Why Asking “How can I help?” is Problematic (and Tips to Rephrase)

23 Apr


“Is there anything I can do?” It’s a common question from caring people. We ask it when someone is stressed. We ask when someone is grieving. The caring people in my life ask when one of my chronic conditions is flaring up. But I kind of wish they wouldn’t.

I’m uncomfortable asking for help and accepting help. I want to be strong and independent and I don’t want to feel I owe anyone anything. Secretly though, I do want help. Sometimes I even need it.

Even if I were comfortable, asking me what you can do to help is a problem for me because it makes me do the work. It makes me come up with something for you to do. And you may not even want to do what I come up with. (Unless you *do* want to mow my lawn, then I’ll show you where the mower is.)

If you do want to offer help, here are some tips to make it work best for me and for you. These are pulled from Chapter 7 of my book, Splatvocate: Supporting People with Hidden Disabilities.

Establish ahead of time what to do.

For those of us with chronic conditions or even who experience fluctuating external stressors from work, caregiving, or other factors, try to find out on our better days what would work best on our worse days. It’ll be easier for us to reflect, analyze, and anticipate in the calm of the storm. I actually created a tool specifically for this very conversation: Splatvocate Map (pdf)

For those of us whose conditions and/or symptoms do not fluctuate, it’s still helpful to ask ahead of a situation, “How can I assist you when we get there?” or “What will you need when you come over?”

Try not to set up a “no.”

People with chronic conditions have to say “no” a lot, and that might make us sad. It makes me sad. So rather than asking us yes/no questions, present offers to help as statements, and then we can take you up on it if we want to. An example would be, “I’m free to come over and rake leaves on Thursday.”

Be specific.

If you tell me you’ll help me in any way I need, I might ask you to clean up the lingering flood mess in my basement. And you don’t have the time or the patience for that mess, plus you should save your N95 masks for the next pandemic.

Think of what you are honestly willing to do, and then present that as a statement. “I’ll be right by your house this afternoon and I’m grabbing Chinese food for lunch. If you call in your order, I’ll pick it up and bring it by for you.” Text a link to the menu.

My previous example of “I’m free to come over and rake leaves on Thursday” is also perfect.

Only offer what you can give.

Helping someone is problematic if it harms your physical or mental health, if it causes you financial problems, if it hurts your relationships, or if it makes you neglect crucial tasks such as work, home upkeep, pet or child care, even self-care and personal hygiene.

Ask yourself the following questions to help guide your own healthy helping.

  • How much time do I have available?
  • What tasks am I willing to do?
  • What is my financial means to help?
  • What are my physical limitations?
  • What are my emotional limitations?
  • What have been past reactions to help I’ve offered? (Keep this specific to each person; one person’s reaction doesn’t determine someone else’s.)
  • What form of helping brings me the most joy?
  • What opportunities can I give this person to help me in return?
  • What’s something nice I can do for myself?

Check out these articles for more tips on communication and helping.

And definitely see how to “Talk Splat”…



2 thoughts on “Why Asking “How can I help?” is Problematic (and Tips to Rephrase)

  1. I thought I’d point out that you are missing a word in a section on this blog post (the first one I’ve read so far.) Although I could figure out what you were saying, I’m sure you are striving to put your best foot forward. It’s certainly not a big deal but if you want to fix it, it’s located here:
    “Be specific.
    If you tell me you’ll ______ me in any way I need, I might ask you to clean up the lingering flood mess in my basement.”
    After you read this, you can delete from this line up if you’d like. It’s up to you if you do anything about it or not because it doesn’t take away from the blog post! Just an attempt of one writer trying to help another…

    I found your site on The Mighty after reading one of your recent articles and I appreciate the perspective you put on our plight with invisible diseases and symptoms. Keep up the good work!

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