I Hate to Ask! (But I need help)

A friend wrote to me recently describing being in a financial jam, the result of a stroke of bad luck:

Someone has actually offered to create a Go Fund Me for me- though I am really struggling with my comfort with the whole idea. Even though I have contributed to many of them, it feels awkward to be the one asking for help… If you have words of wisdom to help allay my discomfort at accepting help, I would gratefully accept them.

It is a lot harder to ask for help than to give it. When we give help, we are in a position of power, lending a hand to another. It doesn’t matter whether it’s money or something else: the one who HAS, has the power. The one who has to ask is admitting and feeling powerlessness.

What do I fear, when I ask for help? I fear ridicule. I fear “being a nuisance.” I fear rejection. I fear gossip about perceived reasons for my need. I fear being made other. I fear abandonment.

So yes, asking is hard. Receiving is hard.
Our tradition is aware of this, which is why we have so many boundaries on the giving of tzedakah. The idea of leaving the corners of the field for gleaners, that those corners belong to the poor, not to the owner of the field, is a way to boost the dignity of the poor. (Leviticus 19:9) In Laws of Gifts to the Poor, Maimonides makes it clear that we are to do what we can to make it easy for the person asking, because that person is already suffering. Even if we have to say no, we should still offer words of comfort and sympathy.
Here’s how I deal with it. I remind myself:
  • When I ask for help, I am giving people an opportunity for a mitzvah.
  • When I ask for help, I am giving someone an opportunity to “pay back” for help they have received.
  • When I ask for help, I am modeling the act of asking for help, and making it easier for someone else to ask.
  • When I ask for help, I am admitting that I am not God.

The truth is, if no one asked for help, it would make it hard for us to observe the mitzvot of tzedakah [charitable giving of funds] and gimilut hasidim [acts of kindness].

Someone reading this is thinking, “But what about the cheaters? What about the people who always have a hand out, asking for more?” I’ll deal with that in a future post.

Readers: How do you deal with asking for help? Is there anything that makes it easier for you to ask?



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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

15 thoughts on “I Hate to Ask! (But I need help)”

  1. Hi, Rabbi Adar! I am not Jewish, but The problem you write about crosses all lines, religious and otherwise. I have often said that if I were dying in the street, I’d move over to get out of people’s way instead of asking for help and “bothering” them. Yet I am glad to help others. I was raised to do things on my own, and I feel weak and small when I ask for help. It’s hard.

    1. Very true, Jessy! I think there’s a lot in American culture that leads us to want to be self-sufficient, even when it’s clearly not possible. Are there any things that create an environment where you feel easier about asking for help?

  2. The whole “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” thing is very ingrained in the American psyche. And there are also lingering traces – more than traces, actually – of the Calvinist belief that being poor, or ill, or in any comparable situation, is evidence of moral failing rather than bad luck. So naturally it’s hard to ask for help, because there’s at least a little trace of belief in most of our heads that people who need help are bad, or immoral, or unworthy, and we don’t want to wear that label, but we can’t ask for help without donning it; hence the conflict.

    1. Patti, thank you for the insight about Puritan heritage here. That strain is also in some Jewish texts, although most modern Jewish thinkers have completely rejected it. You’re quite right, this adds to the shame and pain of asking.

    2. Ahh, yes, Calvin and those darn Puritans! There is also a trace of that kind of thinking – more than a trace of it – in the book of Deuteronomy. It would be nice if the only suffering in the world were deserved, but it doesn’t work that way (which is where we get things like the book of Job, and some of Ecclesiastes – bad things DO happen to good people.)

      I’m sorry it took me so long to comment – haven’t been able to sit at the computer for long stretches – but I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

  3. “When I ask for help, I am admitting that I am not God.” Wow, that’s powerful. So true. And funny that we tend to think it’s fine for others to admit being mere mortals but heaven forbid that *I* should need help. I’m going to remember this the next time I need help. Try a little humility, Dawn.

  4. I’m have a disabling chronic illness, and I have to ask for help a lot. The feeling powerless the worst for me. But another thing that makes it very hard is that everyone expects me to know exactly what I need from them. I never do. Offers of help are usually really vague “Let us know if we can do anything…” How do I know what you can do? I hate to put even more burden on people who are already trying to be kind and help, but when I need help, I am usually so overwhelmed that I can’t begin to think of who can help with what and then brainstorm a to-do list for my loved ones. It just feels like another task that I can’t do, and then I default to not asking.

    And also, sometimes when you’re someone who needs a lot of help, you Do get shamed for asking for help, even from people who have been kind about this in the past. It makes it very scary to ask for help again, because it does happen that people think less of you for needing help, even if you can accept it about yourself. It’s hard to find a place wherein you can accept kindness from others, and balance that with being kind to the people who you’re asking for help (even if they can’t or are unwilling to provide it).

    1. Oh, Anonymous, I hear you!

      One thing I do, when I’m feeling very overwhelmed with vague offers of help, is to keep a written list of things I need. “Bread from the grocery,” “Laundry pickup,” “change the lightbulb” etc. The little individual tasks that are no big deal for some and nearly impossible for me when I’m having a rough time. Then, when someone makes a vague offer, I can hand them the list and say, “Can you do any of these things for me?”

      And yes, relative to helpers, people get burnt out or overwhelmed. This is one way in which having a community can be a help. Years ago, there was a woman at temple who had a lot of troubles. For about a year, I took her grocery shopping once a week, and after all those months, I did not feel very kindly towards her. I talked to my rabbi, who said, “Why didn’t you say something sooner?” He asked someone else to take up the task. She had been pretty annoyed with me, too – it was time for us to take a break.

      I wish you comfort and all the help you need.

  5. Anonymous,
    Thank you for describing this so well….the not knowing, and the shaming. Both are familiar for me(and in the very recent past, the shaming was from my doctor: am seeing a new( and wonderful) one now, but only just realising how much I had got into the habit if thinking that I did not deserve help….which I know sounds strange, but is how I felt. And that a doctor was doing that – she really was a bully and sadist and has no business being in that profession – is even worse. (Rabbi Ruth, forgive me if that is nasty sounding but it’s what happened)

    1. Alex, the world is full of people and some of them are not very kind. I’m glad you’ve found a doctor who meets your needs. And yes, you have a right to help! You deserve it!

  6. very helpful, thank you. for me, it’s my ego that gets in the way, admitting i can’t do something as well as i expect of myself; i try to offer a trade of helping to make it easier on myself to ask for help.

    1. Trading does help, when we don’t want to feel in debt. There are many ways to contribute to a relationship or a community when we stop to think about it.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

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