You and I did not come into this world afraid to make requests. When we were uncomfortable, we cried. When we were curious, we reached out.

But quickly, most of us started learning to second-guess our needs, especially our need for support from others.

Here are beliefs I often see making it hard for people to ask for support:

  • People won’t like you if you have too many needs.
  • People won’t like you if they know that you’re struggling or that you’re not perfect.
  • You’re only successful if you achieve your goals alone.
  • You’re a burden if you ask for help.
  • It’s selfish to prioritize your own needs.
  • Everyone else has it all figured out.
  • To do it right, you have to do it yourself.
  • Your struggles are shameful.

Why Asking for Help Can Be So Hard

There are many reasons why we don’t ask people to help us or change their behavior:

  1. If people we should have been able to trust harmed us, we may have learned to doubt others or rely on only ourselves.
  2. We might have grown up in a family where people avoid conflict at all costs or where the grown-ups acted out conflict in dangerous ways.
  3. We can never predict how others will respond, which can feel scary.
  4. It can be hard not to think that if other people truly cared about us, they’d know what we want and give it to us.
  5. Over the last several hundred years, settler colonialism, imperialism, industrialization, and global capitalism uprooted most people from the land and their ancestral ways.[1] The broad-scale separation from the land and place-based community bred isolation, loneliness, and toxic individualism. I imagine that many of our ancestors had greater awareness of their interdependence with each other and the land and perhaps an easier time asking for—and receiving—support.
  6. Those of us engaged in movement work often believe we shouldn’t have to do so much emotional labor. But the belief that emotional labor doesn’t matter is rooted in the same supremacy and separation culture that trains us to forget our interdependence and perpetrate violence against each other.

A Few Reasons Why Learning to Ask for Support is So Important

  1. Avoiding conflict often generates more conflict. If we don’t let people know that we’re upset when they don’t follow through or ask for support when we need it, we risk stockpiling grievances or resenting or distancing ourselves from people who are important to us.
  2. When we don’t ask for support, we’re far less likely to receive support, and we’re more likely to feel exhausted. A sense of overwhelm can make it even harder to ask for help and create a feedback loop of undernourishment and disconnection from ourselves and others.
  3. We often need to make requests to get clear about what’s next in our lives and make wise decisions. For example, if you’re exhausted by your current workload and don’t know whether you can make your work more manageable or if you need to change jobs, you probably need to make some requests of your current supervisor or colleagues to find out.
  4. We increase our odds of receiving support when we make requests with compassion and clarity. But even if the other person says no, we gain information that helps us discern our next steps, and we can feel peace in knowing we’re doing our best.
  5. To build movements with any chance of moving us toward a world where we uphold all people’s dignity, safety, and belonging, we must learn to do the emotional labor of learning to relate to each other in generative ways.[2]

The root of the word courage is the word cor—Latin for heart. To create the world we long for, we must gather the courage to practice sharing our feelings, needs, and requests in skillful ways without judgment or blame.

With that, I invite you to reflect on what requests might be helpful for you to make now. To do that, I want to offer a framework that I find particularly helpful for identifying what to ask for— Social Support Theory.

The Four Types of Social Support

According to Social Support Theory, there are four types of support.

I invite you to read these through and consider where your needs are well met and what requests you may need to make:

One: Instrumental: Tangible Aid and Service.

Recent examples of instrumental support from my life include:

  • Help at home—cooking food, cleaning the house, fixing my car;
  • Help at work—sending out a newsletter, posting to social media; and
  • Help with a political campaign—collecting signatures, knocking on doors, making phone calls.

Two: Informational: Advice, Suggestions, and Information.

It is usually easier to learn something with guides who know the terrain.

For example, I encourage people considering a career change to talk with others who’ve successfully pursued similar paths. Ask what worked, what didn’t, and what steps they recommend.

The internet can also be a rich source of information and examples.

Three: Appraisal: Feedback for Self-Evaluation.

We cannot see our own backs; it can be nearly impossible to notice limiting behaviors and assumptions on our own.

Appraisal support comes from compassionate observers—therapists, coaches, mentors, trusted friends, or accountability partners—who share our values, offer truthful feedback with love and kindness, ask questions that take us outside our mental boxes, and gently push us to become who we are called to be.

Four: Emotional: Expressions of Empathy, Love, Trust, and Care.

It can be much easier to heal from burnout or pursue a scary new calling when we have good friends, people on similar journeys, and skilled space-holders.

One of the main reasons why I created my small coaching cohorts was to offer my clients additional emotional support. The resonance and camaraderie from witnessing each other’s struggle and knowing they’re not alone is powerful medicine.

What Support Do You Need?

I invite you to bring to mind an area of your life in which you would like more support.

Then, reflect on how well your needs for support are currently met in each of these areas and what requests you might make. Ask yourself the following questions and, if you’d like, write down what comes up:

  1. What instrumental support (tangible aid and service) might I need/want/long for?
  2. What informational support (advice, suggestions, and information) might I need/want/long for?
  3. What appraisal support (information that is useful for self-evaluation) might I need/want/long for?
  4. What emotional support (expressions of empathy, love, trust, and caring) might I need/want/long for?

And extra credit! I invite you to make one commitment to making a request this week.

The other person may or may not say yes, but each time you practice making requests, you strengthen your requesting-making muscles.

I wish you fruitful experimenting. May all your needs be met.

[1] All of us are impacted by these forces of systemic oppression, but we are not impacted equally. Indigenous people, Black people, and others on the margins of systemic power have borne the brunt of these forces. And, of course, privileges and oppressions are complex and interweaving. The same root cause can generate both advantage and trauma.

[2] I also say this as a white, cis, able-bodied citizen woman who believes it is my responsibility to engaging in the emotional labor of calling in people with shared privileges for behaviors rooted in systemic oppression.


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