ASK. It's a tiny, three-letter word that connotes the super simple process of recognizing a need, thinking of someone you know who may be able to fulfill that need, and reaching out with a request. That's it.
When there is no manipulation or coercion, no quid-pro-quo or other sliminess attached, the askee is free to respond as they like. In the memoir The Art of Asking
by Amanda Palmer, who is best known for her music and performance art, suggests that this simple act is made complicated by our terror at the prospect of hearing the word "no." One of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, wrote the introduction to this book. Her research on vulnerability and shame have spoken volumes to me about the role those emotions play in our ability to ask for and receive help. Her TED Talks are assigned viewing for nearly all of my coaching clients.
For me though, the challenge of asking for help doesn't actually lie in the answer I'll receive; I can be equally ok with a "yes" or "no." In fact, I prefer a reasoned "no" to a reluctant "yes" – the one that you can feel is out of obligation or guilt or some equally yucky place and not from a heart-centered desire to help. I believe it is my fear of being perceived as weak or needy or incapable, and my own shame and sense of unworthiness about whatever situation I am in that requires help, which gives me the most pause about asking.
Research shows that shame is the most destructive emotional state that we can operate from. Its energetic vibration is so low that it literally keeps us stuck in place unable to muster the will to take action (such as asking for help). This is what I learned from Palmer's book: Asking for help with shame says: You have the power over me. Asking with condescension says: I have the power over you. But asking for help with gratitude says: We have the power to help each other.
What is more beautiful than helping someone that we have the power and desire to help, or allowing someone to help us who has the power and ability to do so? Isn't that what human relationships are all about? Whether it is a stranger on the street or a long-time friend or trusted family member, giving and receiving is a cycle that requires people to be willing both to ask and to receive with gratitude. In the past, I only wanted to be the giver, but I am learning every day how to be a better receiver by recognizing the value of asking for what I need.
When I was first diagnosed, people kept asking what they could do, and at the time, I honestly didn't know -- but I knew if I wanted support that I was going to have to figure it out. Then my mom gave me some of the best advice I could have asked for: "Think about how you would feel if one of your friends were going through something like this. You would want to help, and you would be upset if they didn't ask." She was so right. How many times have you heard someone say after a tragedy of some kind, "If I had only known that they were struggling, I could have helped."
So I wrote about it -- among other milestones I passed in my cancer journey -- in my book Being Single, With Cancer
, you can find -- verbatim-- an email I sent out to my support network with a list of things they could do for me
. It included everything from hugs and my favorite ice cream to inviting me on weekends away and buying me books. It actually had a huge impact on my personal community. So many people wanted to help, and were grateful for the guidance my list gave them.
When you are in need, reach out, connect, ASK.
Getting cancer was absolutely my best teacher for learning this lesson. I am still not perfect, nor do I ask 100% of the time I have a need (not even close), but I am much more comfortable than I used to be, and I wouldn’t have gotten there without a REALLY BIG need in the form of a life-threatening illness. I absolutely knew I couldn't do it on my own, and that I would have to rely on my community for support. In that sense, cancer has absolutely been my best teacher in learning the value of asking for help.
Have you had a hard time learning how to ask for help? Share your blocks in the comments below.
Image courtesy of Bryan Minear