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.

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39 replies
  1. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    I’m really happy for you Penelope. Really happy. You have learned to be brave and have a gift of sharing that experience in a very relatable way. Thank you for that. I’m on the same train as you….the “I’m scared and I’m older and should know what to do but I’m completely out of ideas and backed into a corner of …..asking. for. h.e.l.p. I’m smiling at the sun though….and doing my best to keep my boys in routine and feeling safe.

    Do you notice that it’s the small things that make you feel safe though?? I’ve noticed that my fuzzy blanket at night helps me to fall asleep. Tea in the morning keeps me grounded and reminds me that I still have my dignity. Even the simple art of writing in my journal gives me strength….

    Know you are growing and be assured you have the roots to make yourself bloom. Shalom to you and a good nights rest.

    • harris497
      harris497 says:

      Your post was empathetic and made me feel good reading it. Yes, it’s often the little things that make a crucial difference in us maintaining stability. I read elsewhere that the little things in your life, add up to your life, and this resonates in your post.
      Penny, do your best to develop a routine… I call it a comfort routine. Whenever I feel anxious, I go to the routine and this helps bring me back on track. I hope it also brings your some peace in this time.
      P.S. Penny, did I miss something? When did you move?

      • Monique Boucher
        Monique Boucher says:

        Penelope! I love you and live North of Boston. I am frying a turkey this year. You are invited for Thanksgiving. I mean it. And I am not a psycho.

  2. Erin
    Erin says:

    Sarah is so amazing. She is helping me, too, with emotional support and practical advice. She even paid two months of my mortgage back when I didn’t realize yet that Matt wasn’t paying it.

  3. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    This is a very good post, full of sound advice. One shouldn’t wait to fail to ask for help. Helping each other should be how we go through life.

  4. Clane
    Clane says:

    But wait…how does that solve the money problems? Isn’t Boston even more expensive than Swarthmore? I’m curious besides the emotional supports and crashing with Lauren, was there any specific proactively support from your family and friends that you can talk about? Not that you have to tell use, and not that help has to be practical to be helpful. I’m just really curious and it would be interesting to see the extent to which people are able to step in during a crisis like this.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The biggest factor turns out to be getting to lessons and rehearsals. I don’t drive and I can’t manage train schedules (dyscalculia). So we need to live close to the teacher. And we are limited in terms of teachers. So we chose Boston because it’s cheaper than NYC and Lauren has volunteered to drive. When we lived in Swarthmore (West Philadelphia) we were spending $2000/month to get back and forth to a teacher in NYC. For six years I resisted making location decisions based on cello lessons but I’ve found that every year travel for cello is our largest expense. So even though my family is not helping financially (they think my devotion to my son’s cello playing is insane), this is how the very expensive real estate in Boston became cost effective for us.


  5. Clane
    Clane says:

    That’s very interesting! It’s not a world I am at all familiar with. And it’s amazing that Lauren is willing to drive. What a gift.

    • Allison
      Allison says:

      It’s wonderful that Lauren is willing to drive but I think you might want to look into other options so the valuable friendship doesn’t get strained. You hired tutors to further your children’s education and I think you might consider something such as hiring a tutor to help you and your son with the trains, yes there are apps for that. My mother has no sense of direction and from age 7 and up I was the giver of direction. It could be a valuable experience for your son.

  6. Jessica from Down Under
    Jessica from Down Under says:

    I very rarely ask anyone for help (besides my husband and kids) because I’m afraid that if anyone else asked me for help, I wouldn’t be able to reciprocate and would therefore be ïn debt” to them. How do other people get past that feeling (or do they not experience it)?

  7. Andy
    Andy says:


    I just wanted to express my admiration for your blog. I am probably not your typical reader (male, 37, INFP), but I find it thought-provoking and useful nonetheless. Your candidness and vulnerability are inspiring. Thank you.


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thank you, Andy. The blog is interesting because there’s such a wide ranger of people reading. So I really appreciate knowing you’re there.


  8. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    Been a while since I checked in on your blog always wishing you well being. Your honesty is bracing. Be well.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          Actually I don’t need to do anything special because I have received help. This is because I give help all the time and expect nothing in exchange. I don’t ever keep score when I give. And if you do that long enough you start to believe that other people don’t keep score as well.

          I don’t think people benefit from keeping score. People benefit from giving.


        • Kate
          Kate says:

          What EXACTLY has she done for me?

