Reader Question #24: I have a hard time accepting help from helpful people who just want to help me.

I'm going to help you whether you like it or not.

Hello, lovely readers, I was out of commission for a few days attending a family funeral, doing what you do at funerals – cry until you can laugh again, eat, and tell stories.  The most awkward thing I encountered all weekend was a brochure for Thumbies. Yes, you too can own cufflinks bearing the thumbprint of your dearly departed. Or, if you’re planning ahead for many deaths, why not start a Dead Loved One charm bracelet?

Eh, grief is weird, and I can see how this kind of talisman might be comforting to many people and I guess the owners of the thumbprints don’t technically have to be dead, but I can’t get past the cutesy name. “I love those unusual earrings you’re wearing!” “Thanks, they are Thumbies!  The left one is my Grandma and the right is my Aunt Joan!

Now onto today’s letter:

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m in a bit of a tough spot these days, and I’m having to rely on my friends for help. I am very fortunate to have lots of wonderful pals who are happy — even eager — to provide all sorts of support. I know this because they’ve told me so, repeatedly. But for whatever insane reason, I’m finding it hard to ask. I don’t think it’s a pride thing; I fully admit that I need help. Rather, it’s my fear of being beholden or of asking for too much. Before I ask for even the simplest thing, I’m racking my brain, trying to think of who might be available, who would say yes even if they don’t actually have the time and how I can pay them back. I know I need to to let MY FRIENDS make the decision to help me (or not), but I’m stuck in a mire of over-analysis and totally useless guilt. How do I dig myself out?

Sincerely,

Swamped

Dear Swamped,

Your letter tells me that you already know exactly what you need to do. Slow down, stop worrying, assume that your friends who are adults who can set their own boundaries about helping. By that I mean they won’t offer to help if they don’t actually want to, and they’ll say no if they can’t do a specific thing, and they’re not too concerned about being paid back because they love you and they know that if the shoe were on the other foot you’d be the one helping them. Since you will be friends for life it will all come out in the wash. In fact, they would be mad to know that you’re suffering in silence and not asking them for help that they can easily give and outright have offered to give.

So one thing you could do, when the cycle of “Oh no, I can’t inconvenience anyone!” starts up is to just remind yourself: “My friends are adults who like me and want to help.”

Another thing you could do, Swamped, is to think about my grandmother. We used to eat holiday dinners packed into her tiny kitchen, but we could not enjoy holiday dinners because she would not sit down for them. She was too busy getting you things that you could get yourself, but if you got it yourself or, God forbid, tried to help her do anything, it somehow reflected on her. She didn’t think about the fact that it was impossible for us to relax and enjoy our food with someone constantly slaving and bustling around. Usually an argument would start where we insisted that she sit down and eat and she would glare at us and go right on doing everything herself.  Merry Christmas!  Also, if she came to your house, she would insist on cleaning up after dinner, and if you didn’t let her help with that she would go wherever your clean laundry was and start ironing all your clothes.

So, to sum up, while you make many sane points about how your friends are adults who want to help you, I sense that whatever crisis is going on has turned you into my grandmother – A Control Freak Who Feels Out Of Control.  My grandma fought aging and you are fighting whatever’s going on for you by taking on extra worry and guilt and unproductive bustle around not wanting to be or appear helpless.  If this rings a bell, read on, because I have homework for you.

Make a list of all the things you know you need help with.  Day by day, week by week, month by month.  Block them out on a calendar.  Color code them with pretty markers or make an elaborate spreadsheet. Take deep breaths.  You love lists.  You love a well-organized spreadsheet.

Then send an email to all of them (that all of them can read and respond to everyone).

“Hi guys, I’m really grateful for your offers of help, and it’s time to take you up on them in full.  It’s been difficult to adjust to (crisis), so to save my own sanity and make the best use of your generous offers, I blocked out the upcoming things I know I need help with (specific dates/times/appointments whatever), plus I could use (help with routine tasks).”

Ooh, perhaps there can be a shared Google calendar!

And then make your requests, as specifically as possible (refer to your awesome spreadsheet!) in bulk.  “X, could you handle Y for me next Tuesday?

