How to Ask for the Things You Need
The “Never-Asker” is a category of person who struggles to ask a friend to watch the dog when they go out of town. For the Never-Asker, it’s hard to ask for a ride home from the airport or to ask for the take-out category they really, really want.
Within the Never-Asker category, there are subcategories and layers.
One subcategory is: “I don’t want to really want anything. I’m going to be cool and chill, and I’ll be able to hang no matter what you pick.” This looks like every couple ever going, “What do you want for dinner?” “Whatever you want” “No, whatever you want” and so on and so forth until infinity.
It can also look like this, where Norman (the orange cat) is the Never-Asker:
Another subcategory is: “Can’t you please just guess what I need?” This looks like:
Another subcategory is: “I know if I ask you to do something for me, you’re only going to be doing it because I asked you, and then eventually you’ll want me to do something for you in return.”
Another version of this same subcategory is, “You’re only going to be doing it because I asked you to, and I have so much anxiety thinking about you just trying to do something to please me. What if I am not sufficiently pleased?”
I could point fingers, but I recognize myself in every one of these subcategories.
And, also, allow me to point fingers: The people I am closest with in life are some of the kindest and most considerate people on the planet. They, in turn, “don’t want to put me out,” “only want me to do what I truly want to do,” are “totally fine with whatever,” and are “scared of letting me down or hurting my feelings.” These are the relationship mechanics of people who default to having others’ interests in mind—and that’s a straight-up treasure.
But let’s accept, for the sake of this essay, that all the subcategories of Never-Askers have some work to do to be happier and more fulfilled in their relationships and lives. My guess is that this is probably true. It is certainly true for me.
I was raised with a pair of key beliefs that shaped the grown-up I became. Belief #1: It’s shameful to ask for help. For instance, you should always offer to pick up the check, even if you’re totally broke. Never ask anyone to help you do the dishes, even if the meal was huge and you cooked all day. If something bad happens, you can be sad for 20 minutes by yourself in your room, but then it’s time to get over it and go back to being pleasant and fine and asking about others.
Belief #2: Figure out what other people need without being asked. For instance, if possible, sneak away and pay the check without anyone knowing under the guise of going to the bathroom. When you’re at someone else’s house, start doing the dishes after dinner without asking or being asked. Buy people presents. Ask people lots of intriguing questions. Never go to a party empty-handed. Make sure the other person is talking more than you are.
Feelings are really hard, and we all do things to try to numb them.
These two beliefs together mean everyone is constantly playing a game that nobody ever wins. Everyone has to communicate what their needs are without actually saying them and guess what other people needed without asking. Sometimes this would look like a person seeming to be bright and cheerful for a long stretch of time and then having a huge meltdown — sometimes angry, sometimes tearful, always gigantic.
Often, I was the person having the meltdown (“Why can’t anyone see how worn thin I am?!”), and my feelings were so big they frightened me. To deal with these emotions, I started cutting when I was 16. I could write a whole essay about self-harm, but the bottom line is that it helped. My attention would be diverted, and I’d feel better.
Feelings are really hard, and we all do things to try to numb them (drugs, alcohol, sex, television, Oreos, etc.) because feeling all those feelings is a lot to manage. It is especially a lot to manage if you have tried to diffuse them, divert them, squash them, and deny them—and if you have tried to do all these things without asking anyone for help.
Telling people that it is okay to ask for help is nothing new. I definitely heard that mantra in every “very special” health class or TV episode. But it seems like a trick. There has to be some caveat attached: You should ask for help (but then you will owe that person—big time). Or, you should ask for help (but you will be perceived as weak and unable to take care of yourself). And you should ask for help (but who are we kidding—you shouldn’t ask for help).
I think there is, indeed, a caveat to asking for help. One that begins with “and” not “but”: You should ask for help—and it is a gift that you give to the person you are asking.
This is most obviously true about therapy. I am not sure where I first heard this, but I have used it many, many times regarding my own therapy practice and others’. The line is: You don’t go to therapy for yourself; you go for the people you love.
