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“Ungrateful!” – Why Do We Respond Negatively to Help?

“Help” is a concept loaded with positive meanings. Receiving help from others implies that we are relieved from our struggles, closer to attaining our goals in life, and in a better relationship with those who help us. Humans are social creatures, and being able to help one another is a key factor that has allowed us to survive and thrive as a species.

However, there are times when we find ourselves responding to help in a way that isn’t so positive. We may be unwilling to seek help, stressed out by someone’s offer to help, or even feel dissatisfied after help is given. And because help is such an inherently good thing, these negative responses are often regarded as “ungrateful” and unjustifiable. 

But what if there’s more to it? Most of us have been “ungrateful” at some point in our lives; surely these negative responses are more than just character flaws. I talked to two of my friends, Lexie and Olivia, who (like myself) are foreign students pursuing a university degree in Singapore. Perhaps due to this background, all of us are used to getting things done independently rather than getting help. However, this mindset has also cost us opportunities to do things better; we recognise that sometimes, a helping hand — whether we are receptive to it or not — is truly what we need. 

Fear of asking for help

For Lexie, negative emotions arise when she feels like she needs to seek help. “When I go and ask someone for help, there’s all this guilt and shame and confusion…” she said. 

What she describes is actually a common reason why people shy away from seeking help: the damage to self-esteem that arises from not being able to do something independently. According to social psychologists Bella DePaulo and Jeffrey Fisher, one of the “costs” of asking for help is that it may threaten our “feelings of competence and self-respect”. When we reach out to somebody for assistance, we acknowledge that the task at hand is beyond our own capabilities, which hurts our confidence. In addition, there’s also the fear of being judged as incompetent by the person we’re seeking help from.

This is especially so if we need help for a task that involves our ego — that is, if it’s important for our self-esteem to do well in that one task. For example, if you’re known as the chef of your friend group, you might find it particularly difficult to ask your friends for help with cooking. In a more serious scenario, someone who takes a lot of pride in working may refuse to seek help from social support programmes after losing a job.

So how do we overcome this mental barrier that prevents us from getting the help we need? Rather than focusing on the embarrassing feelings that come with asking for help, it’s better to think about the practical benefits of receiving help. Asking your friends for help with cooking will allow everyone to enjoy a better meal. Getting career advice can speed up your job-seeking process and potentially introduce you to new fields that you might do well in. 

With these positive outcomes in mind, we’ll find it easier to request for help and reap its benefits, rather than suffering alone. As Lexie shares, when she manages to bring herself to ask for help from someone, “The moment they say yes… it releases all the anxiety, and it actually makes me feel very, very good.”

The problem with unsolicited help

Olivia, who studies Art, Design and Media, often brings home her school projects and assignments. Olivia’s mum is good at drawing, so when she sees her daughter’s drawings around the house, she is always inclined to make some edits of her own to enhance the work. 

“I just want to take my own time and solve the problem independently,” said Olivia, “When the help is forced upon me, I feel like I’m being deprived of the opportunity to learn from the struggle.”

It’s not surprising that gestures of help, when unsolicited, can sometimes result in discomfort or frustration in the recipient. People like Olivia enjoy (or even prefer) the process of solving difficult problems on their own, and may feel worse off if the learning opportunity and autonomy are taken away from them.

Moreover, unsolicited help seems to be based on the assumption that we cannot adequately do something ourselves, and many of us find this assumption condescending or offensive, despite the good intentions of the helper. Unsolicited advice, for example, can induce stress because it feels like criticism that we should have done something differently (or better). 

Therefore, it is natural for us to respond negatively to unsolicited help. After all, we do want to honour our own pace of learning, build confidence, and feel as equally capable as other people. If you’re uncomfortable about someone presumptively giving you help, you should communicate honestly that while you’re grateful for the assistance, you’d rather solve the problem yourself next time.

At other times, though, unsolicited help isn’t necessarily unuseful. We can appreciate that such help relieves us of (at least some) distress, and if the person helping us is more skillful at the task, we can always learn something from them. And, as Olivia points out, recognising the good intentions of the helper can mitigate the feelings of defensiveness or inferiority when you receive unsolicited help. This may also allow you to form a better relationship with the helper. Ultimately, while we can’t control the actions and intentions of other people, it is within our power to decide how we can respond.

The discomfort of “indebtedness”

One day at my rented apartment, I accidentally locked myself out of my own room with no spare keys around. My flatmate Charlotte suggested that, instead of spending a lot of money on hiring a locksmith, she could call her friend over to help unlock the door. I gladly accepted the offer of help. As it turned out, though, Charlotte’s friend wasn’t a professional locksmith; he had dropped by out of pure goodwill to help, before heading to work. 

I began to feel a little stressed out: my carelessness had caused a stranger to travel all the way here and potentially be late for work. It didn’t help that my door lock was tougher than expected; without professional tools, Charlotte’s friend was evidently struggling, but he wanted to see the task through. 

After almost three long hours outside the room, applying brute force to the lock, we finally broke the lock and opened the door. I thanked both Charlotte and her friend profusely; they refused any compensation for the trouble, and rushed off to work. Standing in the middle of my room, I suddenly felt distraught. How could I cause such inconvenience to someone I barely knew? How should I return this huge favour? And why was I responding so negatively to a very positive situation?

Receiving help often elicits the feeling of gratitude; but similar to (and sometimes indistinguishable from) gratitude, is the emotion of indebtedness, which may be constructed as more negative in our minds. Because getting help more or less requires someone to devote extra energy and resources to us, we feel indebted to repay or reciprocate. In fact, we universally follow a “norm of reciprocity”: 1) people should help those who have helped them, and 2) people should not injure those who have helped them. 

Seems like common sense, right? Yet when social scientists explored the concept of indebtedness and reciprocity, they found that it greatly complicates our reactions to help. For example, psychologists found that we are more reluctant to ask for help if we perceive that we have little ability to reciprocate it; and when such help is given, we accept less of it and feel more uneasy. This is perhaps why, when it seemed difficult to reciprocate somebody who spent much time and effort in helping me unlock a door, I felt more negative emotions of indebtedness and worry. 

One way to resolve this, then, is to reframe our thinking with the more positive emotion of gratitude: value the good in life, and never take it for granted. And while we should repay any kindness, there is more than one way to do so. We may reciprocate by money or material things, by verbal appreciation, or even by carrying altruistic deeds forward and helping more people.

No matter how independent we think we are, there are times when we need help from others. And just like any other human experience, receiving help can bring forth both good and bad feelings. Once we learn about the inner mechanisms of those good and bad feelings toward help, we can be in a better place to receive help with graciousness and gratitude, as well as to give help to others in a more conducive and compassionate way.

Ruijia Huang

Nanyang Tech '23

A Psychology & Linguistics undergraduate who is a little obsessed with lifting and Chinese food.
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