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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
"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."
"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."
"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."
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!
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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.
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