Introverts are often hesitant to make their own needs the center of attention. Here’s how to ask for what you need.
Where were the carrots? I had been wandering the produce aisle for far too long, and I still couldn’t seem to find them. What was I supposed to do — ask someone to help me find them? I looked around, but no one approached me and magically offered an answer. Gulp.
Well, I guess I don’t really need carrots, I thought to myself reluctantly. I went to the self-checkout, paid for my other vegetables, and left.
Yeesh, that was pretty disheartening. I know that if I had asked someone working in the grocery store, I probably would have been pointed toward the carrots in a flash. Yet already feeling overwhelmed by all the external grocery store stimuli (bright lights! loud music! constant background chatter from fellow shoppers!) — as well as reluctant to talk to anyone — asking for help felt like too much of a job. Instead, I talked myself out of it, convincing myself that what I wanted wasn’t really valid: Who needs carrots, anyway? (Oh, right, I do. Carrots are my favorite — and I wish I had been able to buy some.)
Being an Introvert vs. Being Independent
Wanting to feel independent and being used to staying self-sufficient — skills we learn as introverts to survive in a scary, extroverted world — means that we can be incredibly reluctant to ask for help. I get scared I’m interrupting or bothering someone by making my own needs the center of attention. Even more so, having to approach someone, start a conversation, and then ask them to stop what they’re doing in order to help me can feel like an overwhelming set of steps and a daunting amount of energy. And this is especially true in situations where there is already a lot of external noise or commotion. These fears can apply whether it’s something small (like where to find a certain item in the grocery store) or something big (like how to start therapy or buy a house).
But here’s the thing: Many people are willing (and even excited about) helping others — they just might not know exactly what you need, and how they can best help you. It may feel like a massive hurdle to many introverts (or even a nightmare), but learning how to effectively ask for help can actually make our lives easier. Here are ways to make it less scary, while successfully getting your needs met, too.
How to Ask for Help as an Introvert
1. Be very specific about your needs.
People love helping. It’s hardwired into our DNA — how’s that for an uplifting thought? Sometimes, though, people love helping a little too much, and it feels overwhelming (especially for us introverts).
I remember once asking a friend to proofread an important work email — we introverts can be perfectionists — but he ended up completely rewriting it for me, and then giving me a lecture on email etiquette. Yikes, right?! I realized afterwards that I had really only wanted to know if one particular sentence made sense — I didn’t actually want advice on anything else in it. And while I know his intentions were in the right place, it temporarily turned me off from asking anyone to help me clarify anything in my writing for quite a while.
Now, however, I’ve realized that the more specific I can be about my needs, the better. For example, with my friend, next time I’ll say, “Hey, I’m not sure about this one sentence, could you take a look at it and summarize what you understand from it?” Then, if the conversation goes on too long — say, over five minutes — I’ll wrap it up with a quick, “Thanks, that was helpful,” or “Thanks so much for your time!”
You’re not bossy if you set very clear limits on what you need. It’s all about setting healthy boundaries. If the person helping me understands exactly what I need, they’re less likely to go off on a tangent or take over whatever I asked for help with, like what happened with that email. An added bonus? When people know exactly what you want, they feel even more fulfilled when they help you achieve it.
There are certainly times when I’ve asked for help and someone has given me advice or a solution to a problem I never knew I had, such as coworkers who have shared endless amounts of supplemental resources (even though I’d just asked about a simple grammar point). I am so grateful for these moments, and what I’ve learned from them. However, setting limits for when someone’s “help” becomes overbearing makes me less hesitant to ask in the first place.
2. Plan what you will say in advance and have some go-to phrases ready.
When I lived in South America, I noticed I was way less anxious about asking for help about little things, such as in the grocery store or for directions. I started to realize that because I had to plan out every conversation in Spanish, my second language, I had already implicitly started planning how I would ask for help. Having repeated the phrase “Dónde está el baño? (Where is the bathroom?) in my head a hundred times before I had to say it out loud made it easier to do.
