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On asking for help, getting over your need for control, and what we can learn from a Bald Ibis


Quick quiz:Help wanted. Casual man asking for help.

Which of these resiliency skills is hardest for you?

A. Thinking of something you’re grateful for.

B. Doing something kind for someone else.

C. Asking for help.

D. Looking at a problem from a different angle.

If you chose C. Asking for help, you’re not alone.

Most of us in our independence-valuing American culture have difficulty with this one.

I always thought I was good at asking for help until I ran smack-dab into an occasion when I wasn’t.

I was taking care of my late partner, Ruth, and she was at a point in her chemotherapy regimen that required someone to be with her continuously for about two weeks during and after the chemo sessions.

I was able to take the first week off from work, but I needed help the second week. Asking friends to come over and stay with her wasn’t hard. It was asking for help with bringing food for her that completely flummoxed me.

Any other kind of help I was perfectly willing to ask for. Can you come over and sit with Ruth for a few hours while I’m at work? Would you mind picking up our dry cleaning on your way over to visit us? Could you be sure to email and call Ruth consistently so she’ll remember that you’re thinking of her?

No problem.

But when it came to food, I suddenly felt ashamed and embarrassed.

My friend, Noreen, is back home after an extremely long stint in the hospital and a couple of rehabilitation facilities for a life-threatening illness. I notice that she’s having a hard time asking for help now that she’s home, too.

Offers to pick up groceries, clean her house, or walk the dogs are all gently refused.

Another friend, Keila, gave me this example: She has an injured thumb and was trying to stir some peanut butter. Rather than asking her husband – who was standing right there – for help, she did it herself and hurt her thumb even further.

Why is asking for help so hard?

I still really don’t know for sure why asking for help with food was so hard, but I think it had to do with the idea that I should have been able to do it myself.

Truthfully, creating healthy meals for her that she could palate was always hard for me. I don’t like to cook and I’m not particularly good at it, so I think part of me was really hesitant to “out myself” and my inner inadequacies by admitting to others that I needed help with food.

When we ask Noreen point-blank why she won’t accept the help of her friends, she just laughs and says, “Well, you know how independent I am.”

Keila said she felt like stirring the peanut butter fell under the purview of something she should be able to do.

And there in just those three examples lie the most common reasons for not asking for help: not wanting to admit weakness, believing that being anything less than independent is a flaw, and thinking it’s not okay to ask for help for things that we should be able to do.

But we better add one more in there, too: the belief that no one can do things as well as we can. Put all of those together and I think it’s safe to say they all fall under the umbrella of wanting and needing a high degree of control.

In a great blog post (make sure you read it), Jeana Lee Tahnk admits to holding “would-rather-do-it-myself reasoning” and quotes author Peggy Collins’ term, The Self-Sufficiency Syndrome.

The Self-Sufficiency Syndrome, as Collins calls it, is characterized by an inability and unwillingness to ask for help or delegate because of the belief that no one can do it as well as you can. There are short-term payoffs that self-sufficient people experience such as singular control, approval from others, career enhancement and self-confidence, all of which act as a catalyst for the behavior. Yet, when self-sufficiency is taken to the extreme, the burden of too much responsibility can cause stress, unrealistic expectations, lack of self acceptance and no acknowledgment of personal needs.

Sounds tiring, doesn’t it?

Why we should be more like Bald Ibises

Poking around the internet the other day, I came upon a fascinating story about the Bald Ibis. These endangered birds have been given another chance by an Austrian conservation agency that raised some young Ibises and taught them how to follow a microlight aircraft. The aircraft has led them along their once-regular migration routes in order to re-establish the flock in its natural homeland.

This arrangement also gave scientists a unique opportunity to obtain data to answer an age-old question: Why do some birds fly in a V-formation?

The scientists found that the formation allowed the birds to fly efficiently because the lead bird did most of the work breaking the air in the front of the pack while the two birds that followed could draft along behind its wings. And those two birds created a draft for the birds behind them and so on.

