How to say thank you, fearlessly
Some people seem able to ask for help from the people in their lives easily, at least it seems that way from the outside. From asking people to help them move house, to borrow someone’s SUV to pick something up from the hardware store, to wake up early to drive them to the airport, to ‘swing by and pick up a thing on the way over’, to finding some product to bring back from a European city we’re visiting. It might be calling a friend to talk about something we’re worried about, or to ‘sense check’ a major decision, asking them to change a plan because it would make it easier for us. Perhaps it’s asking someone to pick us up from the hospital after an operation.
How do people ask for help without feeling like we are a pain? How do we know that it might strain our relationships, and how come some people seem to have such confidence when they are asking for help, while others never seem to ask? What if our ealier experiences in life taught us that pushing ourselves to the limit is an admirable thing, and taking the easier route, asking for a break, or for help, is a bit shameful?
For some, memories of family or friends being there for them may be scarce, or not there at all. We may not even realise that this hasn’t been a ‘thing’ for us in our lives. In some families, there always seemed to be other problems that sucked the focus away from what we may have needed. It may even have been signaled to us that we were the problem, or a burden, or that being cared for came with strings attached. We may have learnt that it is not safe to rely on others. There is also a type of social currency around being independent and the opposite is true about being dependent on others.
Receiving from others creates ambiguity
How do I know that you aren’t giving too much, or that you might see me as taking too much?
When it’s us doing the giving, we can make sure we don’t give too much such that resentment would creep into the relationship.
On the other hand, the receiver of support does not have access to that information; they don’t know that the other person is able to manage that boundary, stopping short of resentment. Some people who give a lot might understand that feeling of exhaustion that nudges resentment when they’ve found it hard to say no. Why would we want others to experience those feelings, or the awkwardness of saying yes when they want to say no, deep down?
When we aren’t able to know whether someone’s giving is 100% free of resentment, how can we say ‘thank you’ with confidence, without any fear?
We might remember the ambiguity about asking a friend if they wouldn’t mind picking us up on the way to a venue, or if they wouldn’t mind changing the date we’d planned to catch up for dinner. We might have even said to people ‘Yes, no problem at all’, while feeling a little irritated. The other person may never know that which is why this stuff can feel a little risky. Asking for help, accepting help from others creates ambiguity. We have to trust that the other person is not overextending.
This type of social ambiguity can be uncomfortable, and it may just feel easier to avoid these situations altogether. That doesn’t mean we don’t have close relationships, and other people may not realise we’re like this, especially if there’s been little cause for us to have no choice but to ask for help. Mastering the ‘supportive friend’ or partner role may give others the impression that we’ve got it all together, as well.
on being a burden
This pattern may manifest as a general sense of being a burden when we have no choice but to accept support from others. It can show up when we’e confronted with compliments or a thoughtful gift. Even whenm we register the gratigude feelings, there can be an awkward feeling looking on from the wings, ‘almost’ guilt.
There is a classic “oh, you shouldn’t have” response being given something, as if we feel we need to demonstrate a version of guilt as evidence that we are grateful. It’s a shame, really, that the positivity of those moments in our close relationships would be tempered by guilt feelings.
Imagine a friend is there for us during a particularly rough time. We might feel grateful that they are there for us, but also guilty that they are.
Rather than saying ‘thank you’, we apologise; “I’m sorry I’m so down at the moment”, “I’m sorry I am not the best company”.
Let’s switch roles, that we are the one who has willingly been there for someone who has needed it, and they give us this type of sheepish apology? How does it actually ‘feel?’
In some ways, it signals to both the giver of support, and the receiver, that asking for support, or requiring it, is not ideal at best, or that it’s a burden that needs to be atoned. If we (as the person supporting) detect the others’ seeming guilt about receiving support, we might reflexively try to alleviate that guilt by denying any effort on our side, e.g., “It’s nothing”, which is not exactly true.
Being there for others, doing things for them, involves effort. There is no way around that. The issue is shame about receiving support, or the assumption that ‘effort’ is a type of net cost in all close relationships. In reality, we put effort into all kinds of things that are meaningful to us, including things we enjoy. Even our favourite things to do require effort – the garden, practicing for sport, the effort we put into our pets, and children, our homes. Think about it – how many things in your life that you find most meaningful require no effort?
While our deepest thoughts and feelings about others is ours to know, it’s impossible to know whether being there for us might compromise others’ feelings about us.
Therefore, close relationships require a level of tolerance for ambiguity, and that’s something we can build up.
Gratitude without guilt
We might assume that the goal here is to ‘reduce the guilt’ about receiving support. However, paradoxically, the trick is about developing a tolerance for those guilt feelings, and to learn to trust that others are able to maintain their own boundaries.
The easiest strategy we can use to get rid of guilt is to avoid anything that looks like we’re being supported, and we’re not asking for any favours, or support. However, isn’t there something interesting about the idea of simply celebrating the mutual support that comes with our cherished relationships without feeling any guilt?
We can develop tolerance this ambiguity through exposure. In this case, it’s done through being there for the people we care about, while accepting support at the same time. The tolerance is developed when the thing we fear does not happen.
- When someone does something for you, or is there for you, keep an eye on feelings in the guilt family. I think these can manifest socially as a ‘cringey’ feeling, a tension, like we want to get through the interaction as quickly as possible. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with feeling like a burden, worrying about being too much for the people we care about, or feeling guilty about receiving support. In fact, the worst people in the world aren’t prone to feeling guilty at all.
- Try to reflect on the quality of the relationship you have with the person. It might be helpful to think about how we’ve been there for the other person, as a reminder that we’ve been there for them as well. Keep an eye on parts of you that might be seeming to ‘balance a score’, because that idea relies on the notion that ‘being there for you’ is like withdrawing something from our shared account. In reality, we might recognize that being there for each other can deepen relationships, so the ‘balancing’ model doesn’t make so much sense. Something else to keep an eye out for can be parts of us that might be more defensive about how we’ve been there for the other person in the past, e.g., “well, there was that time I supported her through that breakup, so…” The ‘counterparts’ to these parts of us might be the guilt that we’re working on getting a tolerance for. As strong as these feelings of guilt are, defensive parts like this can be working to counteract. The point is celebrating that we have a relationship where we support each other, or we would support each other if support was relevant.
- We might be more inclined to feel thankful to have the person in our life, rather than for the relationship as a two-person system. Try but zoom out on relationship to the level where you see that it involves the two of you, i.e., ‘I am so grateful that ‘we’ ‘have the relationship we do. Guilt seems almost patronising when we’re looking at close relationships through this lens.
- All emotions are in the body, and guilt has its characteristic physical attitude, which often includes a tightness, holding of the breath, and compression, head down, and internalized. When you’re expressing gratitude, experiment with doing it without guilt. Say thank you while holding yourself upright, reminding yourself that relationships in which we are there for each other are something to truly celebrate.
Doing this helps us signal to each other that asking for support is evidence of the quality of the relationship without feeling guilty.