If you get lucky, your friends will also be control freaks.  They will take your list and run with it and work out among themselves to make sure everything is covered without anyone getting too bogged down.    Because that’s what you’d do if you were in their shoes, right?

The day is coming where you will have an amazing dinner party to thank all of them for their help, and at that dinner party you will give each of them a small thoughtful gift that you picked out just for them, but don’t worry about that now. Just know that you will schedule that when things are better, and it will be a good time because your friends will be there with you.

In the meantime, control what you can control (take a deep breath and get organized about what you need help with) and let yourself be vulnerable about the rest.  Good luck.

9 comments
  1. i swear there is a big fucking blazing sign in the sky that follows me saying “let go.” it’s like my damn life lesson or something. and it really reared its ugly head as an adult.

    for one thing, i’m a helper. love to help. love to problem solve. blah blah blah. seriously, i love doing dishes at a party, for example. the best conversations happen over the sink, and! added bonus! it’s helpful. however…as an adult? man, i have had some serious. shit. go. down. which meant? i had to fucking accept help whether i needed it or not. and not dishes help, either. like big fucking i can’t stop crying and need to have someone drag my ass out of the fish aisle because fish are calming damnit at walmart help.

    i have to tell you. i learned A LOT about love by being open to it. accepting it. letting people love me through action.

    and you know what? it means that i can really help people when tough shit goes down. because i get it. and i know that sometimes? all it takes is someone bringing over dinner, or running an errand, or mowing a lawn to make a difference.

    let go.

  2. Sid said:

    I anticipate exciting times ahead when my mother – who shares scary amounts of DNA with the Captain’s Grandmother – is all but bedridden for six weeks this summer. When will her desire to Do Everything finally trump her desire to Not Ruin Expensive Surgery? I give it two weeks. Max.

  3. K. said:

    Of course, there is the fear that you finally work up the courage to ask for needed and necessary help — and suddenly all those offers from friends dry up &/or are put off.

    • JenniferP said:

      That’s why the letter writer should make the requests as concrete and specific as possible, to make it easy for the friends to follow through. It’s always possible that I can offer general “help” but can’t do a specific thing when the time comes, in that case, no hard feelings, there is now a structure for finding someone else to do it and I’ll jump on something else. If you never nail it down then you give fear and insecurity (and paralysis) even more room to fester.

  4. Swamped said:

    Yes. Yes, I agree with everything you said. Thank you. I think my friends would even find the spreadsheet or whatever hilarious, which is a plus. Working on it. Taking deep breaths.

    p.s. K, your reply is not helpful.

  5. Nadyezhda said:

    I want to see those thumbies used in a movie with futuristic biometric identification. “oh wait, that was Uncle Bob’s fingerprint, oops!”

    that being said, all hell will break loose on mon when I go back to work after my maternity leave is up. I’m swamped already, mixed emotions about going back, no one around to help (I kinda sincerely mean that) but I’m making the Giant Master List today that I will share with the spousal unit to figure out how we can best be organized. I’m not afraid to start spending some of our hard-earned money for help, but…I’ve been stalling on calling the housecleaner recommended to us because, well, I think my house is too disorganized for her to help, and I don’t know where to start with _that_. Le sigh.

    • Sid said:

      I’ve been stalling on calling the housecleaner recommended to us because, well, I think my house is too disorganized for her to help, and I don’t know where to start with _that_.

      Oh man, when I first hired a housecleaner, I had ALL KINDS of my own personal weirdness to get over. “I can’t ask her to clean the BATHROOM, there’s POO in there!” “What if she finds my vibrator! NO CLEANING THE BEDROOM.”

      But after a while, it was fine. I finally rationalized that it is her JOB to clean things I don’t have the time or inclination to clean. I just need to be clear and precise about what needs to be done, and what can be skipped. Best cleaning timez of all? When she cleaned up after a New Year’s Eve party. OOO. Or the time my roommates and I were all terrified of what had happened to the veggie drawer in the fridge and asked her to clean the fridge. IT WAS AWESOME.

      So basically, what I’m getting at is this: you can ask her to organize and clean rooms based on priority, but you also have the right to say “this time, these rooms are off the list.”

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