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When did “help” become a four-letter word?

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

Of course by this I mean when did it become “bad”, or “wrong” to ask for help – this is not a post about the etymology of the actual word (from Proto-Germanic ‘helpanan’ with connections to other northern European languages, just in case you were hoping for this information).


Back in the 60’s there were songs about asking for help - upbeat, positive songs (they are playing continuously in my head while I write). But somewhere along the way the general attitude towards asking for help has changed. When did we start thinking it’s something to avoid, something that shows weakness and that you aren’t somehow good enough? Why is It so difficult to say “I need help” in any of the many ways we could actually ask for it? Look at the flip side – if someone asked you for help, how would you react? Assuming the request was within both reason and your ability to give, wouldn’t you do what you could? And what would you think about the person who’s asking?


Maybe it’s the circumstances

Perhaps it’s related to the situation and perceived options. If they were drowning or stuck in a burning building, most people would call for help.


In a less extreme scenario, one evening when my other half was going out for a few drinks after work I headed off for a walk. As the door shut behind me, I realised my keys were still on the other side and I was locked out. I didn’t really have a choice (well, other than making it a reeealllyy long walk and then sitting on the doorstep), so I turned to my cousin and her family who lived nearby and after my walk I sat in their house until my other half got home. They were happy to help – in fact to them it just meant having my company and giving me a drink or two, they hardly saw it as help but to me it was invaluable.


What about when asking for help is a less obvious option though? I admit, when my other half was signed off work with stress and I was physically and emotionally tired, being pulled in different directions and desperately trying to balance everything, I could have asked the same cousin and other people for help in other ways but didn’t, because I felt I “should” be able to do things myself. And that’s a common theme among people who are caring for or supporting loved one whatever the specifics are – it’s “our” responsibility, we want to do it, we feel we ought to be able to do it.


A lightbulb moment

One random Thursday I arrived home to find a friend sitting and chatting with my other half because he knew what was going on, had some time and paid a visit. It was a lightbulb moment for me that other people could be involved, and that I didn’t have to carry the burden all by myself. I didn’t rush out asking everyone I knew for help, but as and when I thought of a way that someone could give one or other of us some support, I called on them. No one said “no”, and as far as I know, no one judged me or thought I was a failure or any of the other things that had held me back from asking before.


As well as singing along to “help me if you can I’m feeling down, and I do appreciate you being ‘round…” in my head, I’ve been thinking of the ways to ask for assistance, support, relief without actually using the word “help” including: - Would you mind…? - Would it be possible for you to…? - Could you…? - Will you do x…?

More Beatles: “Won’t you please, please help me?....” and e-mail me at coaching@fionagillies.co.uk with the subject “Help” with any suggestions for how to ask for help. I’d love to put them together as a follow up to this.


Offering help

It’s possible that although an offer of help is made with the best of intentions, accepting it can still feel like actually asking for help.

For my birthday a couple of years ago, we were hosting a BBQ. All the guests were keen to offer to bring something: Guest one: “Is there anything I can bring?” My answer: “No thanks” Guest two: “What would you like me to bring?” My answer: “just you, thanks” Guest three: “Shall I bring one of my banoffee pies?” My answer: “yes please” I know the first two guests did want to bring something, and would happily have brought anything I’d asked for (within reason!) but it was still easier to say no than to think of something specific and hope that it wasn’t outside the scope of what they had in mind. With the specific suggestion of banoffee pie I could say “yes” without hesitation. I don’t even like banoffee pie myself, but it took care of a dessert option and so was one thing off my to-do list. Since then I’ve tried to make my own offers of help specific, based on something that I’m generally good at, or recognise is needed so that it’s easy for the other person to accept.


The element of surprise

As a footnote to the BBQ story, when it was underway someone was despatched to the shop with orders for various types of chocolate and as he was leaving asked me “would you like anything else?” so I requested a surprise, expecting another type of chocolate. When he returned he handed me a Mr Potato Head. There is no underestimating the power of surprise when it comes to giving a helping hand!

How 'help' is important for someone who is supporting a partner with mental health challenges

Does it sound familiar that supporting a partner with mental health issues can at times be demanding, frustrating, lonely? Feeling like you "should" be able to do it, but not knowing how? Help is at hand, in a number of ways and the first step is in asking for it or accepting it when offered. If that really truly isn't an option then think about what actually needs to be done, when it needs to be done and to what level it needs to be done.


I don't think of myself as houseproud, but when we got a new kitchen I became "kitchen proud". I got into the habit of always making sure that the kitchen was clean and tidy. When other things became a priority I realised that cleaning and tidying could usually wait, and when I did do it, it didn't have to be "perfect", and the less frequent tasks like cleaning cupboards could become even more spaced out. How can you help yourself as well as asking others for help?


When my other half was signed off work with stress, my life was turned upside down as well as his. These blog posts are based on the things that helped me , the lessons I learnt the hard way and what I realise with the benefit of hindsight would have helped. I’ve collected some of the other key learning points and tips and made these available to download at https://www.fionagillies.co.uk/pivot-pointers.

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