The idea that therapy is selfish and egotistical is outdated; millennials and Gen Z seem to have rejected it outright. But it is not necessarily the case, either, that therapy is an act solely of self-care. I go to therapy so that I can say all the ugly, alarming, weird, and confusing things I think in front of a professional before I share them with the people I love.
We try to improve ourselves and heal ourselves not just because it feels good — although, bonus, it does — we do it because it makes us better friends, lovers, and partners. So if you’re a person who bristles at the cost and time and bother of finding a therapist and going, remember, you’re doing it for your partner, your kid, and your co-workers. That means that you have to enter into it with an open mind. It’s the only way that this gift can really be received.
I want to suggest that asking for help is like saying to a person, “I deeply trust you. I want to be vulnerable with you. I am about to invoke some serious intimacy right now.” You don’t ask just anyone for help, which I think is an important distinction. If you are the type of person who meets someone once and turns around and asks them to help you finish caulking your bathtub, you might want to walk back your asking. There is a line between letting someone help you as a gesture of love and using someone for your own gain. That line is trust, and as we all know, trust is tricky to build.
How do you build trust? I really have no idea. Brené Brown uses the metaphor of a jar of marbles — something to which you add slowly and over time. (Here is a video of her talking about this because three separate people have told me that I don’t translate the marble jar metaphor very well.) The point is that trust takes time, and it grows like anything grows: in small, imperceptible movements that you don’t realize are even happening until “Wow! You’ve grown a tall yellow sunflower” or “Your hair is suddenly long enough to braid” or “How is your baby a toddler already?” But once you’ve built it, a whole world opens up to you, and in this world, asking for things becomes something else.
Ideally, in a perfectly balanced scenario, an interaction where you ask for something from someone you trust would go like this:
Your friend would get just as much out of doing something for you as you would get out of asking. In transactional terms (I hate that we are all capitalists, but it’s something we understand; thanks, social conditioning), this is a complete transaction. Person A trades the declaration of trust in the form of a request for Person B’s time and/or resources. There is no “But you’ll have to do something for me later.” It is fulfilling for both parties in and of itself.
We have inherited each others’ trauma since our brains were big enough to process it in the first place.
This is a balance, and here’s where the imperfect world gets in the way of our perfect transaction. If Person A is the only one who ever asks for things, slowly, over time, Person B will get less out of giving. The onus here is not necessarily on Person A. It is, rather, on both parties, and possibly (probably) it’s more on Person B. Person B needs to step up and ask for help. For almost all of us, asking is harder than giving.
Feel free to tell the person you are asking for help that (1) it’s hard for you to ask for things, and (2) it would be great if there was reciprocation in the asking for things inside your relationship. It can be useful to get all those cards down on the table and eliminate the guesswork and game playing.
A penultimate note: It’s nearly impossible to emerge from childhood without trauma. We could blame our parents, but they were acting out of trauma too. We have inherited each others’ trauma since our brains were big enough to process it in the first place.
I truly believe that you (yes, you—specifically, you!) are not “bad” or “wrong” for being wherever you are on this path. It has been helpful for me to remember that both either/or thinking and perfectionism — and within it, the idea that making a mistake makes you a bad person — are tenets of white supremacy culture. (If you haven’t glanced at Tema Okun’s document about white supremacy culture in a minute, you should! It’s great.) That’s the dominant culture; it makes sense that we struggle so deeply to unlearn it.
And finally, know that it is okay to say no when asked for something—and to hear no when you ask. Remember that “no” does not mean “How dare you” nor does it mean “You’re a villain, and you’re written out of my life.” “No” is just a person asserting a boundary, and it’s not about you—it’s about them. Likewise, knowing your own boundaries is lifelong work, and it is worthwhile to find people who are safe to practice boundaries with. It is also a kind of gift to assert a boundary with someone. That is a whole other layer of trust that is profoundly deep and kind of beautiful. And yeah, I mostly wrote this last paragraph to remind myself. This is hard for me.