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Why Successful People Learn to Ask for Help
And the three things that always get in the way
As a therapist I have the privilege of being a part of my clients’ growth. I see people escape from the depths of depression and anxiety to become healthy, adaptable, and successful individuals. They rarely (if ever!) do this alone. They are prompted by something or someone to ask for help, often putting aside shame or ego to accept the possibility that they could make things better for themselves, with help from someone else. This begins a journey towards something better than they can find on their own.
A lot of people don’t even begin the process of asking for help. This happens in small ways for most of us, but it also happens on a dramatic scale for for a surprising number of people. For example, more than half of all mental illnesses go totally untreated. That’s a big problem! I know I have had my own struggles where I avoided asking for help despite knowing the difference it can make.
More than once in my life I have had this feeling of drowning in unfamiliar waters. Those waters have come in different forms: drowning in paperwork on the job, drowning in debt of different forms, or drowning in the unfamiliarity of parenting or DIY household repairs. My impulse when feeling this way has never been to reach for help though, like it would be if I was actually getting dragged under by some nefarious rip current.
Why is this? Intellectually, I know there are people who have been where I am before; I know there are experts willing to lend a hand or give some advice. I know I have family and friends who I have helped before who would be all too eager to return the favor. I know I have a wife who can be counted on in times of stress or confusion. Still, instead of using those resources, I can find myself obsessing about worst case scenarios like getting fired, or going bankrupt, or giving up on a project halfway through instead of simply asking for help. It’s as if I’m in a video game by myself and instead of playing through all of my options I just accept defeat, hoping to restart the level.
A recent example of this happened on vacation with my wife, 19-month-old daughter, and immediate family. There were 9 of us all together, so plenty of “helpers” were available if needed. Despite being on vacation, I had a hard time relaxing practically the entire time we were there, especially at first. Even when my daughter took blissful three hour naps in the middle of the day, I stayed close by her room, not allowing myself to get out of earshot in case she woke up.
I desperately wanted and needed to relax—so what was I waiting for? I could have easily asked a sibling or parent to take watch. After much self reflection I identified three obstacles that got in my way then—the same ones that stop so many of us from asking for help.
Obstacle #1: Locus of Control
American psychologist Julian Rotter identified many influential theories around social learning, but perhaps one of the most important is the theory of “locus of control.” Your locus of control is the degree to which you believe your results/circumstances are controlled by yourself (internal locus) or by outside forces such as luck, destiny, God, or powerful others (external locus). An internal locus of control is generally considered more desirable as it is more likely to produce feelings of self-determination and an achievement oriented mindset. See here for an in depth explanation.
I have had some past experiences where it has felt like I’m not totally in control of my circumstances. The most memorable was moving from Maryland to New Jersey at the formative age of 13 in the middle of 7th grade. No matter how I felt, and despite my parent’s best intentions, I struggled with the transition. I didn’t ask for help or talk about this struggle at that time either. I developed a somewhat external locus of control; it felt useless to ask for help because I assume that “things won’t work out anyway.”
This is a lie, or at the very least a cognitive distortion. And it is a common mindset for people with depression and anxiety. Getting help is often delayed because it “doesn’t matter” or “won’t make a difference.” The reality of the situation, though, is very different from this perception: it does matter, and it can change.
People can find success no matter what their perceived locus of control is. Dr. Al Siebert, author of the Resiliency Advantage, argues that “both sets of beliefs are self-validating and self-fulfilling. People who believe that their fate is under the control of outside forces act in ways that confirm their beliefs. People who know they can do things to make their life better act in ways to confirm their beliefs.”
For example, people with an external locus of control may believe a higher being is in control of their lives. In times of anxiety or stress they may pray for assistance. In asking for help this way, they reassure themselves and confirm their beliefs that a higher being is in control and will hear their prayers.
Meanwhile, people with an internal locus of control may believe they alone are responsible for improving their mood or situation, so they may search for something helpful like therapy, a meditation practice, or a journaling habit.
People on either side of the spectrum can reach out for help and are move towards success.
Obstacle #2: Learned Helplessness
This is a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, either due to a traumatic event or a perceived failure to succeed. To any outside observer, the idea that I have “failed to succeed” might sound ridiculous. I am blissfully married with a happy and healthy 19-month-old daughter. I am fully employed and am in good health. I have frequent positive social interactions with friends and family. Yet sometimes, I feel this sense of powerlessness or perceived failure myself.
Like locus of control, perception of powerlessness or helplessness is entirely subjective. There is an infamous learned helplessness experiment performed by Martin Seligman, PhD, in which three groups of dogs were subjected to shocks in various circumstances. The dogs in the test group were put into crates and subjected to shocks that they could not control or escape and that ended randomly. When dogs in this group was later put in a crate where they only had to jump over a small barrier to escape the shocks, they remained in the compartment, whimpering “helplessly.” Not until the testers physically moved their legs and showed them that they could escape did the dogs start jumping the barrier on their own.
We may not need someone to come “move our legs” to help us to get moving directly, getting someone else’s perspective can help us take a step back and discover ways out of the situation—despite what our past experiences seem to be telling us.
Obstacle #3: Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance happens when our thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes are inconsistent with our actions or behavioral decisions. I experience cognitive dissonance when I view myself as a competent/productive employee (belief) yet fall desperately behind on paperwork (action). Thus I am less likely to ask for help in these situations because I still see myself as a competent and productive employee—yet there is clear evidence to the contrary! The barrier to asking for help is that it requires me to challenge my belief; I would have to acknowledge that my actions do not reflect how I have viewed myself.
In the earlier example with my daughter, I view myself as a competent, caring, responsible parent, and believe that asking for help caring for her would make me selfish, irresponsible, and burdening others. Intellectually I know I am not a bad parent for asking someone to watch her. Nevertheless, I have an emotional believe that it would mean I was incompetent. The reality is every competent parent needs help from others. Furthermore many people are pretty excited to watch a cute toddler for a few hours and genuinely like to be needed—not feeling burdened. By reminding myself of this, I can resolve my dissonance by changing my belief that I am not irresponsible when I ask for help.
The important theme through these obstacles is that what we perceive the situation to be and what the situation actually is often differs wildly. How we frame our problems makes a big difference in our ability to solve them. Instead of giving up in the face of frustration and telling ourselves “I can’t do this,” we would be much better served by reminding ourselves that when we get to this point that “I can’t do this alone.”
That mindset has been very helpful for me in addressing problems in my life. At work, I recognize that when I get behind on paperwork, my supervisor can help me manage my schedule, front desk staff can help me get organized, and co-workers can cover for me or just commiserate with me and help me motivate myself. In asking for help, I take more control over my situation, and I can see that I don’t have to feel guilty about acknowledging my shortcomings.
With money, I can recognize that even though I’ve been in debt in the past, that doesn’t make me any less capable of managing money now. There are always options to be explored. I can consult people who are more comfortable managing money, even members of my own family.
As a parent, even though I want to see myself as competent, caring father, I can also recognize that a competent father needs a break every now and then. Additionally, if I don’t allow myself to relax once in awhile I won’t be any good to my energizer bunny of a daughter. If I see the need to relax as part of being competent, asking for help will not cause any cognitive dissonance.
While we might feel like we are drowning alone reaching out into dark empty waters, in reality we are drowning with eyes closed while hands reach out to help all around us. All we need to do is open our eyes and reach.