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Why It Hurts When Someone Won’t Accept Your Help

Here's how to handle it when your attempts to assist go nowhere.

Key points

  • As prosocial creatures, we are wired to want to help others.
  • When someone rejects our help, it can cause emotional, cognitive, and physical pain.
  • We need to recognize how acting out can further damage our relationships.

As Coretta Scott King said, “Struggle is a never-ending process.”

And yet, we don’t like to see others struggle, especially when we care about them. It’s particularly hard to see someone struggle when we believe that we can make things easier for them – and when we have the resources (knowledge, skills, time, money, connections, energy, etc.) to help.

For example, you may want to cover your son’s rent when he’s trying to establish himself as financially independent.

You may want to take a tricky client conversation off your direct report’s plate when she wants to learn how to navigate these conflicts for herself.

You may want to introduce your friend to a few single folks when it is clear that they aren’t ready to date again (even though you think they’re overdue to “get back out there”).

In our book, Go to Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask for, and Accept Help, my co-author Sophie Riegel and I write that if you try to help someone who doesn’t want help, you risk pushing them away — if they haven’t already pushed you away first.

(We also share that, in some cases, you need to help someone who may not want it, such as when they’re putting themselves and/or others at significant physical, emotional, financial, or reputational risk.)

But, if you’re like most people dealing with colleagues, friends, and family members, you’ve thought to yourself something like this:

“I don’t understand why they won’t just accept my help!”

Now get honest with yourself— really honest. Do you mean “I don’t understand why…” or “I don’t like that…”?

It's likely that you do understand why someone doesn't want your help. Maybe they want to demonstrate their independence, or don't want to appear vulnerable, or fear that there will be strings attached.

You get that, right? If so, what you may be struggling with is that you don't like that they feel that way.

And why don’t we like it when someone doesn’t want our help? Because we are prosocial beings, wired to be helpful in pursuit of social acceptance, connection, and friendship.

When someone doesn’t want your help, it can feel like social rejection. And social rejection hurts. The pain of social rejection is similar to the pain of physical injury and can negatively impact your emotional, cognitive, and physical health. You may notice feeling angry, anxious, and sad. You may find yourself having trouble concentrating (while being hyper-focused on the rejection of your help). You may even have trouble sleeping or start feeling sick.

You might even notice some of the following behaviors in yourself:

  • Sulking
  • Blaming
  • Defending yourself
  • Shutting down
  • Walking away
  • Criticizing
  • Yelling
  • Manipulating
  • Threatening
  • Talking behind someone’s back
  • Self-soothing with food, drugs, alcohol, overwork, sleeping, etc.

Do any of these sound familiar?

If so, know that you’re not alone in having a hard time when someone ignores or blocks your attempts to help. It's also important to recognize that engaging in these behaviors will make it less likely for others to want your helpful involvement down the road.

Finally, understand that naming this source of stress aloud can be the first step towards reducing your reaction. Say to yourself or a trusted friend, colleague, or family member, “I notice that I am feeling hurt that Lily doesn’t want my advice” or “I recognize that I am frustrated that Sam doesn’t want me to get involved.”

And then...stop. Don’t spiral into a story. Don’t justify why you are in the right, and they are in the wrong. Don’t try to drum up support for your thwarted attempts by talking negatively about them behind their backs.

Just sit with your discomfort, give yourself credit for your prosocial intentions, pat yourself on the back for putting the other person’s preferences ahead of your own, and trust that you will survive this challenging experience.

It can also be useful to give them credit for why they aren’t accepting help. Challenge yourself to think about it from their perspective rather than yours.

For example, let’s say that your aging mother, who has been cooking her food for years, has started to have some minor accidents in the kitchen. Of course, you want to help, but she refuses your help. Why might that be?

  • Maybe she is in denial about her age and physical abilities.
  • Maybe she doesn’t want to burden you.
  • Maybe she does want help but from a friend rather than her child.

There are plenty of reasons why she might not accept help, and it’s important that you allow yourself to think beyond the “she’s just stubborn” or “she just doesn’t realize she needs my help” mentality.

Also, if you assess your relationship with that person and feel comfortable, you can gently ask them why they don’t want to accept help. Research shows that perspective-getting (asking someone to share their perspective) is more accurate than perspective-taking (you trying to imagine their perspective). You might learn that they don’t want help from you but would accept it from an expert in their field. Or that the kind of help you’re offering just isn’t what they need right now.

Finally, while it may be frustrating not to be able to help your colleague, friend, or family member, you can use that energy on someone else.

Your kid doesn’t want help with their term paper for English class? Offer to help your struggling coworker with a proposal. Your coworker doesn’t want you to brainstorm ideas with them for their upcoming client pitch? Use that energy to visit residents at a senior living facility or raise money for a philanthropic organization whose cause is meaningful to you.

If you can’t help the person you want to help, help someone where your help will be welcomed, appreciated, and go a long way.

References

Riegel, Deborah Grayson and Riegel, Sophie (2022) Go To Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask for, and Accept Help. Panoma Press

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