Every once in awhile, the bird at the front of the V floats to the back of the pack and someone else takes its place.

But there’s one more thing the scientists learned from the Ibises:

But flying in a V isn’t just about staying in the right place. It’s also about flapping at the right time.

The birds somehow know the most efficient timing in which to flap their wings to take advantage of the best drafting available to them. Remarkably, an Ibis following behind another will trace the same wing path that the bird in front of them just took. It’s very much like walking in someone else’s footprints in deep snow: it’s easier and you save a lot of energy.

We need our flock

When you have Self-Sufficiency Syndrome or any kind of trouble asking for help, you’re like the Bald Ibis at the front of the V-formation that refuses to leave the lead. You’re flapping and flapping against the wind no matter how tired you get. If a Bald Ibis did this without stopping, it would become exhausted and have to leave the flock to land and rest. Or perhaps it might even drop out of the sky from fatigue.

Allowing ourselves to ask for help – to ask someone else to lead the V-formation for a while – lets us rest, gives us more energy, and reminds us that we really need the support system of our flock in order to bounce back well in life.

And maybe there’s a bit more there than just allowing someone else to take the lead. Maybe it’s also about letting that person create the footprints in the deep snow for us so that our way is easier. How many times have you insisted on doing things your way not only because you desire the control, but you also have to be the one to blaze the trail, to be the uber-leader?

We need trailblazers and uber-leaders, but that role can be incredibly stressful and tiring, too. To get recharged, you might need to step in someone else’s footprints for a bit.

How do I get comfortable asking for help?

Disclaimer: You may never be completely comfortable in asking for help. But it’s like working a muscle that’s out of shape – you can get better and stronger at it the more you practice.

Here are some steps in your practice:

1. Use ACT. Tahnk provides this wonderful suggestion in her post:

Use the ACT Formula when presented with the opportunity to ask others for help.

A — What are you Afraid of? Create an awareness around what keeps you from asking for help. Is it fear of rejection? Appearing vulnerable to others? Surrender of power?

C — Let go of feeling you have to Control everything and that asking feels like giving up that control.

T — Learn to Trust yourself enough to reach out and take a chance that you can trust someone else.

2. Ask yourself how you feel when a friend asks you for help. Do you think of them as weak? Dependent?

I didn’t think so. If we are happy to help others, what makes us think others don’t feel the same way about helping us? When I asked my friends for help with food for Ruth, they were delighted. Finally, something tangible they could do for us!

In asking others for help, not only do we benefit, but they do, too. It’s a win-win.

3. Work that muscle! Asking for help is an essential skill in your ability to bounce back. Not only do you receive assistance, but you also strengthen your support system – another essential component of resiliency.

For instance, you can even buy youtube views with bitcoin to get wider reach and recognition when asking for help. Videos utilizing these techniques can get anywhere from 500 to 1500 views every day each week.

As mentioned above, your help-asking muscle may be out of shape. To begin working it out, start small. Ask someone you know well to help with something that you know they would be more than happy to do.  Ask them to stir the peanut butter!

This limits the possibility of rejection and gives you more confidence the next time you need to ask for help.

Each time you work that muscle, you’ll feel stronger and more capable as you discover that you don’t have to do everything yourself.


Here’s some helpful reading to give you more ideas:

Why Is It So Difficult to Ask for Help?

Why Is Asking for Help So Difficult?

(They really are two different articles!)


So, tell me in the comments below: Why is it hard for you to ask for help? What situations are harder than others? If you feel comfortable asking for help, how did you develop that level of comfort?




  1. Robert says:

    There are 3 big reasons why people are afraid to ask for help:

    #1: The fear what others may think or say about them – he can’t even do that, he really shouldn’t bother others with his problems, it’s really not that difficult…

    #2: The fear of rejection – if she says no, I will looks quite stupid, if she says no, it’s another indication that I’m not worth…

    #3: The fear that the person I’m asking a favor won’t do a good job.

