When you try to help someone—or, for that matter, give them something—it can feel like a personal affront when they turn you down. In their rejecting your offer, you can hardly help but feel somewhat rejected yourself. So it’s useful to explore what, beneath the surface, might be motivating them to decline your sincere efforts at assistance. Especially since their negative response may surprise or confuse you, or even seem pigheaded or perverse.
To better grasp the apparent irrationality of another’s unwillingness to take what you’re perfectly happy to give them, here are four questions to ask yourself (and maybe ask them as well):
(1) Might they be too proud to accept your offer? As a matter of personal pride, they might feel that to take what you’re offering them would be to admit inferiority, inadequacy, dependency, or defeat. And such a reaction could be the case whether you’re proposing a financial gift or loan, or concrete assistance with something they’re struggling with. Any money offered them, even if only temporarily, could make them feel patronized—or as though they were some sort of “charity case,” pitiful enough to be offered a hand-out. Additionally, accepting non-monetary help on a task or project might be experienced by them as conceding an inability to successfully complete the work on their own.
(2) Might they feel too undeserving to accept your offer? Did they possibly grow up regularly receiving the message from their caretakers that they were entitled to nothing? And that asking for things was unacceptably selfish—a behavior they needed to repudiate? If so, they might feel they have no right to accept what you’re more than happy to offer them. That they haven’t sufficiently earned your proposed gift or assistance.
Since in the end it’s emotions that govern behavior, it’s safe to assume that if these individuals did allow themselves to take what you were freely offering, they’d feel guilty. For that would be the emotion most closely linked to violating a family rule that, earlier, they swallowed whole. They might even feel anxious that if they “dared” accept your generosity, they’d be punished (i.e., by the highly judgmental parental voices still echoing inside their head). For it may be that they were rebuked anytime they accepted something not explicitly authorized by their parents.
(3) Might they connect acceptance with incurring a burdensome sense of obligation? They may not wish to be beholden to anybody for anything. For they view all external help as carrying a heavy price tag, as implicitly demanding reciprocity later on that would seriously disadvantage them. So your offer may threaten their sense of freedom, independence, security, or autonomy. In such instances, they’re compelled, from deep within, to reject whatever you—or, for that matter, anybody else—might wish to offer them.
If in the past strings almost always seemed to be attached to whatever they received, they may have decided (whether consciously or not) that it was in their best interest never to accept favors from others. People who seem excessively independent may have learned to be that way because their experience validated the notion that taking anything from anybody was simply too risky. So, quite understandably, they concluded that it was better—or safer—to turn down proposed presents, or assistance, than be indebted to whomever might “gift” them.
(4) Might they associate taking from others as rendering themselves more vulnerable to them? This final explanation is an overarching one. And in a sense the first three explanations could all be viewed, indirectly, as necessitating a greater willingness to experience personal vulnerability. But here I’m focusing specifically on the individual’s fear of accepting something because of abiding trust issues. They may fear that taking—as opposed to giving—will place them one down in the relationship, and that such subordinate “positioning” will lessen their ability, going forward, to protect themselves.
If in the past such “taking” was, unexpectedly, used against them, then why in the world would they open themselves up to the possibility of re-experiencing such betrayal? Victimized precisely because in the past someone convinced them that it was okay to accept some sort of unearned “perk,” they learned—or more likely, overlearned—the sad lesson of distrust. If the gift received was in reality an instrument of manipulation later used to exploit them, then now anything like a gratuitous offer can rouse their suspicions, strongly prompting a knee-jerk refusal.
An extreme example of this “learned distrust” might be an individual who was molested as a child—by a person who “groomed” them for such molestation through carefully contrived favors and gift-giving. Made to feel super-special, valued, and loved by the pedophile, at some point they felt compelled to acquiesce to the increasingly intimate physical advances made upon them. Such early trauma can lead to lasting distrust of anyone professing concern for them—anyone offering to give them something or help them with something.
So, consider: the next time a person you’d sincerely like to assist (either with time, energy, or money) pretty much dismisses your offer out of hand, then—rather than take it personally—think about what, frankly, might be making it impossible for them to be the willing recipient of your largesse.
NOTE: If you found this piece in any way illuminating, please pass it on. Additionally, if you'd like to check out other posts I've done for Psychology Today—on a broad variety of topics—click here.
© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.