The leasing company said they were waiting on a criminal background check. This was a good sign since it’s the only part of the rental approval process that I pass with flying colors. While we were apartment hunting, we rented a beach house priced to attract people who want to recreate Grey Gardens without the grandma’s-attic-glamour or Kennedy-kid square footage.
To get to this point, I had to ask so many people for help. I think I learned to ask for help at work – because I had read so many studies about how people who ask for help do better in their careers. But I had been paying attention to how people give help for much longer.
Be giving without regard for what you’ll get back.
When I was maybe 4 and my brother Mike was 2 my parents were fighting in our front entry hall. We stood close by while my mom smashed a picture frame over my father’s head. Glass flew everywhere. While he was fighting to restrain her, and she was screaming, our neighbor opened the front door and whisked me and Mike out of the house.
So many people helped me survive life with my parents. A teacher let me stay after school with her. A school nurse let me sleep in her office when I didn’t sleep at night.
Adults gave me help even though I couldn’t give back. So I expected to do the same when I grew up. I started with my two brothers who are 16 years younger than me. They lived with me to get away from our parents. That felt good to be able to do.
Ask for what someone can do right now.
When I was in a panic, I called Mike. He always picks up when I call. I wasn’t sure what I wanted from Mike. To take my kids? To help me financially?
In fact, I wanted what Mike could give immediately: emotional support and caring. People ask for help when they have no other choice, so in most cases we only ask for help if we think it can come right away.
Choose respect over snobbery.
Some people create relationships based on hierarchies and some create relationships based on networks. People who have the latter are more comfortable asking for help. If you see the world as a hierarchy you will spend a lot of time preserving your status by only asking for help from people above you.
The two people who have given me the most help in the past two weeks are Lauren and Sarah. They are on different ends of the US, but I met them because they each sent me a piece of writing to edit, and instead of feeling like I’m better than they are because I have more writing achievements than they do, I saw them as equals because I liked the writing they sent to me and I learned from it.
Create relationships based on self-improvement.
Sarah adopted a daughter who has very similar trauma to me. It’s been incredible to me to watch Sarah’s little girl receive all the treatment and love she needs. I have been able to translate for Sarah why her daughter does crazy stuff. For example, it seems logical to me that the little girl replaces shame with self-harm – if you have been so hurt by people you love that you are past shame, then you hate yourself as much as they do.
Sarah and I help each other to be better. Among people who share the goal of self-improvement, asking for help feels more natural. So when I asked Sarah to co-sign for my apartment, it was not difficult, and she responded with kindness and not admonition.
Talk about your helper’s limits.
I was a little bit scared, because I was asking a lot of Lauren. Most of the research about asking for help focuses on indebtedness. People hate feeling indebted. Also, when we ask for help we intuitively assess how much hardship we could cause the other person. I said to Lauren, “Is it very hard for you if we come back to your house until we know about the apartment?”
Lauren told me we could do that as long as I had a plan for what we’ll do if we don’t get the apartment. “You can’t stay here forever,” is what she said. The discussion was essential to my feeling OK asking for help because then I know what will create too much hardship for Lauren and I can avoid that.
Use your social network to help you meet your goals.
We now know that Facebook makes us feel bad and is the opposite of helpful. But researchers have discovered that if you use social media to acknowledge other people’s feelings, you’ll personally benefit from social media. For example, if someone says they are having trouble with money, both you and the person benefit more from you expressing empathy rather than presenting a solution to their problem.
Of course, most people use Facebook to share what’s great in their lives – or what they wish was great. But research shows that if you share negative feelings and plans for self-improvement then you cultivate a network of people who you will feel comfortable asking when you need help.
Let your kids see you asking for help.
The kids who are most likely to die from suicide are kids who do not see other people effectively asking for help. I have known about this research for a long time, and it still didn’t make me feel good about letting my kids see that I need help.
But a few weeks ago I could see my older son’s relief when my sister-in-law arrived at our apartment in Swarthmore with a hug and a smile. And both my sons easily receive kindness from Lauren after seeing me accept her help.
I was scared to let my kids see how much trouble I was in. I was scared to let you see it, too. But now I realize I don’t need to hide from people that I need help as long as I’m willing to ask for the help I need.