    Whatever you decide to do, there will always be an upside and a downside. By asking for help, you may save a lot of time, make your life much easier, avoid some headaches… but it could also be that the person you are asking for help may think you are really inept, or he might mess it up…

    Does it really matter what anyone else thinks about you? Also, maybe it’s better, spending 2 hours repairing a not so perfect job of someone who helped you rather than spending 10 hours doing it all by yourself…

    Every person has a unique set of talents, but no person has a talent for just everything, so I think in many cases it is a good idea to ask for help, just don’t allow your fears to stop you from asking for help.
    Robert recently posted…9 Energy Vibrations To Completely Transform your LifeMy Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      Great points, Robert! It sounds like there is more of an issue about rejection than I mentioned in the post. I’m really glad you and others are bring this up because it’s an important topic.

      I also like your thoughtfulness about allowing other people to help even if they really might not do the job as well as you!

  2. Nikky44 says:

    Fear of being vulnerable.

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Nikky,

      Being vulnerable does leave us wide open to being hurt, doesn’t it? That’s why Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability is so essential. Check out her Tedx Talk. for inspiration!

  3. Paula says:

    There may be a history that prevents us from asking for help. If we grew up in an environment where all requests for assistance were shunned, and you were left ashamed for having asked, there will be some work involved in getting through that wiring.

  4. Dean says:

    Great post, Bobbi. This isn’t a huge problem for me, at least at first. I do worry about being a nuisance sometimes. “You mean you need help … again?” Figuring out where that line is can be tricky.

    An important aspect of being comfortable asking for help is having a good support network. If you’re surrounded by people you know are happy to lend a hand will not think less of you for asking, it makes it that much easier. If you’re in a “everyone for themselves” atmosphere, it can be problematic.
    Dean recently posted…Beerversity: A Simple Question to Begin…My Profile

  5. Judy Kukuruza says:

    Fear of ridicule. And will anyone hear a request for help?

  6. Sandra says:

    I grew up knowing i had to help others, that i had to be strong for others so asking help is difficult for me. Thoughts like i dont want to be a burden or i will come across as needy or week comes to mind. Feeling vulneralbe is very scary to me and I must admit i have control issues as well – i think that if i am in control of a situation then i can prevent most of what can go wrong or be prepared. Crazy i know. Sometimes I would rather struggle on my own until i run out of all options feeling tired, depleted and alone before i ask for help. I know this is not the reality coz when i do reach out there is always help out there and some people would ask why i didnt ask them right from the start, especially since i at times had helped them when they needed it. The Bald Ibis example has touched something deep inside of me…. the question i am struggling with now is who do i hand over the lead to in my relationship, my partner is depressed as he is unemployed and he is not handling it well and I am getting tired and feeling depressed as i had to carrying us emotionally and financiall for the last 2 years. I dont know how to do this anymore. I need help

  7. Becky says:

    For me, asking for help is risky in some ways because I’ve always been independent and self-sufficient (well, I’d like to think so, anyway) and asking for help is admitting I can’t do something. And there is that ‘I can do it better than the person I’m asking’ factor. I also feel that if I ask for help, I am indebted to the person who gives it. I don’t want to feel as if I owe someone.
    Now, that last one makes no sense, because I offer help on a daily basis and I never want that person to feel as if my help comes with a price. I never want them to feel as if they owe me for my help. And really, worrying about someone not doing as good a job as I think I would makes no sense, either, because unless they’re making a permanent mess or causing irreparable damage, there’s really no downside to having that help. Lastly, my own ego stroking should not get in the way of asking for genuinely-needed help. Maybe it’s true that I can’t do it all. Maybe it’s true that I’m not perfect. Go figure.
    Good article, Bobbi. Good points, all of them. B
    Becky recently posted…Go With Your Elbow.My Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      I love how you talked yourself out of each of your objections and into asking for help occasionally, Becky! 😉

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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.