• Gerard Donley

Unhelpful Help

You asked for it.

Asking for help can be a real gamble.

How many times have you asked someone for help only to wonder later to yourself, “What was I thinking?”

I’m help averse

I’ve been accused over the years of not asking for help, even when needing it. If I complete a project and happen to mention that I had a little difficulty with part of it, the inevitable refrain I hear is, “You should have asked for help.” Well, yeah, I considered that option. But then I remembered how many times I’ve asked for help in the past and later regretted my foolish optimism in assuming the helper would actually be helpful.

Sure, it’s possible the person you ask to help will provide valuable assistance you couldn’t have done without. They may know shortcuts that save you hours of work, or they may have training and skills you could never replace. I would never dare to attempt an electrical project without a professional.

And there are some other tasks for which you obviously need someone else’s assistance.

- Have you ever run out of gas? Did you walk to the nearest gas station or did you call and ask someone to bring you some fuel? Here, help is appreciated.

- Did you ever move your own sofa from one apartment to another? Moving is another occasion when someone’s help is needed and can be a genuine gift. Anyone who agrees to help you move is a real friend. (Until they start scratching your furniture and breaking the lamps.)

- Did you ever miss the last bus or train that could get you somewhere on time? Needing a ride somewhere when you can’t afford to be late also qualifies as a good time to ask for help. (In the age of Uber and Lyft, this circumstance is less likely to arise, but it happens.)

But notice that each of these examples are situations when you physically can’t do something alone. You must rely on another person. You don’t really have a choice; you have to take what you get.

Fear of helpers

My dread of asking for someone’s help is most acute when doing the task myself seems perfectly feasible. I should be able to find something I lost by myself. I don’t want anyone to join me in my search, but if I ask someone if they’ve seen whatever I’m looking for, what do they say? “Where did you lose it?” (If I knew that, it wouldn’t be lost!)

Before GPS, asking directions

Before GPS was standard equipment in every car and phone, asking strangers for directions was sometimes a necessary evil. I once asked a cop for directions to my hotel when I arrived in Lyon, France. I’d driven from Paris and I was tired. The gendarme couldn’t have been more gracious as he pointed me in the wrong direction and told me to follow the road “all the way.” Oh, Merci.!

Asking the wrong person

I’ve succumbed to temptation on occasion. I asked for a hand from someone who claimed to know how to mount a roof rack on my car. I just needed help lifting it into place. He explained to me how the directions that came with the parts were wrong. He knew the right way to install it.

Later that day I was on the phone with a body shop getting an estimate to repair the gouge “my helper” dug in my roof.

Telephoning for help

Calling a government agency or a large company to ask for information is like flipping a coin. The answer you get depends entirely upon who answers the phone. My cable box was malfunctioning one night (Yes, I still have cable). I called for technical help.

I’ve always admired, even envied, multilingual people. I can’t tell you in which country the technician was located because I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Yes, he was speaking English, but with so heavy an accent I simply could not decipher the words. I apologized, thanked him, and brought the cable box to the store the next day. Do you know what the clerk asked me?

“Why didn’t you just call the technical helpline?”

Needing Emotional / Psychological Help

We’ve all had down days, those periods when you just can’t lift yourself out of a sour mood or a nagging depression. People you interact with at those times are often sensitive enough to detect that you’re not yourself.

“Are you ok? Is something bothering you? Can I help?”

If you share the source of your upset with the volunteer therapist, you’re rolling the dice again. You open up and tell them that you’re waiting for the results of some medical tests you had a few days before.

Their advice?

“Oh, just don’t think about it.” or “Don’t worry about it.”

Thanks. That was useful input, wasn’t it?

Or, perhaps you were upset, or sad, or hurt because of some personal disappointment you suffered. What’s the help offered by those who truly think they’re comforting you?

“Aww. You shouldn’t feel that way.”

Now that you’ve gotten that sage advice, you can stop feeling that way.

Becoming the “elephant”

No one goes through life without needing someone’s help. And those who offer to help or grant you the help you need are usually wonderfully generous, loving people. But even those who so willingly jump to your aid can sometimes make you regret you ever asked.

Have you ever asked for a big favor from someone who immediately said they’d help? Maybe you asked for a short-term loan, which you repaid quickly, with interest. For the rest of your life, or as long as you can stand it, you may have to hear, “Remember I loaned you that money?” Repaying the loan is not enough. Saying thank you, expressing appreciation, or even sending a gift to show how grateful you are might not be enough to live down the fact that they granted you that favor. You become the elephant because they will never let you forget.

Hiring help

Hiring an assistant can also bite you in the backside. Training is required, as is informing the new hire about your preferences. A friend of mine hired an assistant so she could spend less time writing letters, blog posts, and customer emails. After a month of training, she was still spending hours correcting the assistant’s errors, misfiling, and typos. Customer emails increased because they were all asking for clarification of the information they got from the assistant.


I am a big fan of teamwork. The concept of a group of individuals joining together to contribute their effort and intellect to a common goal inspires me.

But I can’t be part of it. It’s not that I’m antisocial or psycho (I don’t think). I guess I’m just too much of a control freak to yield control of the work’s quality to people whose standards are a mystery to me. I need to have veto power, and that’s just not part of being a team player, is it?

At Kobe Bryant’s heartbreaking memorial service, Shaquille O’Neal told a story about the time Shaq confronted Kobe about being stingy with his passing. He was taking all the shots himself. Shaq told Kobe, “You know, there’s no “i” in 'team'.”

Kobe immediately shot back,

“No, but there’s definitely an 'm' and an 'e'."

I know I’m no Kobe Bryant, but I understand his sentiment.

Work Alone?

What’s the answer? Should we always work alone to avoid the dangers of unhelpful help? Is going it alone even a real option in most circumstances? Is my aversion to asking for help just a latent sense of perfectionism, which is a component in obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Am I just arrogant because I won’t sign my name to other people’s research or writing? At least, I won’t sign it until I peruse it for any phrase or sentence I don’t like.

Lonely future

My future prospects are limited because of my unwillingness to seek help from others. I know. But the ultimate result will either be that I become a lonely person who produces good work that I’m proud of, or I will be fully exposed as a complete incompetent with no one else to blame but myself.

Now that I think of it, maybe that’s too big a gamble for me to take after all. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to make that choice.

Do you think you could help me?