Moving back to the U.S., I found that when I both anticipated what I might need and armed myself with some ready-made phrases, it was easier to keep this up. Okay, I’m going to the store. I’ll practice: “Hi, excuse me, can you point me toward the carrots?” Every time I feel silly for doing this, I remember how great I feel when I’ve gone out and accomplished what I needed to do, such as purchasing all the vegetables I needed to make soup, and without getting stuck because I was anxious about asking for it.
A lot of introverts find themselves pre-planning conversations before they actually happen (and not just for grocery shopping). Speaking isn’t really a casual thing for many of us — it takes so much energy and creates so much anxiety! Plus, we often like to put a lot of thought into our words, and the spontaneity of conversational speech can make it hard for us to participate. Even more, we are usually highly aware of how other people react to what we say, which means we can be careful with our words to a fault. Planning what I’m going to say — and how someone might respond — means I’m less likely to get caught up in anxious overthinking in the (sometimes dreaded) moment of conversation.
I might not always know when I’m going to need help — and of course I never plan on getting lost or injured — but having some key phrases ready can really help. “Can you help me with this?” “Where is the…” and “Could you show me how to do this?” are some of my favorites, and ones that I still find myself repeating every time I leave the house.
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3. Understand where the fear around asking for help is coming from.
As an introvert, I am extremely independent: I can do it myself, I’ve often thought, whether it’s about a school project, making dinner, or planning out a garden in my home. Oftentimes, this thought turns into I can do it better by myself. Introverts get used to working really, really well on our own: We thrive when we have enough time and space in our own heads to let our ideas come through. This, however, can mean we often end up in over our heads, or taking on the bulk of the work, such as in a group project. In school, I absolutely loathed group projects: My classmates would talk and talk and talk the whole time (not about our project!), distracting me from actually doing the work I knew needed to get done.
But I would get scared that if I asked someone else to do part of the project, it might not turn out very well. And with my overwhelming perfectionist streak, it helped me to know when I needed to let it go. Are there times when even perfectionist me might benefit from someone else’s input? (Yes. The answer is yes, whether I want to ask for that input or not). It’s pretty humbling to let go of a sense of perfectionist independence: It’s what has been helping many of us introverts feel successful for much of our lives. It helps to see that holding myself to impossibly high standards doesn’t actually help me — or anyone else, for that matter. Rather than getting caught up in a superiority complex, I now find I can approach other people’s ideas with a sense of curiosity.
When I first started teaching middle school English, I was so nervous about not being the perfect teacher that I tried to take on everything I possibly could, hyper-managing all classroom tasks, like organizing the room, correcting students’ writing, and putting vocabulary words on the board. That, as well as working in a career that required an extroverted version of being “on” around people for much of the day, ended up becoming so stressful.
Soon, however, I learned that asking students to help with tasks — such as writing on the board, passing out papers, or even looking up the correct spelling of a word in the dictionary — gave them a better sense of purpose and lifted the burden of having to do everything myself. Figuring out why I felt so stuck in my head, and then letting go of the need to be perfectly self-sufficient, helped me get at the root cause of my over-independence.
These days, when I notice I’m really hesitant to ask for help, I try to delve into it and unpack my fears: Am I nervous about having to speak to someone? About their ideas conflicting with mine? About feeling I could do it better myself?
I usually find that if I can understand what’s making me reluctant, it gets easier to move past that barrier. For example, if I’m worried about someone helping too much, like my friend reading that email, I can deal with that by asking for very specific feedback. Or if I’m worried that I could clean up the kitchen faster by myself, I’m probably stuck in a perfectionism streak — and I remind myself it’s not exactly perfect to stress myself out instead of asking my roommate to help me clean up after dinner.
Sometimes, I still forget that I don’t have to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders all by myself, but figuring out what I need, planning how to ask for it, and unpacking my fears around asking for help actually does help me in the long run.
Fellow introvert, you, too, deserve to live your absolute best life, and letting people help you can help with that.
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