Why do women find it so hard to admit they need help, let alone ask for it?
Not being able to ask for help isn’t exclusive to women, but women play so many important roles that this can become detrimental to society, says CNA Women’s Hidayah Salamat.
Asking for a friend: How many times has someone said to you, “if you need help, just ask” and even though you could easily rattle off about a dozen things you needed help with, all you said in reply was “I’m good, but thanks”.
Fine – it’s me. I’m the friend. I’m not alone here, am I?
Asking for help is one of the topics that CNA Women editor Penelope Chan and I are tackling in Womankind, a new podcast that – to be very honest – is really an excuse for us to start a conversation about things women don’t talk to each other about, but should.
I see it in my own circles.
Often, mum friends turn up at social events looking like they’re on top of things. Colleagues who are going through personal challenges are fighting fires all day at work as if they weren’t just fighting often even bigger fires at home.
When I find out later what they’ve really been through, I always wonder: “Why didn’t she say something?”
Talk about pot calling the kettle black.
The last few years have been particularly punishing for me, but I kept things mostly to myself. It was only a year or two into it, when the problem became impossible to avoid, ignore or hide, that I confided in my best friends.
They asked me the same thing: “Why didn’t you say something?”
Why don’t we? Why do women find it so hard to admit we need help, let alone ask for it?
I know what you’re thinking: Surely this isn’t a problem unique to women. It’s not.
This isn’t a game of “who has it worse?”.
In Singapore and globally, women are shouldering the bulk of caregiving duties. At the same time, they’re doing their bit to put food on the table. Many have demanding careers.
We need help, just like everyone else. But apparently, we’re not so good at getting it.
I DEPEND ON ME
Personally, two things may have been a factor.
As a millennial, I witnessed my mum, grandmother and other female relatives take on an amount of responsibility that as an adult I find practically insurmountable. And they did it without question and largely, without the kind of help available today.
My grandmother sat for as many as six grandchildren at a time and her arms worked the stove all day while simultaneously fending off hungry toddlers from the flames.
Nap time was traumatising for us and her. She would always get the group to settle down, only for one cheeky tike to try and get up and run away. Her arm would shoot out and drag the kid back to the mattress.
On days when she only had one grandchild to watch, she would go to a car dealer nearby, and serve its directors coffee and tea for extra cash. It was like she was never tired.
My mum cared for my brother and I while my dad worked. For a long time it was a full-time job and she took it very seriously. She cooked, she cleaned, she checked our homework, she took us to school and back, she did our art projects, she practised with us for school plays, she volunteered (once my mum signed up to play “a concerned parent” at our school’s evacuation exercise – she was the only one who cried in character), and did the household finances. One time she worked at home in the day and did a 12-hour factory shift at night.
I never saw my grandmother ask for or accept help. Once or twice, she sent us out to get her loose cigarettes from the convenience store downstairs (things were very different in the early 90s) or buy a round of dragon beard candy for everyone when the seller came tinkling his bell, but that was it.
My mum, who has six sisters, fared a little better. She didn’t ask, but my aunts would force food and groceries on us when we were struggling, and she accepted them.
So I grew up thinking I could do it all. If someone offered help, I said no. If they forced it on me, I didn’t have a choice but to take it.
Then, in my teens, feminist anthems and films became de rigueur.
Destiny’s Child’s Bills, Bills, Bills and Independent Women taught entire generations of women they didn’t need to depend on anyone but themselves.
Today, Netflix has categories for films that feature a “strong female lead” and “kickass women”, which are encouraging but at the same time, deceiving.
The reality is the vast majority of us aren’t Alex Munday (Lucy Liu’s character in the original Charlie’s Angels movies), who can do kung fu, hack security systems, massage a criminal and knock him out with her bare feet, and bake a pie for her handsome boyfriend, with hair and makeup to match.
We can try. But not without help. Unless you want to inspire films like Legally Burnt Out.
START WITH THE LITTLE THINGS
Evidence shows that with habits, small changes yield amazing results. So start small.
Can’t reach the top shelf at the supermarket? Ask a passing stranger to help you get that bag of potato chips.
It’s important to remember that good Samaritans are among us, but like you and I, they are going about their daily grind on little rest. They’re not mind-readers and are often not paying enough attention to notice that you need help.
You have to ask.
Try to remember that nobody suffers from not asking for help more than you. If you fail to ask, it’s your kids’ cries that will haunt you when you come home without their favourite snack – not the stranger’s. If you fail to ask, you’re the one paying extra for the bag of chips you can actually reach.
More examples of small things: Ask your kids to wash the plate they used for lunch; ask your roommate to help you with your dress if you can’t reach the zipper; and ask your colleague to help you buy lunch if they’re heading out.
PEOPLE WANT TO HELP
Contrary to popular belief, studies (conducted on humans and animals) show that compassion is innate and instinctive in both males and females.
The different ways in which men and women show kindness are only so because of the gender norms imposed on us through socialisation. For example, in many communities, sympathy is seen as more acceptable for women to express so women become better at communicating in that way. Men, perhaps, are taught to be protective.
But in general, people are not born selfish – they are built to help.
Finally, most people don’t ask for help because they don’t want to be seen as weak.
Sure – your asking for help might empower someone to think they are a little bit better than you. But if you think about it, we are all weaker at some things, better at others.
Ultimately, when you ask for help, you are extremely likely to get it – and that sets you ahead.
Listen to the full Womankind episode about how women can learn to ask for help:
CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.