          1. She has consistently inspired and challenged me with her blog for years. She has solidified and changed my thinking on many things, even things I completely disagree with.

          2. She has given voice to many societal/life truths in a way that I have not seen anywhere else. I have been able to articulate different ideas much more easily to others because of this. So much so that with certain people, we just refer back to certain of Penelope Trunk’s maxims in our conversations.

          3. She offered on online personality typing class that I took which gave me many aha! moments specifically about myself and how I interact with others. I have referred back to the knowledge there many times. Yes, I paid for it, but did so gladly even though it was a stretch for me.

          4. She’s been receptive when I’ve emailed her wonky articles that I knew she would like too. She has always responded gratefully, and I thus know she is available personally one-on-one as well.

          And I know she has done all this and much more for many others as well.

          • thatgirl
            thatgirl says:

            You’ve put it all so well, Kate!

            I will say that for the years I’ve been reading Penelope’s writing, she’s helped me understand a great many things—particularly about myself. Hell—even people who don’t agree with her all the time manage to read her work.

            That probably includes Jennifer, who I would have written off as a troll. You took the high road, and I’m grateful.

  9. Mu
    Mu says:

    Why are your parents not in prison after all they did?
    And are they not a danger to other vulnerable people now?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      My dad is restricted from working with kids. But my parents are well of financially and well educated, and people who meet them would never dream they’ve done anything wrong.

      This is interesting though: when my parents divorced (I was in my 20s) they were so crazy that one judge threw my parents out of his court for being absurd and wasting his time.


      • Elizabeth
        Elizabeth says:

        I don’t know how to ask this question in a way that isn’t going to seem rude or crass. And I’m British, so that’s kind of difficult for me to do, so I’m just going to ask it, and if you don’t want to answer, or if it’s too hard, then that’s fine.

        As your parents are so well-off, could you get money from them? Possibly by threatening to sue or expose them? Or even asking (maybe via someone else)?

        • Jess
          Jess says:

          Having had some experience with parents like this (not mine so much, but parents of people I know), asking for money or help doesn’t work. Either they won’t give it or if they do, you’ve given them access to you in the process and that can have so many very bad consequences. They can try to manipulate you and abuse you some more through that access.

          And trying to use what they’ve done as ammunition against them never works because there’s usually little evidence and by the time you even fully realize how much they’ve abused you, it’s too long ago to persue much legally.

        • jessica
          jessica says:

          As an American in Britain,

          From what I’ve witnessed culturally is that ‘parents’ in British culture help their kids significantly more financially than most American parents in the upper middle to upper class realm.

          I’ve noticed there are a lot of banking schemes in the Uk that promote this as well. The ‘bank of mom and dad’ is the 6th largest funding institution for mortgages, for example. Familial class seems to be a lot more important in the UK, as well.

          As far as I’m aware, It would be close to unheard of for parents of Penelope’s stature to not help support her for housing and other basic needs in the UK. Because of the kids, she would also qualify for housing in the Uk much quicker without family help- this is not the case in the US. Her income is too high from what I gather and that factors in, in the US.

          Also, public shaming tactics aren’t as motivating nor effective as they seem to be in the Uk.

  10. Anwar
    Anwar says:

    Interesting post. I always find though that the asker has much more concern than the person being asked. Usually the person being asked is happy to help (and improves the relationship). It’s interesting though to see all these different ways of doing it. I know i have to be better myself and maybe some of these will help me do so.

  11. anon
    anon says:

    Oh my god I am so glad I get to comment on this. I am always, constantly asking for emotional support. I don’t know why I constantly need it, but I do. I have to take breaks when I am alone and when I am working just for emotional comfort. I have to give and receive emotional comfort constantly.

    That is why this is so helpful to me. Lots of people comment on penelope’s blog, making it ok for me to comment on it. There are other blogs and websites I love, but commenting is much less there, so I can’t gush everything I feel. Penelope’s writing style makes it ok for me to gush.

    My mother was a gusher. She gets really emotional over things. I get anxiety when people are not emotionally demonstrative, so the idea that it is empathy and emotion that is positive over social media, rather than cognitive contribution like solutions, makes sense to me. Emotions are a key part of how we communicate as humans, not just through reason.

    Thank you so much for this anxiety reducing blog for a little helpless HSP, an infp. When I get emotionally aroused, I can’t think, so I need someone else there to think for me in an empathic way, which is about a dozen times a day.

