Why it’s so hard to let people help (Episode 32)

Why in the world is it so hard to let people help us? Rejecting help when people offer it is a habit that drains us of precious energy, time, sleep and so many other critical things. In this episode, Kay Coughlin reveals some common reasons we struggle with this, talks about how to heal from it so we can be mentally and physically healthy, and admits how difficult this work has been for her. “From One Caregiver to Another” can be heard on all major podcasting services.

Learn more about all of this work at FacilitatorOnFire.net/LearnMore.

Transcript of episode is below.

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Transcript: Why it’s so hard to let people help (Episode 32)

Hi, there. I’m your host Kay Coughlin. And you’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. This is episode 32.

One of the questions I hear a lot from caregivers is “why don’t I let people help me?” This is something I have to be honest that I really struggle with too. In fact, just last week, my brother texted me with a very sweet offer to help with something, and my immediate reaction was to text him right back with a, “No thank you, we’re fine.” But I caught myself doing it. So, before I hit send, I changed that message to read, “That’s awesome, thank you. Let me check on a couple of logistics here and I’ll get back to you.” But this is a big shift for me. This shift from reacting with an automatic no, thank you to instead responding with thinking about it, with putting some thought into it and keeping an open mind, this has been incredibly difficult for me, and obviously I am still working on it every day, but I have to tell you, it’s some of the best and most important work I have ever done for my own physical and mental health.

And that’s really what’s at stake when we can’t receive help from others. What’s at stake is our mental health and our physical health too. And sometimes maybe even our safety, like if we’re trying to do things like maybe, oh, climb a ladder when we’re alone or, lift a bedridden care receiver when we don’t have the training or the strength to do it, then our safety is at risk as well. Now, I do think that another side of this story would be to ask the question, why doesn’t anybody offer to help me? Or why doesn’t anybody offer to help me anymore? Or maybe even you might say something like, “Well, I don’t have anybody to help me.” But I want to save that for another episode, because that’s more about community and that is a different issue entirely. For today, we are just going to talk about how we tend to react by outright rejecting help.

Now, obviously given the example I just told you about in the beginning of the episode, it’s pretty clear that rejecting help is a habit for me, and I think it’s a habit for all of us who struggle with this. And it’s something we do automatically when somebody goes anywhere near this idea of offering us help, we just shut them down. And I think it’s also a mindset, but why in the world do we do this to ourselves? And where does it come from? And how in the heck did I learn to catch myself rejecting help, so that I can at least consider the possibility of accepting help? If I’m being totally honest here, I have to say its something I’ve only really started to learn and get to be any good at just over the past couple of years. I do have a long way to go still, but I know that if I can do it, there’s hope for you too.

If you haven’t yet listened to the podcast episode on Human Giver Syndrome and that’s episode 31, I think it could be really helpful to listen to it as a sort of companion to this episode. Human Giver Syndrome is the belief that some people exist to make sure other people are comfortable, and that they succeed that givers are obligated to be available emotionally and physically and attractive, emotionally and physically 24/7 for the benefit of others, and according to the way other people prefer. And that we, as givers should be ashamed of ourselves if we use any resources to help ourselves. So, you can see this might be one really big reason we reject offers of help. I do have a webinar on this Human Giver Syndrome issue and how to start healing from it, which is most important to know it and figure out what to do about it. And that’s coming up on Tuesday, May 4th. There is a link in the show notes to register for that. There’s a limited number of seats, so if you’re interested in that, please go ahead and sign up now.

But back to today’s episode, I want to talk about here some of the reasons we refuse help when somebody offers it. Now, there’s a spoiler alert here, with each of these beliefs, you can turn it around. You do have a choice about whether or not you want to believe it, and whether you want to live it. I’ll get into that a little at the end of the episode, but as you listen to me talk about these, please understand I am not telling you that these are good and right, and that they are standards you ought to live up to, okay? You do have a choice about all of these. I’m just here to make a list to help you recognize it when you are doing it too, like I do.

The first one here, we are told that we shouldn’t need help. This one is about shame, and I think we hear this starting when we’re little, that we should be able to do things by ourselves and without anybody helping us. Now, let me just take a quick minute here to tell you in case you’ve never heard it before about the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is saying, I did something wrong, but shame is a judgment of your character. And when you put shame on yourself, you say, “I am wrong for being the way I am.” And if someone tries to put shame on you, what they’re saying is, “You are wrong for being who you are.” Okay, so that’s the difference between guilt and shame.

When a person tells you or me that we shouldn’t do something, very often, it is coming from a place of shame and judgment. Now, sometimes it is actually meant to give you advice about safety, like you shouldn’t play with matches, but when someone says, “You shouldn’t spend so much time on yourself.” Or, “You shouldn’t spend so much money on books.” Or, “You shouldn’t cook meals that you like when your care receiver like something else.” Well, that’s attempting to shame you, because they disagree with your choice to spend money on your books or spend time with yourself or whatever, and that’s very judgmental.

