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Asking For Help Can Be Hard To Do

by Hayzell

“Why don’t you just ask me to open it?” During the early days of my injury, this was something I hated to hear whenever I needed a bottle, jar, or even a heavy door opened. Asking for help felt like I’d be a bother and I was letting my pain win—as if I was giving up and letting the pain control me.

According to researchers Flynn and Lake, my reaction to getting help is quite common. Their study showed that when people ask for help, they focus on the “inconvenience” to helpers and underestimate other people’s willingness to help.

In a more recent study, Bohns and Flynn found that making even small pleas for help can make people feel inadequate, guilty, vulnerable, embarrassed, shy, or self-conscious. This is hardly a surprise: most people are aware that asking for help is emotionally hard when they are doing the asking. However, what was surprising in their findings is how frequently the people who are giving help forget the emotional burden of asking for help.

Empathy Gaps Get In-between the Helper and Asker

Even though most people have experiences of requesting help, the assumption that helpers can empathize with our emotional predicament is not necessarily correct. Research on perspective-taking by Caruso, Epley, & Bazerman shows that because people have difficulty going beyond their own experiences they have trouble in thinking about others’ needs accurately. In other words, unless “you’ve been there,” it is difficult to feel others’ pain. Experiments by Epley, Keysar, Van Boven, & Gilovich show that perspective-taking is always anchored on one’s own perspective, which is then adjusted with information about the other person. However, if these adjustments are not made adequately, it creates “empathy gaps,” or not really understanding the matter from the other’s point of view.

A study by Van Boven, Loewenstein, and Dunning suggests that the root cause of empathy gaps is that accurate perspective-taking is rarely a one-step process. In order for a non-emotional helper to understand an embarrassed asker, the helper must first adjust their perspective to account the basic facts (”If my hands were hurting, opening a jar would be painful”). Then, the helper possibly needs to make several other adjustments to account for physical sensations and emotions (”If I were in pain, I would feel angry and miserable”), self-image (”if I felt that way, I might feel defeated by simple tasks; if I felt defeated by simple tasks, I might feel embarrassed to ask for help; if I felt embarrassed to ask for help, it would take a lot for me to ask”), and so on. The further away the present situation is from the helper’s own experiences, the more adjustments have to be made. Therefore, it is unsurprising that even the best efforts at empathizing leave a gap between the two perspectives.

Empathy Gaps can be Reduced with Awareness

Even though we can’t completely eliminate the gaps, there are things you can do. Simply being aware goes a long way! Here are some additional things you can try to make asking and giving help a little bit easier.

If you need help:

1) Remember to have compassion for yourself. We all need help from time to time. It’s okay to feel the emotions you’re feeling, but more importantly, it’s also okay to get a little help from your friends every now and then.

2) Remember to let others know you appreciate their help. Most of us feel good when we help others and feeling appreciated is the icing on the cake.

3) Look for ways to give back to those who give a helping hand.

For helpers:

1) Look for opportunities to be helpful, but be mindful of how your actions might be interpreted before making any attempts.

Psychologists have found that couples who have varying views on how much help is required for tasks can experience frustration. If the helper believes that the asker cannot do as much as they actually can, they risk becoming overly solicitous and irritating. On the other hand, if the helper doesn’t understand the extent of help that is required, this could be just as upsetting. Therefore, finding the right balance of help needed is the key to becoming a great helper. To begin finding that balance take time to ask the person in need about what would be the most helpful course of action.

2) Be aware that it might be embarrassing for others to ask for help or accept it when it is offered. Very often the knee-jerk response to “can I help” is “no, I’m fine.” In many situations, it might be more useful to say something specific, such as “I noticed you have trouble with ____, so would it be useful if I helped by doing ____?”

3) Don’t assume that because someone is not asking for help, they don’t need it from time to time.

Getting or giving help is not easy, however there are some things you can do!

This post was submitted for the Patients for A Moment blog carnival. The theme: Is Help A Four Letter Word?”


  • Bohns, V., & Flynn, F. (2010). “Why didn’t you just ask?” Underestimating the discomfort of help-seeking Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (2), 402-409 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.12.015
  • Caruso, E., Epley, N., & Bazerman, M. (2006). The costs and benefits of undoing egocentric responsibility assessments in groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91 (5), 857-871 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.91.5.857
  • Epley N, Keysar B, Van Boven L, & Gilovich T (2004). Perspective taking as egocentric anchoring and adjustment. Journal of personality and social psychology, 87 (3), 327-39 PMID: 15382983
  • Flynn FJ, & Lake VK (2008). If you need help, just ask: underestimating compliance with direct requests for help. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95 (1), 128-43 PMID: 18605856
  • Morrison, V. (2001). The need to explore discrepant illness cognitions when predicting patient outcome. Health Psychology Update, 10 (2), 9–13.
  • Van Boven, L., Loewenstein, G., & Dunning, D. (2005). The illusion of courage in social predictions: Underestimating the impact of fear of embarrassment on other people. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 96 (2), 130-141 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2004.12.001

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