I used to suck at receiving help. I was so bad at it someone finally had to tell me …
We were sitting at a table in the sun at a retreat I was facilitating in Cancun in 2012. I had just finished my glass of tea and a retreat participant asked if she could fill it up because she was going to the kitchen. I politely declined, letting her know I’d be going to the kitchen shortly to get some guacamole and would get the tea myself. Odds were, though, that I’d never remember to get the tea or the guacamole.
Another participant I was talking to looked me in the eyes and firmly but lovingly said, “You suck at receiving, love.” Guilty. (She always ends sentences with “love” as a term of affection so the truth doesn’t sting as much.)
I had come a long way by that time, though. I’d spent the past few years really working on asking for and receiving help. Mind you, I’m not talking about asking for and receiving help from people I’ve paid to help me – I’m usually great at delegating to and getting support from people I’m paying. It’s the whole non-economic receiving that I’ve struggled with.
I’ve made progress and have come a long way, but I still have a ways to go and know that I have to keep at it.
Here’s what I’ve learned about asking for and receiving help:
1. Asking for and receiving help shifts interaction from a utilitarian transaction to a relational exchange.
Those words in 2012 made me take the problem more seriously again. I had already learned how much not being helpable corrupts relationships. If the only way people can reciprocate is through economic exchange, their relationships are ones of utility, not the rich sort that we all look for.
If the only way people can reciprocate is through economic exchange, their relationships are ones of utility, not the rich sort that we all look for. (Tweet this.)
I knew this on a cognitive level and I’ve experienced it. I’ve experienced the loss of connection when readers, friends, and supporters have asked me what they could do for me and I didn’t have a real answer. Even when people don’t say anything, I can sense when their emotions and energies shift; what usually happens is that either these people don’t feel seen or they sense the distance between us.
So I started coming up with practices that involved my always knowing what I needed or wanted and being able to recall these items when I was asked. Or rather than Googling a problem and spending the next four days figuring it out myself, I’d ask the brilliant people around me to shine and share their brilliance. Or I’d build automatic practices so that I’d ask some of my peers for their expertise when I was doing something relevant to it and assume that if I needed to pay them for it, they’d let me know.
2. Asking for and receiving help doesn’t have to incur a debt.
As I was reflecting on my progress at the time, I recognized that I’ve been playing it safe with people I trust as a way to unlearn family-of-origin and cultural patterns. Those patterns had taught me to be very resistant to receiving help, as it was more often than not used against me, and there’s a lot of resistance to receiving help from people when you’re poor and black (in the South, at least) and male. Tainted charity, and all that.
I’ve finally incorporated a more healthy and empowering truth: when you’re in relationships with your yaysayers, receiving help isn’t taking anything from them; you’re not incurring a debt. Your yaysayers, true friends, and spirit family want to help – and they need to help – because that’s how we aspire to be in relationships with each other. We aspire to be in relationships of generosity, reciprocity, and abundance — relationships wherein we share in both the triumphs and the anguish of falling down.
3. Asking for and receiving help can become a habit.
I know myself well enough to know that to interrupt patterns that are no longer serving me, I’m going to have to proactively build another habit or pattern. Wishing faulty wiring away doesn’t get you very far.
One of the things I started doing in the years leading up to finishing my book, Start Finishing, was deliberately asking for help with something every day. If it didn’t make me feel uncomfortable, it didn’t count. I don’t grow when I’m comfortable and know that I’ll game the system.
At some point in the future, I want to be talking to someone who looks me firmly in the eyes and says, “Charlie, you’re great at being brave enough to ask for and receive help.” I’m thankful for a community of people like you who are helping me to get there.
What about you? What habits can you build to ask for and receive the help — that’s freely given in a relational exchange rather than a transaction — you need?
All this time I pictured you as a 50 something white guy. I guess because that’s who all these experts always are.
I really needed this. It made me see how that pattern of not asking for help is ingrained on a generational level. My mom either whined about people not helping, attacked others for not helping, or did some major thing herself without asking. And yes, from other family I’ve learned that gifts come with cables attached.
I’ve become my mom, and it doesn’t feel very good.
Charlie Gilkey says
I totally understand where you’re coming from regarding what the experts usually look like.
I’m glad this post helped. Much of the point of this site is that we become by doing, so if you’ve become your mom and it doesn’t feel very good, you can become someone else by doing something else. Uprooting generational patterns is hard at first, but after a bit, it’s easy to see how much weight you’ve been carrying that isn’t actually yours or needed.
You’ve got this!