I’ve never been good at asking for help. A few memorable examples to help you understand how nonexistent my “asking for help” skills were as a kid:
When I was five, I fell out of a tree that I was climbing and landed on my back. As you can imagine, I completely knocked the wind out of myself. Not being able to breathe was scary. Falling out of the tree hurt. Did I run to my parents in tears, wanting to be comforted? Nope. I can still remember squatting on the garage floor, crying, trying to catch my breath.
In third grade, during small group reading time, I only brought one tissue with me to the group reading table. I had a nasty cold and quickly used up that tissue plus both shirt cuffs. So I sat there, right next to the teacher, pretending that I didn’t have snot running down my face and that I wasn’t licking it as it reached my mouth. Eventually I guess she couldn’t take it anymore. She went and got some tissues, setting the box in front of me with the admonition that I should ask next time.
In sixth grade, a boy trapped me in the coat closet and kissed me. Not a cute puppy love kind of kiss. More like a gross, smelly, pinned in the corner so hard I couldn’t breathe kind of thing. I spent the rest of the spring avoiding him. He was bigger and stronger and I was afraid of him. I never told an adult. I never asked for help in keeping myself safe from him.
All three of those memories are traumatic in their own way. I remember feeling scared and alone. I don’t remember even thinking about asking for help. For some reason, among all of the options I came up with, none of them involved going to another person to see if they could assist me in solving my problem.
The Why of It All
Difficulty with asking for help is often listed as an autistic trait, though I’m not exactly sure what about being autistic makes it so. As an adult, I can identify a few themes that have run through my life when it comes to asking for help:
1. Recognizing that I need help is tricky. As a kid, it didn’t occur to me that I could ask for help. As an adult, I often get so absorbed in trying to do something that I forget that asking for help is a potential solution.
2. Asking requires speaking. Which requires engaging with people. Which may require preparing a script or being ready to answer questions or provide clarification. Thinking about this can be intimidating, which often makes asking for help seem like more trouble than its worth.
3. What if this makes me look stupid? As an adult, I’m conscious of the fact that some of the things I need help with are atypical. I often ask questions people consider odd. I sometimes fail to see the obvious solution to a problem. I get stuck in one particular way of thinking and can’t see any other way ’round. So I worry that instead of a helpful answer I’ll get teased or be met with a puzzled look.
4. I’m stubborn. And I have a lot to prove. I’m very much of the “I can do this” mindset, even when it’s clear that I can’t. I’ll struggle with something past the point of realistic hope of succeeding, often leading to some sort of minor mishap or disaster.
5. Executive function comes into play. Asking for help requires troubleshooting, planning, and initiation, all of which fall under the EF umbrella.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The reason I’m writing about this topic right now is because I decided that I would practice asking for help on my trip. Being in foreign countries, some where I didn’t speak the language, and all where I was unfamiliar with the environment, seemed like the perfect opportunity to work on this.
For one thing, being a tourist and a foreigner is a good reason for needing assistance. Most people seemed eager to offer help and I didn’t have the “will this make me look stupid” feeling because I kept telling myself that it was perfectly usual for someone in my situation to be asking for directions, etc. Also, I anticipated I would have many opportunities each day to practice recognizing that I needed help and going through the steps of getting it or at least trying to.
So how did it go? Pretty well, I think. Complete strangers gave me directions, answered questions about the train, helped me print out my boarding passes, and explained how to use my transit pass. People had varying degrees of enthusiasm for being helpful but no one outright refused to help and some people were even apologetic when they didn’t know the answer to a question.
The more I practiced, the more self-reinforcing the process became. I did notice that I was more likely to be eager to ask for help when I wasn’t feeling overloaded, but other than that, it was less difficult than I thought it would be.
A few guidelines I used:
1. Putting a time limit on how long I’ll try to figure something out by myself is helpful. In a software course I took in college, the syllabus said that no one should spend more than 10 minutes trying to work out a technical issue. If we couldn’t fix it by ourselves in 10 minutes, we probably couldn’t fix it and should ask for help. I applied this rule to my experiment, giving myself less than a minute for simple questions and a few minutes for more complex situations.
2. Signalling is important. When approaching a stranger for help, it’s good to start off by signalling that you need help with one of the following phrases: excuse me, can you help me, may I ask you a question, are you familiar with _________ or (in non-English speaking countries, in my case) do you speak English. Having scripts can also make initiating encounters less difficult, which is a bonus if you’re like me and find initiating conversations with strangers especially hard.
3. Be specific. It’s easier for people to offer help if I ask for something specific. That means I need to do some internal work to identify what I need. This was pretty straightforward during my vacation because what I needed was often specific information like the location of my hotel or whether I was on the right platform to catch the train going to a certain place. There was one incident in particular that reminded me of the value of being direct and specific in a crisis.
4. Don’t forget the reward. More than once after successfully approaching a stranger, I turned to The Scientist and pointed out how well it had gone. The process of postgaming successful encounters helped me feel more confident about trying again. Sure I felt a little silly but I also felt proud of myself for working hard at something that has never come easy.
I recognize that these are baby steps. Asking a stranger for directions isn’t fraught with the emotional baggage that other situations might be. It’s low in potential for trauma and there’s a high likelihood of success.
And when I put it like that, I see that there is something else at work: trust. Asking for help requires that we trust the other person to respond genuinely or at least not malevolently. As my daughter put it when I told her how helpful people were, “it’s great that no one sent you in the wrong direction.”
Asking for help is an act of vulnerability in so many ways. It requires courage. In that sense, it’s not an act of weakness as I’ve often thought, but an act of strength.