For most of my adult life I have not asked for help. If I didn’t know how to do something, I simply pretended I did. If I didn’t know how to do something, I simply pretended I did. Unsure what to quote a potential client? I’d make an educated guess, and hope for the best. Stressed out about my kid's perpetual tantrums? I'd buy stacks of parenting books and read them in secret – fearful that any admission to strife at home was a comment on my ability to mother.
On one hand, this faux confidence was useful. My fear of appearing uncertain — and therefore weak and incompetent — forced me to be extra resourceful in order to figure things out without having to ask a human being for help. (Thank goodness for Google.)
But my refusal to ask for help was also a refusal to be humble and to connect with other people. I feared, if someone did help me, I would then be indebted to them. Or, worse, I would ask for help and they would disappoint me.
Like many women I know, I felt immense pressure to be independent and to take care of everything myself — lest I appear unqualified (God forbid) or risk burdening somebody with requests for help. This is understandable and the legacy of sexism that to this day forces women to out-perform men before they are taken seriously. But all that independence came at a price. There is only so much a person can do alone. And the more alone you are, the more vulnerable and incapable you actually become.
It wasn’t until five years ago, in the face of tragedy, that I finally realized — and accepted — that help and support are abundant, shame-free and the stuff of life.
When my daughter was just over a year old, my husband was seriously injured in an accident while he was traveling in Europe for work. My baby and I jumped on the first flight to Athens, where I learned that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. My own sense of trauma was only beginning. Over the next two years I would discover what it meant to be the spouse of a brain-injured person, to go through a separation (and eventually divorce) and to become the primary breadwinner for my family — all while giving birth to a second baby and caring for the first.
For months and months, most days it was all I could do to get out of bed. Somehow I did get out of bed, and I was able to keep it all together — even thrive. But I did not do that alone. Scores of people came up and around my family sending good wishes, bringing homemade food, calling or sending letters and emails.
My mom moved in with me for nearly a year, and friends and family members seemed to know exactly when to get on a plane and be there. I did feel humble. But not humiliated. I did feel indebted to the universe for all this support — and it felt good. I felt more cared for and supported than at any other time of my life.
I’d also never felt stronger.
No one could go through that experience by herself. Humans are not designed to go through our days, careers or family life — much less major trauma — without constant feedback and support from others. We are social creatures and we are better together.
Besides, there is only so much you can know — no matter how ninja-like your Google search skills may be. Recently, I was paralyzed and feeling overwhelmed about deciding on which of my three big projects to focus on.
I consulted with two female colleagues — we created an informal support group to help us manage our creative professional projects — about which of the three forks in the road I should take. With total clarity, one of the women helped me articulate my goals and see the clear path — likely saving me months of wheel-spinning and further anxiety had I gone it alone.
Today, I make a habit of asking for help in every area of my life. For example, lately I have been initiating partnerships for my blog, WealthySingleMommy. In my old, “independent” days, I would have spent hours hunting around the web, making phone calls to the companies to find the right person to contact. Today my first move is to reach out to someone I think might know, explain what I’m up to, and ask for help.
What I’ve learned is that when you ask for help, magical things happen.
One, people help you. People like to help. That is also human. It makes me feel good to help, and I do it all the time. I’m not the only one. When the other person feels good, and you feel good, you connect. The relationship deepens and only more wonderful things happen. This is called networking. It is also called making friends. It is the stuff of our ancestors.
Two, you get more than you bargain for. I recently reached out to a blogger I’ve been following. We’re friendly, but not friends. I asked her: “Can we jump on the phone? I’d love to learn more about the reality show you produced.” She happily obliged and gave me about 20 different ideas about how to grow my business, including an upcoming conference I was unaware of but has opened up a goldmine of opportunities. Which leads me to:
Three, you find stuff out. Which helps you to do amazing things — things that are impossible if you live, work and love in proud isolation.
Emma Johnson is a personal finance journalist, blogger at WealthySingleMommy.com, and host of The Emma Johnson Show, syndicated nationwide on AM radio. She lives in New York City with her children, Helena, 6 and Lucas, 4.