Everyone says ’embarrassment’, right? And there is embarrassment but it’s so much more than that too. Embarrassment is the easy word for it, a word that we can easily reach for and use for other people to understand. Of course, everyone gets embarrassed asking for help. That’s seemingly normal. But is it actually embarrassment or is it partly embarrassment and mostly a whole load of other, more complex feelings that we haven’t really got to grips with, haven’t found words for or can’t explain to another person?
Embarrassment is the feeling of discomfort experienced when some aspect of ourselves is, or threatens to be, witnessed by or otherwise revealed to others, and we think that this revelation is likely to undermine the image of ourselves that we seek to project to those others.– Psychology Today
There’s a fine line between pride, rightful or wrongful, and dignity. And detangling which one our feelings are about in this kind of situation can be hard.
Dignity doesn’t require comparing ourselves to others. If we have a rewarding job, we feel grateful, not superior. If we stay fit, we enjoy the physical well-being it offers without thinking we’re better than those who can’t find the time, money, or motivation to work out. Dignity is an internal sense of respecting ourselves. To the extent that we don’t judge or criticize ourselves, we don’t feel compelled to disrespect or shame others. True dignity allows for generosity toward others. Pride is a commodity that we hoard for ourselves. Dignity contains a humility and gratitude that invites people toward us. We recognize that we’re all in it together.– Psychology Today
(Funny enough, in another overlap relevant to this discussion, when others react to us and our situation with pride, we can be cost our dignity).
We need to be able to retain our sense of dignity or self-respect. Admitting to being out of our depth or being overwhelmed and thus needing help can cause us to feel shame. It’s hard to feel dignity when you’re ashamed. Then how others respond to our needs and requests for help can be crushing. No wonder we may be fearful of needing help much less actually asking for it.
Why are we afraid to ask for help? Often we fear judgement. Sometimes we fear inconveniencing the other person. Sometimes we fear the consequences. Why?
Perhaps we’ve had bad experiences. Perhaps we’ve been in relationships where weakness was used against us. Perhaps we’ve been in situations where someone claimed to want to help but then we had to negotiate their anger and resentment at having to help us. Perhaps we’re used to transactional relationships and don’t know how we’ll be able to suitably repay the help or when.
Perhaps we fear that admitting to needing some help in one or two areas will allow someone to feel that they can take control of all aspects of our lives. Perhaps we’ve struggled in the past with establishing boundaries or have experienced controlling relationships. Perhaps we’ve heard bad experiences of people in similar situations to ours or that some view people like us as generally incompetent or unable. Asking for help can have some big consequences.
Perhaps we’re afraid that it’ll change how we’ll be seen by others and our relationship with them. Even if we don’t know how or why, it might. Maybe they’ll see us weaker or as falling short. Maybe they’ll treat us differently going forwards.
Perhaps we fear rejection or humiliation. What if they say no or can’t help us or don’t want to help us? Maybe they don’t think that we actually need the help. (Who likes to be accused of making a fuss?). What if they gossip about us or unfairly portray our limitations to others? (And, worse, without even helping us).
Perhaps some of that fear is also about losing control of our situation and how it gets resolved. When the world is falling apart around you, believe me that you want to hang on to any semblance of control that you can. Admitting to ourself that we need help is admitting to ourself just how bad it really is. And who really wants to face up to that? Also, when we cede control to someone else, we have to trust them and let them resolve the situation in their own way and to their own standard. And that can be a scary prospect. Especially in complex situations.
More subtly, shame involves falling short of cultural or societal moral standards, whereas guilt involves falling short of one’s own moral standards. Thus, it is entirely possible to feel guilty about actions of which many or most of our peers approve.– Psychology Today
(Do people who hold themselves to the highest standards struggle hardest with feelings of guilt?)
To admit to ourselves that we cannot do something or cannot be enough can be devastating. It may also be that we’re acutely aware of the effects of our (however real) shortcomings on others. Perhaps too we’re worrying about taking up too much of someone else’s time and energy or other resources if we ask them to help. Perhaps we don’t want to ask for help either because we have such a specific need or conversely such general needs that either seems like an inappropriate imposition. Perhaps our fears about being comfortable with living with the consequences of letting someone help us to their own standards make us feel guilty and unable to reach out for help.
HOPE (or a Version of)
Weirdly, even us pessimists may be labouring under the hope that the problem will just go away. (Or maybe it’s a side effect of being socially awkward and preferring to avoid any, and ideally all, challenging interactions like requests for help). But when worrying if we deserve the help, maybe we tend to believe that it’s not as bad as it could be or that it’s just a short-term problem that we’ll soon have the wherewithal again to deal with it. Again, it’s also a matter of what we’re comfortable admitting to ourselves. After all, if our problems aren’t so bad as to require external help then they cannot be so bad after all. They’re reduced to presumably manageable scales again.
Some of us have always been helpers. We’re always looking for ways to help others. And that’s how everyone else sees us and what they expect from us. But what if we then need help ourselves? And why are some of us always helping, even serving? Sometimes it’s the way we express our love. Sometimes it’s tied to a sense that we need to earn our place in the community around us, on whatever scale, even just a family unit. Sometimes we’re trying to justify our very existence.
Often our needing help is tied to a change of circumstances. Perhaps we’re older or more ill than we used to be and that can take a lot of being used to. Perhaps we’re struggling with those changes, maybe with a sense of loss or grief, and barely able to admit to ourselves that we’re not the person we were or want to be. To then admit that to someone else even if it’s only implicitly?
Sometimes we tie our identity to what we do and the way we do things. To admit to needing helping undermines that. In fact, we may have to surrender our identity twice; once in asking for help and second in that the person helping us may do things very differently to how we would if we could.
Our identity could be our pride. Our pride can be shaken when our identity shifts. And then we have to admit to needing help out loud, to someone else.
We could be more comfortable clinging to the notion that we’re managing just fine. Perhaps we were raised to be that brittle, ornery kind of ‘independent’ because there was never anyone to help us. We could have also internalised negative ideas about the kinds of people who ask for help. And how our community views such people. Maybe we’ve always told ourselves, perhaps even others, that we’re not going to be that person (whatever that may be), that we’d never need help in such a situation. And now what? Yeah.
Whereas embarrassment is a response to something that threatens our projected image but is otherwise morally neutral, shame is a response to something that is morally wrong or reprehensible. … Shame arises from measuring our actions against moral standards and discovering that they fall short. If our actions fall short and we fail to notice, we can ‘be shamed’ or made to notice.– Psychology Today
If we need to ask for help, it may well be that we have, or perhaps simply feel, that we have fallen short. And who is comfortable admitting that? It can be hard enough admitting that to ourselves but to have to tell someone else? What if then more people get to know? Communities often treat shamed people very differently. (Sometimes reasonably so). So asking for help could risk our ostracisation. Which might not be the help we actually need. It’s a gamble.
We might even feel that we’re letting down an entire community if we admit that we can’t do something ourselves or need help doing something. And who wants to be the weak link? The one letting the side down?
Of course, even if we could get past the tangled mess of emotions, there is then the matter of words. How do we actually physically ask for help? ‘I need help’ rarely seems to convey enough information for someone else to know what to do. (But do we even know what help we specifically need anyway?) When do we ask for that help? Can it be a message or does it have to be face-to-face? Do we need to have a polite conversation about the weather first?
Then there’s the matter of who we ask. Do we need to check out their needs or availability first? Do we need to do something for them first? Have we already asked too many favours of them? What if they’re older than us? What if they’ve plenty of their own responsibilities to juggle?
So. Many. Questions.
Sometimes it feels easier to just not ask for help.