Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 15, 2022

The Extraordinary Blessings of Asking for Help

I don't know about you, but I often have trouble asking for help.

It's not that I don't want help and it's not that I don't need help. It's that I don't want to be a bother. Or that I don't have time to explain what I want. Or that I feel like it is something that I "should" know how to do (even if I don't), and so asking for that particular piece of help means I feel less than.

Should is one of the worst, most shaming words in the English language, isn't it?

I know I'm not alone in this help discomfort. In fact, if I polled all of my friends, I'll bet "I need help" is likely to be one of the least frequent phrases crossing their lips.

Writing Life Help

The interesting thing about writing as a career is that it is an often-solo profession where it is very hard to succeed without help. We need writing friends and critique partners, writing teachers, editors, proofreaders, beta readers, cover designers, street teams, and in some cases, agents and publishers.

To do all that we must to be successful as authorpreneurs, we need help. Period. And what I've noticed is that most of us dislike asking for it. Even worse, many of us don't even realize that we can ask.

I'm going to get the ball rolling with some real-life examples:

Finding Other People Like You

In the Fall of 2000, I joined my local romance writing chapter. I was a baby writer who had no idea there were other people like me within driving distance. It had literally never occurred to me to go find other writers and I had no idea that entire writing chapters existed.

A financial analyst co-worker, who was also my SCUBA diving partner, read a few category romances and decided that "she could make a lot of money writing short little books that went to gobs of people via mail every month."

How hard can it be, she said.

[I can hear y'all laughing at that ignorance.]

So, she dragged me along to the local writing chapter, where she attended 3-4 meetings and I attended for decades. I don't actually write romance but that chapter is still the most welcoming writing home I've found.

New Writers Don't Know What They Don't Know

I went to meeting after meeting and (very slowly) began to understand how many writerly things I didn't know.

I learned how hard professional writers work, and that I'd better not quit my day job. I became friends with actual published writers and sat in awe of them at every monthly meeting, with no idea how to get from baby writer to published writer.

I didn't know that I could ask them about how to shorten the journey, because I didn't want to bother those busy professional writers.

Really...Just Ask!

About four years later, I attended my first big writing conference where, Lord help me, I signed up to pitch a story. On Day 1, two of my published writer pals sat me down at a table in the conference lobby bar and asked me what I was pitching. I gave them the title and word count of my book. And that was all.

They exchanged a look across the table that I can now interpret as "we'd better save this poor little baby writer peanut." And they absolutely saved me that week.

They taught me how to pitch in that hotel lobby, and sent me to my room to practice. Then they both took an hour out of their own schedules to sit in the pitch line with me and hold my cold sweaty hands. I got through it, as we all do, and later that night one of them asked why I hadn't spoken and asked the more seasoned writers for some pitching feedback before this.

My answer makes me sad today: I didn't know that it was okay to ask them questions.

I didn't know that nearly all of my published author pals were dying to help new writers like me succeed. They were just waiting to be asked.

It was a revelation.

Think of how much faster I could have learned if I'd reached for the help that was within my grasp.

Hindsight Takeaways

  • If you have an established friendship with other writers, you should absolutely ask them questions.
  • Experienced writers want to pay forward all the help they received when they were baby writers.
  • As long as you're respectful about it, your request for advice will make those seasoned writers feel like rockstars.

Everyday Help Is Hard Too

Most people, especially Americans, are hard-wired to want to do things on their own. Even as toddlers, we're independent-minded, yelling at our parents that "I can do it myself."

Many of us don't learn early enough that leaning doesn't have to make you weak.

Here's a story about an experience I had with a friend who hates asking for help. Actually, hate probably isn't a strong enough word. She loathes asking for help. Viscerally despises it. She's one of the most helpful people you'll ever meet -- especially to other writers -- but she literally can't ask for help.

Many years ago, we were at a writing event held at a local hotel right after she'd had foot surgery. She was getting around via scooter at home, but she needed a wheelchair for the event. I knew she absolutely hated it, and I also know how tiring it is to sit in AND push a non-motorized wheelchair around.

I was her chauffeur to and from the hotel and I was happy to push her chair around that day because it allowed me to spend more time with her.

Full Disclosure

I have the helper gene, and I'm a nurse's daughter. I literally grew up in and around hospitals, watching my mama help people. When someone needs help, especially someone I love, I automatically rush forward. I don't even register that I'm doing it.

For someone who loathes asking for help, I'm pretty sure my helper gene can feel intrusive. This friend in the wheelchair was fine while we were surrounded by people and she was busy. But when we went to the parking garage, she whipped out her independence card.

