By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
There is an unfortunate idealization of the martyr in our society. Perhaps because of our Judeo-Christian roots, we have this fantasy of being people who give and give and give and never ask for anything in return. I’m here to call foul on that silly notion. For those of us who are not current candidates for sainthood–because those dudes can seriously give themselves away–reciprocity is where it’s at.
Socially anxious people often default into believing that they have to do it all themselves. They don’t want to risk being seen as needy so they don’t ask for help, even if they are practically dying. Early on in my career as a therapist I went on a home visit to a family who lived in the basement of a rental house. As I entered the back yard, the owner’s dog attacked me and bit my leg. After the dog was safely put inside the home I continued on my way to the basement and met with the family, my pants torn and my leg bleeding. In my defense I was in shock and not thinking clearly, but at the time I also lacked the internal permission to display my vulnerability. Instead of taking care of myself, I focused on my client (I’m sure I was about as helpful as a headache that day) during a time of my own crisis, when I should have asked them to call my office for help.
In the rare instances that socially anxious people DO ask for help, they direct that help in such a specific and controlling way that the other party feels like their assistance was vacuum extracted rather than offered freely. Why do they do this? Because asking for help is admitting we have needs, and admitting we have needs can be scary.
A while back I introduced an acquaintance to a friend. The acquaintance was studying to do what the friend did, and I thought it would be helpful for the acquaintance to have an email introduction. Time went by. The friend forwarded an email that the acquaintance had sent her. It was charming and witty and then suddenly it read like iron fingernails against the proverbial chalkboard. The acquaintance asked the friend if they could get together to talk about the friend’s career insights…tomorrow.
The acquaintance was not following the number one rule of respectful requests: If you are the one asking for help, be accommodating of the other person. In other words, if you are loading my dishwasher because I just threw a party and you are helping me out, I shut my mouth and do not tell you that I like the dishes to face the other way. If you are moving and your friend is hauling boxes of trinkets in her car, do not criticize or correct the way she is stacking them, unless your cat happens to be underneath. If you are entering a career and seeking mentorship you do not specify when your hoped-for mentoring will take place.
We all need help from others. If we are lucky and skillful handling our vulnerability we can use our needs as a way of reinforcing relationships and our strengths (which are our resource for providing help) in exactly the same way. Asking for help is both a necessity as well as an act of faith in humanity. But do it with humility and do not become a needy control freak.
There are two steps to asking for help: one is telling the other person what you need and the second is saying “thank you.” However that help shows up, the giver deserves gratitude and honor.