The next one then is that we don’t want to admit that we need help, probably because of that first one, which is we’re told, we shouldn’t need help. Not wanting to admit we need help, it’s really about not wanting to look weak or incapable, or maybe it’s because somebody warned us or predicted what was going to happen next, and we don’t really want to hear, I told you so, and we don’t want to admit they were right. And we would have to swallow our pride to admit to needing help, and we definitely don’t want to have to swallow our pride.

Then the next one here is that we don’t trust the person who offers, or we don’t trust the offer of help. And I get it. It’s hard to trust when you’ve been let down in the past. So, as an example, let’s just say a couple of years ago, your cousin offered to take your mom to her doctor appointment so that you could make plans to do something else. Like maybe, you made plans to go to your own doctor appointment, but then your cousin called at the last possible moment to say something came up and he can’t make it after all, so then you were left in a wild scramble to figure it all out with no notice. And you feel burned, and that makes it hard to trust that person again. Or maybe if you don’t trust the offer, here, it looks more like somebody makes a generous offer, like maybe, they offered to pay for dad’s cell phone service, but you’re suspicious of the offer, because again, you’ve been burned or hurt by an offer like that that went bad in the past.

The next one that we’ve got here is that to accept help would mean you to forgive someone. I’m not going to kid around here, forgiveness is a massive topic, but it’s for another time. So, just for today, I really just want to point this out so that you can see it, that we often mix up the ideas about accepting help and forgiving. You can actually do one without the other. I am not here to tell you that you should go around forgiving people if you’re not ready to do that, or if you don’t want to do that, I just know that in my life and for a lot of my friends and clients, this confusion of forgiveness with accepting help, it has been something that has kept me from asking for help in my life.

The next one here is we don’t want to inconvenience somebody else. I have to say that ouch, this is the one that I probably relate to the most. It really rings true in my heart. And here’s what this looks like. A friend will offer to do something for me, like pickup groceries, something not big, it’s probably on their way, they really wouldn’t have to go out of their way. And I say to them, “Oh no, I couldn’t let you do that. That would be too much.” Or… And this one happens a lot. My sister will offer to take my mom for a drive, and I will say, “Oh no, don’t go out of your way for us. I’ll figure it out somehow.” And that’s what I’ve actually been working on a lot, because my sister does offer to help quite a bit, and I’m trying really hard to catch myself and let her help us.

So, I was actually confused by this one for a long time. I couldn’t see that I didn’t want to inconvenience people, and I had to actually do a lot of thinking so that I could figure out that the root of this for me is I truly just don’t want to let somebody else go out of their way for me. And I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard about caregivers who only sleep two hours at a time, but when someone offers a night of help, they refuse, because it’s too generous for the other person to do. I have actually heard this a lot. That’s too generous.

Now, we also have a tendency to think that the person isn’t making a genuine offer, or maybe they don’t really want to help, and they’re just doing it out of pity or something that I don’t know, we don’t think they should feel for us. And then we feel like we have this moral obligation to save them the trouble, and let them off the hook. And then we have a big one here, which is that we are afraid to feel our so-called negative emotions like disappointment and anger. There are a lot of other strong emotions I could talk about here that we are afraid to feel, but I think disappointment and anger are enough for us to focus on right now, and I really think that’s something that most of us can relate to.

And I put disappointment and anger together, by the way, because I know that so many of us use the word disappointed when instead what we mean is the word angry, because we also think that we don’t have a right to be angry. What if somebody breaks a promise they made? What if a helper doesn’t show up? It’s a perfectly natural human emotion to become disappointed and even angry in that situation, but we’ve been taught that these are negative emotions, and we should not feel them and we should not even have them. So, we pretend like we don’t have these emotions, or we tell ourselves that we can’t handle feeling them if they should come up. And I have to tell you, this makes me wildly angry. You can ask my two teenage boys, and they will tell you about the many times that I’ve gone on a rant against someone who told them not to express their negative feelings.

In fact, I wrote a whole book about it. So, if you want to learn more about this particular belief that holds us back when it comes to receiving help, it is in my book, From One Caregiver to Another – Overcoming Your Emotional Grind. And it really is all about how to live with your so-called negative emotions, and learn to feel those and move forward in your life knowing that those emotions are totally natural. And there’s a link to that in the show notes if you’re interested. So, the next belief that we’ve got here is we think we have something to prove or something to hide. Ouch, this really comes from a place of feeling like we are inadequate just as we are, or that the shame would be too much to bear if only people saw what we are really like inside. So, when we prove and when we hide, we are living into this belief that we have to apologize for being our true selves.