She could put herself in the car, thank you very much.

She literally wanted to get out of the chair near the trunk and walk herself around the car to the passenger seat. And no she didn't want help. She was fine.

She was absolutely not fine. She stood up "so I could put the wheelchair in the trunk." Then she swayed. And then she fell on me.

I don't mean she fell on the ground, I mean she fell on ME.

I staggered and prayed I was going to be able to hold her up. (I was partly facing away from her, dealing with the chair, and I didn't have a good grip on her.) Thankfully, there were two nurses watching us from the next row of cars and they ran over and handled our nonsense.

We are still friends and we still laugh about "that time in the parking garage." And I'm about 90% sure she still dislikes asking for help.

Hindsight Takeaways

  • It's always better to ask, especially among friends who love us.
  • Many of your pals are dying to be helpful to you.
  • It is often more work to refuse help than it is to accept it gracefully.

Why asking for help is a milestone.

Asking for help isn't just a skill we hope to acquire, it is an important developmental milestone.

In Psychology Today's article, What Makes It So Hard To Ask for Help, the author argues that asking for help is an essential aspect of emotional strength. (The article was eye-opening, y'all.)

[Excerpt below.]

3 key aspects of experiencing oneself as emotionally strong

1. Being Capable

"Your sense of being or feeling capable of facing life’s challenges emerges out of your experience of effectively handling eight unpleasant feelings: sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, embarrassment, disappointment, frustration, and vulnerability. These are the most common, everyday, spontaneous feeling reactions to things not turning out the way you need or want."

2. Being Resourceful

"Being resourceful..involves embracing the dependent side of your nature; it takes feeling vulnerable, courageous, and comfortable enough within yourself to recognize when you need help. When you are able to do that, you are more apt to openly and genuinely acknowledge your specific needs and limitations. This acknowledgment enables you to take the next, most essential move—that of asking for help. Asking for help is part of what it takes to be emotionally strong."

3. Receiving graciously.

"When others extend their assistance, wisdom, availability, time, talents, or enthusiasm to you, unquestionably, they are giving of themselves. Gracious receipt of their generosity not only meets whatever needs you may have, it also honors them. When you allow yourself to receive, you have reached that harmonious balance between independence and dependence."

Final Thoughts

The more I read about the psychology of help, the more I realize that one of the barriers to asking for help is fear of rejection. We think someone will say no, even when it is very likely they will say yes if the request is clear and concise.

An interesting addendum to this point is mentioned in this article from the Verge:

"Research shows that people who have rejected you in the past are actually more likely to help you than other people. [Author's quote] When I reject you and you offer me another opportunity to help, if I can, I jump at it. I want to feel better."

Plus, most of us are far more likely to ask for help for other people than we are for ourselves. I know I am. It's easier to ask when it's for someone else.

One final quote for y'all, from the Psychology Today article linked above:

"Asking for help is not a burden nor a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of humanness."

I'm going to tape that quote to my bathroom mirror. Who's with me??

Questions for you:

How easy is it for you to ask for help, on a scale of one to ten? Using that same scale...how easy is it for you to give help? I can't wait to see your answers down in the comments!

Sources:

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About Jenny

By day, Jenny Hansen provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Facebook at JennyHansenAuthor or at Writers In The Storm.

Top Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

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41 comments on “The Extraordinary Blessings of Asking for Help”

  1. Yeah, you can use my name, and I'm STILL embarrassed about the parking garage (sorry, AGAIN).

    And no, of course I haven't learned to ask for help. I will ask, but only after going down for the 3rd time, and I'm 2 inches from the bottom.

    Sigh. Luckily, my friends love me anyway, because this one is so bone-deep, I'm not solving it this time around.

    1. I totally wasn't going to out you! But since you outed yourself...I can tell you I absolutely love thinking of our time in that parking garage. #1 - it is so quintessentially Laura (my pal who I love to pieces) and #2 - it taught ME a powerful lesson about why you have to sometimes ask for help.

      Remember, MY Achilles heel is that "I don't want to be a bother." So I take the help when I think it will be easier on someone else than if they had manage me trying to do it myself.

  2. I asked Jessica Ney-Grimm if she would be my cover mentor, and she said yes. Boy, does she have high standards! But it was wonderful being able to ask her questions, and even more wonderful when she explained fonts are persnickety, and it is IMPOSSIBLE to get everything to line up perfectly - though you can come pretty close. It took me a whole summer - but we got 'er done.

