do certain tasks. Then we tend to feel resentful that others don’t offer more help.
If we want help, we have to allow others to help. That includes accepting they may have a slightly different way of doing things and will figure things out when needed. We need to examine whether our standard is truly critical, or whether a lower or different standard could still be acceptable when someone else is involved. We can still do things our way when we are doing the task.
Asking for help is a sign of strength
The meaning I choose to assign to asking for help is that it is a sign of strength.
When you ask for help, it shows that you:
- Know yourself – what you can handle, what you’re good at and what you need help with.
- Respect yourself enough to look after your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.
- Have the courage to let yourself be vulnerable and admit you can’t do it all yourself.
- Are willing to be authentic (the real you).
People don’t necessarily know or see what you need without you telling them (this includes your partner). You might look like you have everything under control or they might just be preoccupied with their own life. This doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want to help you if they became aware that you needed it.
It’s also helpful to know that relationships are strengthened by the giving and receiving of help. It actually benefits both parties.
So, lovely, what is currently standing in the way of you asking for help?
What meaning are you going to choose to attribute to asking for help?
If you’re ready to ask for help but you’re not sure how, then check out my post on this topic.