  12. Morgan
    Morgan says:

    I’m glad you asked for help. I’ve been reading on and off for years, and I really appreciate your honesty and your perspective. I started up again cause I’ve been seriously considering homeschooling my 1st grader, and your advice is some of the most we’ll researched and lived advice out there. I decided not to right now, because I lack the skills to maintain an active enough social life, and I too am a single mom and it drives you insane. But you are the only one who has the guts to say so. You are a writer, and by sharing your experience and thoughts with the world, you are making a huge contribution, and you and your kids definitely deserve to eat!

  13. Simon Abolaji
    Simon Abolaji says:

    Thumb up Penelope,
    You have indeed come along way to where you are today. I must say a big thank you for using what you have learnt over the years to impact other peoples life positively.
    Kudos once again.
    Simon Abolaji – MoneyPedals

  14. thatgirl
    thatgirl says:

    Asking for help is one of the hardest things for me, Penelope. I still don’t know whether it is indebtedness, the possibility of hearing “no,” or simply my pride. But I know it doesn’t serve me at all.

    Sometimes I think it’s because my parents were always so conditional about it—or at the very least, you’d be told that you weren’t grateful for it when they didn’t agree with how you handled something.

    I’m so happy to read you’ve asked for that help, and are seeing your way to a better situation—even though I’d hoped you were going to make New York work somehow. It’s hard enough getting un-stuck on one’s own.

    Boston’s a capital place for a cellist, and Cambridge may hold some opportunity for you, mama! Wave some sage, and take it all one day at a time. As someone commented on one of your earlier posts, take pride in even the micro-accomplishments; they count as much as the bigger ones.

  15. Josh
    Josh says:

    There is a lot here that hit home…

    But I think knowing how to give without expecting anything in return and experiencing that at an early age when your parents were…as they were…is really powerful.

    I can relate to that. There are a lot of good people out there who want to help.

    This: “Adults gave me help even though I couldn’t give back. So I expected to do the same when I grew up.”

    I’m a similar way for an extremely similar reason. It was actually kind of nice to see that written out. Thanks again for sharing.

  16. David
    David says:

    I find it hard to ask for help because I’m afraid of being let down. It seems easier just to depend on myself. So it makes it really hard when I do really need help. Any advice?

  17. Istiga
    Istiga says:

    I am happy I found this because I always pull back from asking for help majorly due to fear of being let down.
    Also, I felt as if by asking for help I am telling the other guy that I am incompetent.
    Thanks for sharing this with us. It’s very timely.

  18. cindy
    cindy says:

    It’s a tough subject. I found myself a homeless, jobless, single mom, nine years ago. People I thought offered to help, actually resented me for taking them up on it. When I realized that I was stunned, but I DID NOT CARE because I had my two boys to protect. I just did what I had to do to get through that tough time. And, that included, staying in a place I was not welcome for a few weeks. They were terribly hurtful and rude. I bought food. I cooked. I cleaned up. I left as small a footprint as possible. I left gifts when I left. I did everything I could to be a good guest and not be intrusive. I just kept moving forward and left that behind me as soon as I could.

    Good luck, P, I know it isn’t easy. But, you will get through it. As my mom told me, “The hottest fires forge the hardest steel”.

    • Vanessa
      Vanessa says:

      Cindy, your statement “People I thought offered to help, actually resented me for taking them up on it” hit home with me – I have definitely felt that with some people. You wrote, “They were terribly hurtful and rude. I bought food. I cooked. I cleaned up. I left as small a footprint as possible. I left gifts when I left. I did everything I could to be a good guest and not be intrusive. I just kept moving forward and left that behind me as soon as I could.” Yes, yes, I can relate. When people don’t say what they mean and mean what they say, it’s so difficult to know what to believe and what to do. In a very vulnerable position, one has to accept an offer of help (if it doesn’t seem dangerous or otherwise patently unwise). Some people seem to offer a refuge from chaos, maybe just to impress third parties, but then resent what they have brought about and cannot resist plunging the person into more chaos, because they have the power to destabilize the vulnerable person further. I had family members do this when I was a teen and needing to fend for myself, and that of course taught me to be wary of accepting glib offers of support, but what can one do, when one needs kind of “humanitarian” help? In a way, I think it’s almost an instinctive reaction that some cowardly people have after they’ve talked a “big game” but really are emotional weiners. (No offence to hot dogs, penises, or people from Vienna, though certain guys named Anthony I might not worry too much about disparaging). They are desperate to get out of the situation they just got themselves into, and are needlessly unkind in the process.

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