    1. Good for you, Alicia! And she sounds like an absolutely amazing resource for you. Isn't it lovely to get your questions answered in a way that lets you stretch out your own wings?

  3. I could not agree more. Asking for help is a sign of strength and not of weakness. I think what makes asking for help hard, is that it makes us feel vulnerable. But might I say, it is through our vulnerabilities, that we connect with others. As vulnerable beings, we come to bear our souls. And might I add, the true measure of a person’s character, is to become vulnerable, and on the flip side, for another to come to the assistance of such vulnerable person. All because we never know.

    1. I agree with you, Ritu, all the way down the line. It IS hard to be vulnerable. Here is a story I use to illustrate why leaning on others can be a strength.

      I used to SCUBA dive and one of the things they tell you before you go into waters where there might be sharks is "if you see a shark, 'get bigger.'" That means, link arms with all the other divers so that you appear to be one gigantic animal to that shark. They are more likely to leave you alone.

      If you reach out and create a community of helpers, you will achieve far more than you could have alone. That is actually the essence of why we created WITS -- we wanted to pay forward the help all of us had received and create a safe space for writers to help each other learn and grow.

  4. Great post, Jenny. If Laura Drake is a ten, I'm probably a seven. I don't like asking for help, but I'll do it if I have to. And one of the things I'm just realizing lately, now that I'm not a newbie writer anymore, is that I have something to offer others. I can help. It's a great feeling!

    1. LOL. I'm still laughing that Laura outed herself. Love that lady.

      I probably started as a 7 or 8 for both questions. As time has gone on, I'm down to about a 5 on my resistance to asking and up to a 9 on my likelihood of giving.

      We're all a work in progress!

  5. I, too, have the helper gene. The servant gene, and I don't shirk from saying that. It's becoming a lost art, I think. I'm not crazy about asking for help, but at 56 I've finally learned how to, esp in the writing vein. That's what's great about joining the online writer groups for answers to questions. People answer if they can, and if not, no harm done. And as I embark on the self pub world, I have LOTS of questions, and need a ton of help. This site is a huge source of assistance, too, and thank you for that!

  6. I love this post - it was written for me. I hate asking for help (maybe as much as Laura, haha!). And for me, it is rooted in rejection. Growing up, so many times when my parents should have helped, they didn't, or made it such a hmm-haw process (especially as I was a young adult starting out) I always regretted asking, and finally, I just stopped. This spilled over into my everyday, though, and I would cut off my own foot first before asking for help. And like, you, I am a total helper and love helping others.

    Finally, one day, a friend sat me down and gave me a talking to (that I needed). She kindly asked why I like to help so much, and I told her it makes me feel good to do so. And then she asked, "But don't you see you're denying people that same feeling by not accepting their help when they want to do something for you?"

    And that was sort of an epiphany for me. It is still hard for me to ask, it isn't natural, but I am getting better about doing so because I remember her words. And I'm grateful she said them, because everyone needs to feel that burst of well-being that comes with helping another. 🙂

    1. That was what turned the tide for me too, Angela. People WANT to help us be successful, and they love to know that they contributed to our success - not to take the credit, but just to see someone awesome rise. It was a total attitude adjustment for me.

      And how sucky is it that your parents put strings and shame on giving you help? Some parents really missed the memo on some big topics.

  7. I'm sure you could have described writers that were not "published writers" somewhat better. Less professional comes to mind, perhaps less seasoned would have been a better choice. But writers who have written for decades, who write for enjoyment might take offense at being called a "baby writer". Writers who have written for the same length of time as you can be a touchy, sensitive lot.

    1. Tom, I absolutely didn't mean to hit a nerve there with anyone. My definition of a Baby Writer is a newbie, a fresh, shiny, sparkly new writer. I look back fondly at that sparkly new writer I used to be.

      However, since I can see that the verbiage might bother some of the readers, I took your suggestion and changed a few of the "Baby Writer" references to "New Writer." Thanks for speaking up!

    2. Wait, what? Anyone who finds the phrase "baby writer" (a fresh-faced writer at the beginning of the stretch, not jaded, clueless, is how I took it) offensive, surely won't last long in a profession guaranteed to pierce that pink bottom hide in record time. Pulllleeeze.

  8. For better or worse, I've been a giver not a taker. But not always. Being the baby of four kids, I got a lot of help...actually, more like directions and orders. Then, when my wife and I had our three daughters, I discovered how selfless I could become and how bottomless my well of love is.

