It’s OK to Ask for Help

Have you ever felt overwhelmed? Like you’ll never get it all done? And you long to take a nap or read a book or go for a walk, just to get a break?

Why not ask for help? Maybe a neighbor, sibling or friend would pick the kids up from school, sit with your elderly parent or make a meal—something to give you a breather.

Yes, we know what you’re thinking: Are you kidding? They have their own busy lives. What would they think if I asked them to do more while I go enjoy myself?

The truth is this: Asking for help can improve our mental health and strengthen our relationships, especially when we have the opportunity to reciprocate that help, says UNC Health psychiatrist Nadia Charguia, MD.

Why It’s So Hard to Ask for Help

“We have barriers that keep us from asking for help, both internal and external barriers,” Dr. Charguia says.

External barriers include worrying about how others might perceive us. We may think they are too busy or would consider us to be needy or a burden. Often these assumptions are wrong.

Internal barriers are our own vulnerability, self-judgment and guilt. We may consider ourselves to be inadequate if we need help.

“It’s human nature to be hard on ourselves,” Dr. Charguia says. “We may have a lot of compassion for others but little for ourselves.”

Start with Self-Reflection

If you’re afraid to ask for help, think about how you’d react if the tables were turned.

“If someone asked you for help, how would you respond?” Dr. Charguia says. “Most of the time, people respond with compassion.”

Remember, everyone needs help sometimes.

“In this day and age, when everyone is running in such a highly stressed state, it only takes one thing going awry to overwhelm us,” she says. “You feel like you just don’t have the bandwidth to keep going.”

The tipping point might be illness or death in the family. Or it could be a happy occasion—a birth, graduation, new job or visit from the grandparents. People in your life may not know you are struggling unless you reach out.

“It’s especially hard to ask for help when it’s our role, the job we think we’re supposed to do as a good mother or daughter or CEO of a company,” she says. “It’s hard to admit we’re struggling and have our own needs. It’s hard to be that honest with ourselves and others.”

We may be afraid others will judge us as harshly as we are judging ourselves.

“We think we’re the only ones who feel overwhelmed,” she says, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

How to Ask for Help

Think of asking for help as a chance to connect with someone in your life, Dr. Charguia says. “Connection is so key to our emotional well-being.”

A good place to start is by asking for concrete, tangible help. Ask someone to babysit while you go to the gym or coffee shop. Or ask them to pick up a few things at the grocery store or give you a ride to the doctor’s office.

“It doesn’t have to be anything big,” she says. “To go through that experience even once will lessen the barriers. It will be easier to ask the next time when we have seen the value of connecting with others.”

Your actions may even inspire your helper to ask for help when they need it.

How to Help Someone in Your Life

When people know someone is going through an overwhelming time, often they say something like: “Let me know what I can do to help.” This isn’t always very effective.

“An open-ended offer like this can seem disingenuous,” Dr. Charguia says. “And it requires the person who needs help to come up with a list. That doesn’t help diminish the barriers.”

Instead, think about what you would like if you were feeling overwhelmed. Some ideas:

  • Make a meal (it’s OK to ask if anyone in the family has allergies, but don’t ask what to make). Bring food that can be frozen or refrigerated for later.
  • Mow the lawn or weed the flower beds.
  • Take the kids to a movie or to your house for a playdate.
  • Wash dishes or vacuum the floor.

“Look around and see what needs to be done,” Dr. Charguia says. “Don’t worry about getting it right. Doing something that is decisive is far more appreciated and helpful than an abstract offer.”

Don’t Hesitate to Reach Out When Someone Is Struggling

People are much less likely to decline help when it shows up on their doorstep, Dr. Charguia says.

If you want your friend to know you’re serious about being available when they need help, write down your phone number or email address and leave it somewhere conspicuous. Maybe tape it to the refrigerator with a note: Text me when you need something from the grocery store.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to a friend or family member when you know they are struggling.

“If they can’t or don’t want to talk, they don’t have to answer the phone,” Dr. Charguia says. “Don’t overthink it. Even if you don’t know what to say or do, you can let them know you are there for them. You’re showing up.”

Be a Role Model in Asking for Help—and Giving It

When you ask for help or offer help to someone else, you are setting an example for others, including your children, neighbors and friends, Dr. Charguia says.

“You’re giving others permission to ask for help, too,” she says. “You’re admitting you’re not always going to be able to do everything on your own. That exposure can be powerful.”

If you are feeling overwhelmed or in need of help, let someone know. You can speak with your doctor or find one near you.