As someone who considers herself to be very self-sufficient and independent, asking for help doesn't come naturally to me. Although those in my inner circle are accustomed to my obstinacy, my desire to do things myself still elicits eye rolls whenever an offer to help is met with the usual, "No thanks, I got it." But when recent events left me in a situation that involved a broken foot bone, cast to the knee and crutches for a month, I realized that managing a job, two young kids, a household and the responsibilities of daily life would be a little more difficult. It was an opportune time to take a closer look at my would-rather-do-it-myself reasoning.
Judging from the many generations of strong (and stubborn) women in my family, I suspect that genetics has something to do with inheriting this trait. But DNA and personality quirks and aside, not asking for help is a characteristic that many people, specifically women, can undoubtedly relate to. We live in a society where do-it-yourself anything and everything is the norm and encouraged. And although the burden of the "superwoman" image seems to have lessened over the years, women typically bear most of the responsibilities and logistics when it comes to household management, child rearing, schedules, balancing a career, etc. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where the more we readily take on ourselves, the more we are expected to manage. This, in conjunction with living in a culture that intimates asking for help as a sign of weakness, is even more cause for DIY-ers to remain steadfastly that way.
"Most of us were raised being told, 'if you want it done right, do it yourself.' So we've taken the strength of self-sufficiency to an extreme and it has become a weakness," says Peggy Collins, author of, Help is Not a Four-Letter Word (McGraw-Hill, 2006).
The Self-Sufficiency Syndrome, as Collins calls it, is characterized by an inability and unwillingness to ask for help or delegate because of the belief that no one can do it as well as you can. There are short-term payoffs that self-sufficient people experience such as singular control, approval from others, career enhancement and self-confidence, all of which act as a catalyst for the behavior. Yet, when self-sufficiency is taken to the extreme, the burden of too much responsibility can cause stress, unrealistic expectations, lack of self acceptance and no acknowledgment of personal needs.
"Who wouldn't feel good about the fact that they're able to pull everything off themselves?" asks Collins. "There's no doubt that self-sufficiency is valued, but in our society the bar continually gets higher and the risk of burnout is huge."
Finding a good balance between the two extremes of self-sufficiency and burnout is ideal, but it can be difficult for people who have become accustomed to a more self-sufficient lifestyle to begin asking for help. Like breaking any behavioral habit, it takes a concerted effort to free oneself from the Self-Sufficiency Syndrome. Collins offers some insightful tips for understanding the behavior and taking steps towards incorporating more help into one's life:
• Use the ACT Formula when presented with the opportunity to ask others for help.
A -- What are you Afraid of? Create an awareness around what keeps you from asking for help. Is it fear of rejection? Appearing vulnerable to others? Surrender of power?
C -- Let go of feeling you have to Control everything and that asking feels like giving up that control.
T -- Learn to Trust yourself enough to reach out and take a chance that you can trust someone else.
• Learn how to language your request so you include the other person in the planning and minimize rejection. For example, asking, "Would you show me how to do this spreadsheet if I work with your schedule?" or "When would be the best time for you to ... ?"
• Observe others who are able to ask for help -- how they do it, what the outcomes are, etc. Observation is good science.
• Look at yourself using a "third person perspective" and at the end of the day, objectively review all the times you could have asked for help and didn't. Did I look like I was pushing that other person away when I declined help? Does it look like I'll never really have an opportunity to connect with that person if there is always a "no" from me? Was that a situation where I should have done it myself?
• Ask yourself if you're doing it all because you're too perfectionistic. That's another self-defeating behavior that keeps us stuck. Our expectations become so high that no one else can meet them and we're burning out because of them. So where can you give yourself permission to do something averagely? Then you might ask for help with those.
• Start to look at asking as a strength. It takes courage and the results to the "asker" are huge because not only do we get results, but we also get a connection with another human being.
• Be aware that if you aren't asking for help, you're defining yourself by your accomplishments. If the way the accomplishment is done is more important than reaching out to experience the fulfillment of collaboration, then perhaps you need to look again.
Whether I classify as someone who suffers from Self-Sufficiency Syndrome or not, I know I will always be a highly independent person. And although this injury has at times made me even more determined to do things for myself, I've also realized that asking for and accepting help can be a blessing. When the foot is healed and the crutches are gone, I'll still be my stubborn self but at least I'll have a much greater appreciation of the fact that at one point or another everyone needs a helping hand, including me.