    Like you, that same local writer's group in OC was not just a life preserver, but it was the wind beneath my wings! (Sorry for the BEACHES-lyrics reference.) You and Laura and so many others generously offered advice and insights and encouragement. Each meeting was like Christmas morning, with writerly gifts waiting to be opened.

    Now, when I speak with "baby" writers or lead a writing workshop, I can't help but feel warm and fuzzy about paying it--and playing it--forward.

    Thank you! And thank you for this post!!!

    1. I agree about the writing chapter, Chris. I didn't see you at the highly awesome Penny Sansevieri class on Amazon ads and keywords. It was amazeballs!!

      I can't believe I am just now learning that you are the baby boy of four. How fun is that? Where are you teaching writers - I want to go watch you shine!!

  9. How likely am I to ask for help? Probably somewhere around a 5. I used to be a 1 (as in would not ask), but I'm getting better because I've been so overwhelmed with work since the pandemic hit and everyone moved online!

    How likely am I to give help when asked? HA! That's often a 9 or 10 (extremely likely to help), with the 9 being related to the same issue. I love to help people. I love being in customer support situations so that I can help. I even hang out in support areas on Reddit and drop occasional "gifts" in when people are struggling. With LWA, we've got a whole area set up to help writers, because we don't want them to feel alone. And of course, that's part of why I joined WITS - because I love helping writers.

    We need all the help we can get!

    I had someone tell me the other day that she felt bad asking for help understanding her word processing program. My first experience as a teacher of technology was teaching NASA scientists to use a word processor. I will never see someone who is struggling to learn technology as stupid, because I've watched literal rocket scientists fight with technology. We all need help to learn new things!

    Great post, Jenny!

    1. You and I are peas in a pod! I am SO much better at asking for help than I used to be, and actually better at saying no when I am stretched too thin to provide help. That was the huge one. In my old life before kids, I'd just do it. Now I've learned to be helpful, but to conserve my time where possible to give to my family.

      We're all just works in progress. 🙂

  10. Boy, did you hit the nail on this head! I might resemble someone in a parking lot... lol. I'm working on accepting more help and am getting a smidge better at it. Great post, Jenny.

    1. Hahahaha! This is good intel to know, Lynette. Hand to God, I've never met anyone MORE stubborn than my wonderful friend Laura. I truly believe that stubbornness has saved her life many times over. But no, she doesn't not count asking for help as one of her life skills. Hence, the parking lot fiasco. God bless those nurses!

  11. Wow! This post really got me thinking. Do I ask for help? I think so. Yes, for writerly things because I have a plethora of talented writer friends who are SO generous with their time and expertise. But, where I hardly ever ask for help? Emotionally. When I'm really down or worried or sick or receive bad news, I'm reluctant to tell my friends, ask them for support because I'm afraid to bring them down. Yet this is the most important ask you can, well, ask. I'll work on it. Great post, Jenny!

    1. This is so very interesting to me, Barb. Now *I* am thinking, and examining whether I do underground thing, rather than asking for emotional help. It is true that bad news usually only goes to my husband and my bestie -- they HAVE to listen to my crapola. I don't tend to share the depressing stuff very widely though. More because I don't want to have to weather others' reactions when I'm still grappling with my own. But I will totally examine this to see how I feel about it.

  12. I'm not sure if this is better or worse but my boss at work likes to make me figure out the hard stuff about Data Analysis. I'll ask a ton of questions but he doesn't give me direct answers. Instead he will ask me what direction I'm focusing on or what actions I'm trying to take or what is my audience. He is not a writer so i usually feel accomplished and proud after I curse a lot then figure it out. But as a writer I want to strangle him. This writer wants to write, not socialize, market, design, or travel. I'd like to be able to say I'd be a good writer without those other things but that's totally false. And I want to know how to do things to make sure they are being done correctly. Yes, help is great. And I have decided being shy (which i am not) or the "independence card" take too long. Really the authors I've asked questions too are more likely to send me a dissertation on things than just say "oh, you should read this book" I'm a 5 on asking for help and about a 7 on giving help.

  13. If you don't ask me for help, I'll probably ask you if I may help. I discovered years ago, that instead of asking for directions, asking someone if they "could help me find" my destination worked much better. Most of us seem to be hard wired for the word help. As toddlers when we were asked to help it meant that we were big boys and girls. (Puberty often puts a wrinkle in that.) One of my great life lessons was that I don't know what I don't know. So I'm almost as willing to ask for help as I am to give it.

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