- Receiving help can trigger feelings of shame if, as a child, one asked for their needs to be met without getting an attuned response.
- Learning to accept help requires, among other things, the willingness to drop the idea that one is a "burden" if they do.
- Accepting help and generosity can bring out a caring response in others and lead to deeper emotional closeness.
All of us have a longing to be the recipient of caring gestures and offerings that express thoughtfulness and sensitivity to what we need. However, many of us also experience a certain level of discomfort around receiving because, even as it may benefit us and be what we wish for, it also challenges us.
Too often, we have grown up believing that the less we ask for, the better. Feelings of being a burden or imposition can lead us to avoid accepting things in general. As a result, we are often confused by our conflicted responses to receiving.
So, why is accepting help so hard?
These complicated reactions to receiving can partly stem from our attachment history. Our early attachments help shape how we relate to others and how we expect others to relate to us. If we experienced an insecure pattern of attachment in childhood, we may feel less trusting or secure in our adult relationships. If we weren’t used to receiving consistent, quality care from our parents or attachment figures, it can feel painful or confusing to accept this from others throughout our lives.
It is difficult for us to depend on others for help. First of all, it can be hard to admit we can’t do everything ourselves. Recognizing we need something from another person can trigger feelings of shame and unresolved pain from our childhoods. This is especially true if we spent the first year of our life expressing our needs and not receiving an attuned response. These are the building blocks of avoidant attachment, where the child develops the adaptation of being self-sufficient and keeping their needs out of their awareness to avoid the painful feelings of shame that result from their needs not being responded to. They may be afraid that if they express a need, it will be seen as “too much.”
When we have developed an avoidant style of attachment, we tend to feel pseudo-independent and driven to meet our needs ourselves. This can make it particularly challenging to rely on or seek out others for support. It may be hard to believe there could be a better outcome than there was for us in our past. Letting others help or offer us something can contradict our view of having to take care of ourselves or not have needs at all.
How do we challenge our discomfort around accepting help?
In order to accept help and even be willing to ask for assistance, we would have to abandon an adaptation that felt necessary for survival when we were helpless, dependent children. Moving away from something that provided a sense of safety can initially cause us to feel anxious, insecure, and even frightened. However, these feelings will subside as we adjust to a new reality in which we are able to accept and participate in the give and take with others and the closeness it brings.
In addition, we would need to part with a negative identity we developed early on of seeing ourselves as needy or a burden if we expressed a need. This identity develops from the young child’s needing to see their parent as good to feel safe. If a parent is not attuned or responsive to the child’s needs, the child unconsciously assumes that it is their fault, thereby preserving their image of a good parent.
If we assign value to the act of receiving, like any other skill, we can get better at it. To do this, we have to break down the barriers inside us that keep people at a distance. We can start by paying attention to “critical inner voices” that fuel our feelings of discomfort and avoidance around accepting. We can try to be aware of the negative thoughts that come up when we’re on the receiving end of kindness or acknowledgment.
We may notice a range of thoughts that minimize, critique, or deny us like, “I didn’t really do anything special.” “I don’t need any help.” “This is my burden, not theirs.” “You shouldn’t lean on other people.” “You’re just annoying them.” “Now, you owe them something.” “You’re not worth the trouble.” All of these thoughts are not real representations of us or our relationship with the person helping us. They’re just the self-denying commentary of our inner critic.
In addition to ignoring and outright acting against the advice of our inner critic, we can start to explore our attachment patterns and how they may be influencing our ability to accept generosity from others. Because our attachments can act as models for how we expect others to behave, they could be driving our feelings of distrust, discomfort, and pseudo-independence. By understanding our attachment history, we can foster more inner security and become more open and accepting toward others.
In order to get better at accepting help, we have to stop seeing it as selfish, but rather as a healthy way to respond to others and enrich our relationships. The more we can accept, the more we have to offer. When we deny ourselves, we deny the people close to us. Generosity is a two-way street from which everyone benefits. As Brené Brown once put it, “Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.” The art of giving is crucial to our happiness, but our generosity doesn’t end with giving; it also means challenging ourselves to be gracious in what we accept.
When we allow people to be kind to us, we feel closer to them, and they feel closer to us. We let them express their feeling for us, rather than shutting them out. This deepens our connection to that person and creates a stronger mutual support system, in which the give and take can feel natural and equal. Despite any initial discomfort around letting people help us, it can feel rewarding. The vulnerability of being open to accepting help and generosity tends to bring out a caring response in others and often leads to deeper emotional closeness.