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Asking for Help & Setting Boundaries

By: Susan Adams M.Ed.

Asking for Help & Setting Boundaries

You may be one of those people who has a hard time asking others to do anything. You may also have a hard time saying “no” if asked by someone else to do something.

Many people have this problem and, “yes”, it is a problem because it gets in the way of setting limits with others if you can’t say, “no” and it makes it hard for you to get your needs met if you can’t ask others for things that you may need.

In fact, if you have trouble asking others if you are in need this alone is a kind of selfishness. Most people do enjoy doing something for others. It helps them to feel important and is useful if it is not overused.

Some people can give but cannot receive. This puts others in an awkward position and is, in fact, a kind of control. You can learn to change these habits if any of this description fits you and you will be happier for it!

Making Requests

If you have trouble asking others for things, it may be because you carry irrational fantasies of rejection and fear of bothering others or of obligating yourself to others. It may be that you fear putting others in an uncomfortable position which also assumes that you are responsible for the ability of the other person to turn you down if that is necessary.

These fears and fantasies usually come from how our requests were treated when we were growing up. It is important to recognize that you ARE now gown up and that you are dealing with people other than the family who “trained” your responses.

What To Do

First, recognize, that the world is not made up of people like the ones who responded to you growing up. Then, instead of focusing on the worst outcomes (rejection and humiliation or anger) and on your sense of unworthiness, focus on the right to ask and trust that others will set their own boundaries for what they can and can’t do. The vulnerability of your request makes you more likeable to others because it makes you more human and more like other people who also need things.

Refusing requests

This is the other side of the coin. You may have learned early to be accommodating so that others would like you. It is, admittedly, very difficult to turn down a friend or someone close. You may think that it is selfish or that the asker will be angry.

These are also irrational fantasies and can lead us to doing things that are way beyond our own limits. This can make us angry and ultimately hurt the relationship; that we were trying to protect when we refrained from saying, “no.”

Sometimes we make excuses when we feel anxious about turning down a request or we over apologize.

What to Do

If you don’t want to do something, “Just say no” with a reasonable explanation for why you can’t accept the request. Be straightforward about it. “I wish that I could pick your mom up at the airport on Tuesday, but I am working and could not get off to do that. I am so sorry.”

Sometimes when people have trouble saying, “no” they go to the other extreme and sound abrupt. It is not the failure to comply with the request that becomes the issue, but the manner of the turn down. So be polite and soften the “no”. This takes practice for many people.

If you feel defensive, it usually shows. You are better off to explain that you wish you could do what is being asked and do sincerely feel badly about not being available. If you offer 20 reasons for not complying or berate yourself, all you are doing is showing the asker that you have trouble speaking up for yourself, are very uncomfortable, and are not honest.

Did you know? To be truly concerned about other people’s feelings and needs, one must be politely honest. If we give others the right to make and refuse requests, we must claim these rights for ourselves as well.

Asking for Help & Setting Boundaries


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