Why Do We Resist Accepting Help From People?

Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
By Dr. Gwendolyn Seidman

Studies consistently show that we’re happier and healthier when we feel like we’re being supported. Knowing that you’ll have someone there when you need them is a great comfort. But, actually getting help from others has a mixed outcome: When it works, that support makes us feel good and can have tremendously positive effects on our lives. But, sometimes it doesn’t help and even makes us feel worse

So, when is support from our loved ones well-received, and when does it backfire? Well, backfires can occur when the people supporting us aren’t that good at giving us the kind of help we need. Another possibility is that receiving support can make us feel indebted to the provider, which can lead to negative feelings. Alternatively, admitting we need help and receiving it could be a blow to our self-esteem

According to the authors of a recent study, we’re more likely to interpret help as a threat to our self-esteem if we need that support in an area of our lives that’s self-relevant or self-defining — that is, in an area where our own success and achievement are especially important. For example, if your self-concept rests (in part) on your great cooking ability, it may be a blow to your ego when a friend helps you prepare a meal for guests — because it suggests that you’re not the master chef you thought you were. 

In the recent study, researchers conducted two experiments to determine whether attempts to help with a self-relevant stressor led to more negative feelings. The first experiment focused on a survey of graduating law students who were preparing for the Bar, a highly stressful test that all lawyers must take if they wish to practice law professionally. So, for the law students, passing the exam was extremely self-relevant.

In the weeks leading up to the test, the students completed daily measures of their own anxious mood, whether or not the biggest stressor they faced that day was related to the exam, and whether or not their partners had provided emotional support. Results showed that closer to the exam date and on days when the students were especially stressed about the exam, receiving emotional support was associated with more anxiety than on days when the exam was less salient. So, when students were worried about the exam, emotional support was especially ineffective.

In the second experiment, the researchers examined how support from a stranger on a self-relevant task might lead to distress — and whether this is caused by the negative feelings that an offer to help can elicit. To do so, the researchers recruited undergraduate students who had rated academic achievement as extremely important to them. The researchers asked the students to complete 20 very difficult math and logic problems. 

Some were told that the task was a measure of intelligence and academic potential, making it a self-relevant task. But, others were told that the purpose of the task was merely to determine the difficulty of the questions. After participants completed the first 10 items, those assigned to a social-support condition were offered a calculator to help with the rest of the problems. Both before and after the task, participants rated their own emotional distress (including anxious, sad, or ashamed). 

Students who believed the task was dependent upon their own success or achievement — and who were helped by the experimenter — demonstrated an increase in both emotional distress and negative self-evaluations compared to those who didn’t get help. But, those who didn’t believe the task had anything to do with their personal achievement had less negative reactions when offered help. In addition, the more negatively the support impacted self-evaluations, the more likely the students were to be distressed. This suggests that support had negative emotional consequences partly because it made the students feel dissatisfied with themselves. 

So, even well-intentioned efforts to help can backfire sometimes. When you help others with the things that are most important to them, your efforts could do more harm than good. This makes lending a hand particularly difficult, since important situations are the ones when you are most likely to want to help. Although the research didn’t specifically address ways to provide more effective support, it suggests that making help less threatening to the self-concept of the recipient could go a long way toward making it more effective. 

Perhaps showing the recipient that you still very much respect his or her abilities could reduce the harmful effects of your offer to help. In addition, providing support in a sneaky way allows the recipient to benefit without even perceiving it as "help." So, when help is hidden, it’s less threatening to our self-worth — and thus even more helpful.

A version of this article orginally appeared in Psychology Today.

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