12/22/2021 | By Mark B. Borg Jr.

Psychologist Mark Borg, co-author of Making Your Crazy Work for You, discusses the downsides of refusing help: while we may feel we’re doing the right thing, our actions may have unintended results, including to alienate us from other people.

Those of us who have been around awhile tend to be skeptical of “the free lunch.” But, as the saying goes, there is no such thing. And so, if someone offers us something – whether it be in the form of a gift, an opportunity that sounds too good to be true, or a lending hand – we often turn it down. After all, we don’t want others to swindle us of what we have worked hard for (at worst) or expect something in return (at best).

And while this vigilance against ill-intentioned people is good and necessary, we often rely on this same self-protective impulse against well-intentioned individuals who want to offer us care and assistance. This resistance to help from others stems from our need to be self-sufficient because we don’t want to be a burden or an inconvenience to others. And while this is understandable, if we are honest with ourselves, we are also scared to allow others to contribute significantly to us. Moreover, if we have been hurt or disappointed by those we previously trusted, we might be afraid to rely on what others offer us now.

And so, we insist on relying only on ourselves so that we will not risk being hurt and disappointed (again!).

However, when we vigilantly take care of ourselves all by ourselves, it not only alienates us from others but it also communicates the following messages to those around us:

The messages behind refusing help

You have nothing I want. Refusing what others have to give communicates the very personal message that we not only don’t want anything that the person is offering, but that we also don’t want the person either.

You are of no use to me. Being helpful is one of our first ways to contribute to those around us. Some of us believe that human beings are born caregivers and need to experience their usefulness by how important others (starting with our parents) make use of what we have to contribute. When we refuse what others provide us, we send the message that they are not valuable for us and in general.

You have no value. Combined, the message we communicate when we refuse what others attempt to offer is one of rejection – not just of what the person is offering, but of the person.

Unintended results of refusing help from others

Because we dismiss those who try to offer us help, care, or support, it only makes sense that we would find ourselves isolated from others. While we may think that our refusal of their care liberates them from something they don’t want to do, we are actually declining what they have to offer us. And we reject to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of needing them. However, this vulnerability is what helps us build meaningful connections with others. Once we begin to accept what other people have to offer, they start to matter to us, and we might even begin to invest emotionally in them.

The good news, though, is this: we can open ourselves up to the contributions of others at any time. With the bright light of insight, we can catch ourselves in the act of unintentionally alienating ourselves from others and allow them to contribute to our health and well-being.

The fix

And so, without being naive (as there may be situations in our lives where it is essential to evaluate what others bring to us), what can we do to be more receptive to what others have to offer? How can we overcome a tendency for refusing help? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Pause. Many of us instantly shut down when others offer us something. Next time, when someone comes to us with an offer of help or kindness, we can hit pause before saying yes or no. Doing so allows us time to ascertain what is really being offered and make an informed decision. Pausing allows us to respond rather than to react.
  2. Account. During the pause – and after – we can assess what the other person is suggesting and check our motives. (Am I acting overly self-sufficient? Am I worried about burdening others? Is there a legitimate reason to suspect what they are offering?)
  3. Collaborate. When we see what the other person wants to give us, we can ask ourselves if we are willing and able to reciprocate – and if doing so will put us on equal footing.
  4. Experiment. Especially if we’ve already alienated ourselves from others by refusing what they offer us, it is also essential to evaluate our real reasons for mistrusting other people’s motives and intentions. By taking the time to analyze our past experiences, we are better prepared to consider today’s situations. And so, we can tentatively consider the generosity presented to us by allowing the process of “give” and especially “take” to be done on an experimental basis – one gift at a time.

For many of us, accepting help from others is more challenging than giving it. But receiving is just as important as giving when building meaningful relationships. And while there may not be such a thing as a free lunch, we know that providing it for each other will go a long way toward allowing us to feel cared for and – let us hope – loved.

Mark B. Borg Jr., PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst who has been in private practice in New York City since 1998 and is the co-author of Making Your Crazy Work for You (a Central Recovery Press Paperback, on sale January 2022).

Related: Columnist Robert C. Koehler on chance encounters and finding wisdom and love around us

Mark B. Borg Jr.