Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

I don't even know where to start: How to ask for support

Of all of the things I coach clients on, asking for help is one of the hardest. Because, you see, I am not great at asking for help. I don't want to impose on people. I don't want anyone to think I can't handle things. It will mean more if I do it all myself. I hardly have time for anything extra, so how will anyone else have time to help me? 

But asking for help isn't a weakness, and it doesn't have to be an imposition. Here are the steps I follow to get over my own hangups and ask for help when I need it in a way that makes me feel good.

First: do I need help?

The first and hardest step, this is where I have the most trouble usually. Here are some questions I ask myself when I feel that I might need some help, but don't know where to start:

  • What would be different about my life if I had a personal assistant? What would I give them to do?
  • What would change about my life if I had an extra four hours every day? What would I use them on?
  • What feels most comfortable to talk about in my life right now? What feels the most uncomfortable to talk about? 
  • If an expert could weigh in on any one area of my life, what would I want them to look at? 

    Are the same issues and areas coming up in a lot of those answers? Are these things that are within your control? 

Second: decide if you want help, or space.

There's a big difference between "I want/need help with this" and "I just need someone to see me, doing this". Often, I stop myself from telling anyone about things I'm struggling with because I feel like they can't help me, or don't have the resources to help me. But actually, all I'm really looking for is someone to see me, to validate what I'm feeling, to help me feel less alone with the hard thing. Sharing is less vulnerable, for me, than asking for material help, and by opening that curtain and letting someone in, I open the door to feeling better without having to make the full jump into letting someone help me. Asking for space doesn't preclude you from asking for help later, either! In fact, people are usually more willing to help you if you've shared with them a little about what you're going through so they have some context. 

Third: ask for help in a way that makes you feel safe, and makes the other person feel respected.

If you decide that you want to ask for material help, congratulations! That's a big and scary step for many of us to take. Here are the steps I follow to make sure that I'm asking for help in a way that feels authentic to me, and respectful of the other person's time:

  1. Decide on what I need help with. Make it as specific as you can. For example, when I needed help with my dissertation, I would be as specific as I can. So instead of "ahhhh I NEED HELP" in an email to my advisor, I would write "Could you look at this specific section and give me feedback on [the strength of the evidence, the use of the literature, the methods used, etc]." 
  2. Give context only when necessary. My first instinct is to overshare details of my personal life (health, mental health, family issues, etc) to "justify" why I need the help. Unless it would change the quality of the help being offered, I now try and keep these details as limited as possible. I need help because I need help. I don't need to earn help through tragedy, illness, or other complication. It is a natural part of the human eco-system. 
  3. Be creative about who you ask for help. Often, we look to the 100% expert as the solution to a problem. Struggling with your dissertation? Only your supervisor can help with that, they're the expert! But often, a person with 50% fit (another faculty member, a colleague, someone on Twitter) can be just as helpful, and a fresh perspective. If you're worried about overburdening someone, getting creative about who you ask for help can help relieve some of that guilt. 

Fourth: counter that guilt! 

The most important step, at least for me! You've asked for help, and now you're struck down with guilt. Here are the phrases I repeat to myself when I'm feeling guilty about needing or asking for help:

  • I would help this person if they asked.
  • It is unkind to deny people who love you the opportunity to see your vulnerability, just as it would be for them to do the same to you.
  • Being vulnerable and asking for help is a skill I can practice, with many benefits. 
  • Asking for help does not invalidate my hard work on this project/situation.
  • Helping other people makes me feel needed and valuable; asking for help allows other people to have these same feelings.

Asking for help is hard. Being vulnerable is hard. But often, inviting other people into the hard parts of our lives makes it easier on us, and makes others feel closer to us. Grad school is hard enough. Don't make it worse by believing that your work is less valued, or less impressive, if you do it with a little help.