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The Fine Art of Asking for Help

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Your dinner guests are arriving in an hour and things are nowhere near ready. The table hasn’t been set, the guacamole not started, the wine unopened. And the dog hair on the couch?

But instead of signaling for back-up help from your family, you do it all yourself. Within moments, you feel your face muscles tense into that mean little frown you’ve seen in the mirror. And you’re completely frazzled by the time the doorbell rings.

You also feel a surge of resentment toward your family or partner–how dare he/she/they take time singing in the shower while you’re downstairs slaving away?

Let’s face it. Most of us have times when it’s difficult asking for help. Sometimes we expect the other person–whether it’s a family member, significant other, boss, co-worker, or friend–to simply know what we want and automatically deliver.

With the holidays coming up, let’s consider some of the factors that might keep you from calling in reinforcements in times of need:
• You don’t want to appear weak, needy, or stupid.
• You’re afraid that the answer will be “no.”
• You feel that you don’t deserve help in general–or that you don’t deserve help in a specific situation. (“I got myself into this mess, it’s up to me to get myself out of it.”)
• You’re reluctant to delegate because you feel that the other person won’t do the job as well as you.
• You think people are too busy to help, and you don’t want to impose on them.

When you try to tackle a difficult or time-consuming task alone, you’ll likely end up feeling cranky and overextended. You might feel a tsunami of unbearable self righteousness (not a pleasant trait) as you secretly or not-so-secretly seethe and sulk.

The good news is, while doing it yourself can seem synonymous with being in control, you will actually experience more control if you can learn to ask for help. Here’s how:
Practice by asking for help with little things–and work your way up. If you’ve been a “do-it-yourselfer” all your life, start small. Instead of asking your mother to take the baby all weekend so you and your husband can escape to a B&B, first ask her if she can do it for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon.

Target the right people to help you. Don’t ask your boyfriend to help you with your tax receipts if he’s never balanced a checkbook in his life. Likewise, don’t ask your best friend to help you pick out a dress for a party if she’s allergic to shopping. Identify the experts in your life–a friend who used to be an accountant, a co-worker who lives and breathes fashion–or hire a real expert if the situation warrants.

Be direct and specific when you ask for help. Don’t say, “The house is a mess!” Say, “Can you clean the bathroom and kitchen? I’ll vacuum and dust.” Don’t say to your boss, “I can’t do this report by Friday alone.” Say, “There’s a lot of material here. Could I bring someone else in on this?”

Delegate. Take your to-do list, divide it up, and assign tasks to the appropriate people. Err on the side of over-delegating, and don’t be a perfectionist. It’s better to have your teenage son do a so-so job on the kitchen floor than to do it yourself perfectly–only to feel stressed out and exhausted afterward.

Reciprocate. Offer to reciprocate when you ask for help. In general, ask help from people you can help in return. For example, if you need someone to feed your cats for the weekend, ask a neighbor who also has cats and may need future cat-sitting herself. One of my patients makes lunch for a friend while he fixes her computer problems. Another barters–she’s a dentist who provides dental work to a friend who does handyman jobs at her house.

Handle rejection gracefully. If someone says “no” in response to your request for help, thank them anyway and start thinking about someone else to ask. Don’t take it personally; the person probably has valid reasons for not being able to come through.

And finally, remember these important words: Take care of yourself by not taking care of it yourself. It’s human nature for people to want to help each other, because it’s a way of enhancing their own connections and feeling good about themselves. So just go ahead and let them.

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