And that leads us to the last one here. To sum these all up, we don’t want to be vulnerable. If you look at the list that I’ve gone through already today, shame, looking weak, no trust, afraid to be disappointed and angry, proving and hiding, admitting to any of these would mean that we have to be vulnerable in front of others, and I think it means, we have to be vulnerable even to ourselves. I know that you could be tired of hearing the word vulnerable, because it’s become a little bit of a pop culture catchphrase, but it’s just incredibly important to understand what it means. When you are vulnerable, you do have to let your guard down, and you do have to trust other people to treat you with respect. And you have to trust yourself to treat you with dignity and compassion and respect. And I know it can be so hard to treat ourselves that way.

Vulnerability means being honest about your thoughts and your feelings, and even about your physical needs, like needing sleep. Life is messy and that’s just the truth. Sometimes our houses, or maybe our finances are messy, and letting people see all of that would be vulnerable. And I know that can be extremely painful emotionally. All right, as I said, before I hit you over the head with this list, and I hope it doesn’t feel too much like I kicked you in the stomach, even reading through this list, it feels really cringy to me, because I do all of these. But remember I said, these are all beliefs that we can choose not to believe in anymore. That’s what I’ve been doing, is I have been trying to choose not to believe these anymore. It’s not up to anybody else to decide for you or me what I need or what you need, or to judge us for those things that we need, and we want. Only we can know what we truly need and what we truly want.

You can choose to admit that you need help, that the act of needing help is a totally different thing from your pride. And that’s hard to believe, I know, but pride and needing help, those are different things. We can, and here we go. I’m going to tell you about the things that you can believe instead, these are choices you make. We can choose to trust people who offer to help even when we know there’s a real chance they won’t follow through. Yes, I’m saying trust is a choice. We can learn to tell the difference between accepting an offer of help and forgiving someone. We can know those are different. We can stop seeing our needs as inconvenient to other people. We can learn how important it is to feel all of our emotions, and we can practice feeling them, knowing that those emotions can’t hurt us. That in fact, it’s the stuffing down of emotions that actually hurts us.

We can choose to show our real lives to people, instead of proving and hiding all the time. And we can choose to be vulnerable, to ask to have our needs met, which honestly is the only way we can be mentally and physically healthy now, and long-term. I’m not here to tell you that any of this is easy because it’s not, but I am here to tell you that it’s possible. Really, truly it is possible. I’m doing it myself, and I know you can do it too. If you’ve listened to any of my other episodes, you’ve probably noticed that I believe that the first step to changing anything is to notice what you’re doing right now. Noticing is hard, because you’re going to want to jump right into judging yourself for what you see inside.

But I want to encourage you to notice what you’re doing, and notice what you’re thinking and feeling without judgment. And then if you do find yourself cringing at what you see inside your mind, or maybe at some of the actions you’ve taken, you are normal. Everybody does that, but you can learn to have compassion for yourself. And in fact, seeing yourself without judgment and with compassion is the very best way to begin the work of changing anything about yourself so that you can heal. And when you can’t have compassion for yourself, that does get in the way, and it means that you won’t be able to let yourself choose another thing. If you’re putting a whole bunch of emotional energy into criticizing and shaming yourself for what you’ve done and who you are, and for what you think right now, you aren’t very likely to be able to do something different.

You aren’t very likely to be able to accept help when someone offers it, if you are too busy throwing up those roadblocks, and being your own biggest obstacle to receiving help. And I know this all from first-hand experience, not just as a caregiver in my current situation, but because I’ve been doing it for most of my life. If one of the reasons you are always exhausted is that you can’t let anybody else help you, or you are afraid to ask for help, I want you to know that you are allowed to ask yourself if this is an area that you’d like to work on? You’re allowed to examine your own head and say, “Is this something that I want for myself?

As caregivers, we know that we are probably going to need more help over time, not less. Figuring out how to let others help us could be some of the most important self-awareness work we will ever do for our own mental and physical health. And in case you haven’t picked up on it already, please know, you’re not alone, I’m doing this work too right alongside you. I’ve made progress, and I know you can make progress too. Please do reach out to me if you have a question or any thoughts that you’d like to share with me.

Thank you so much for being here with me today. You can learn more about me, and about all of this work at facilitatoronfire.net, that’s facilitatoronfire.net. And there, you can also sign up for my newsletter, which is also called From One Caregiver to Another. Please follow me on Instagram, there’s a link in the show notes if you want almost daily doses of straight talk for family caregivers who are tired of feeling trapped by the traditional definition of being a so-called good caregiver. If you liked this episode, please consider leaving a review, which will help other caregivers find their way here too. And definitely, consider telling a caregiver friend who also needs a boost in their confidence to design and live their best life, which just like for us, just happens to include their caregiving responsibilities, but it doesn’t have to be centered solely on those duties. I can’t wait to be here with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another.



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your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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