How to Ask for Help During the Holidays Without Feeling Like a Burden
Therapists share their tips to help you get what you need to have a happier, healthier, and less stressful holiday season.
Holiday helpers wanted
The holidays are the happiest time of the year—until they’re not. Christmas carols are not reality, and while this is a season of joy and togetherness, it is also a uniquely stressful time for many people.
There are gifts to buy, social events to attend, charities to support, family and friends to visit, trips to plan or take, more money to spend, and, of course, the pandemic on top of it all. It’s a recipe for burnout.
It’s even worse if you’re already dealing with grief, trauma, or mental illness. There’s a reason why rates of mental illness increase during the holidays, with 64 percent of people saying this time of year makes their mental conditions worse, according to a survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
So what is one of the best things you can do when you’re feeling stressed? Ask for help! After all, you need help, and your loved ones want to help you.
Even if you know you should reach out when you’re overwhelmed, many people refuse to ask for help, especially during the holidays. Why is this? Experts explain, and share how to ask for help during the holiday season—or any time of year.
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There’s a reason asking for help feels so hard
“We’re trained in our culture, from a very young age, to not to ask for help and to not be a burden on others,” says Laurie J. Ferguson, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, certified life coach, and ordained minister. “It can be really hard to overcome that cultural conditioning.”
Add that to the high-pressure atmosphere of the holidays, and it’s no wonder so many people hold it all in.
This pressure can show up in different ways, and you may recognize some of the more common ways people express their feelings about it, says psychologist Jeff Gardere, PhD, an associate professor and course director of behavioral medicine at Touro College in New York City. Any of these sound familiar?
- not wanting to burden loved ones when they may be feeling extra stress
- fear of admitting weakness or troubles
- desire to maintain the appearance of “perfect” holiday cheer
- denial that you really need help
- feeling so overwhelmed you don’t know what you need or how to ask for it
- guilt over needing help
- worry that things aren’t “bad enough” yet or they might get worse
- asking for help can feel like one more stressful thing
Signs it’s time to ask for help
One of the trickiest parts of asking for help is figuring out when you really need it, Dr. Ferguson says. Ask too soon, and you might risk not having help later when you need it even more. If you wait until you’ve reached a crisis point, on the other hand, you risk a mental or physical breakdown.
Thankfully, there are some telltale signs that you should reach out to friends and loved ones during the holidays, she adds:
- You feel physically, emotionally, financially, or spiritually overwhelmed.
- You don’t have the necessary skills or resources to do what needs to be done.
- You don’t feel joy or happiness in holiday celebrations.
- You lose interest in traditions you used to love.
- You lose your appetite, or you overeat comfort foods.
- You isolate yourself from others.
- You have insomnia or feel exhausted all the time.
Essentially, you turn into the Grinch. (Maybe he just needed to ask for help instead of robbing Whoville?) The bottom line is that if you feel like you need help, you probably do, and it’s OK to ask for it.
“Many people are afraid of coming off as a burden, or even causing some sort of imposition on others. But your loved ones would much rather you ask ‘too early’ than suffer in silence,” Dr. Gardere says.
Note: If you have thoughts of self-harming or suicide and/or uncontrollable physical or emotional pain, you need to call a health professional immediately. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention hotline by calling 800-273-8255 or visiting their site. Rates of suicidal acts and completion spike during the holidays, and it’s important to take this very seriously in yourself or in loved ones.
How to ask for help during the holidays (or any time of year)
We asked our experts to share their best tips for seeking help from friends and loved ones without feeling like a burden.
(Here’s how to build trust in your relationships.)
Decide what you need
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Before you ask for help, make a list of what you need help with and decide which things will make the biggest difference to you. The more detailed you can get, the more confident you’ll feel when you talk to your loved ones, and the better they will be able to help you.
Make specific, targeted requests
People will be less likely to feel burdened by your request if you are very clear about what exactly you’re asking for.
There is a beginning, end, and time limit to a good request. Instead of melting down over decorations, say something like, “I’d love help hanging lights on the house from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday. If you have a ladder you could bring that would be great.”
Make a list of people who might be able to help. Don’t hint about needing help and then expect others to pick up on it. Simply be direct and tell them you need some help.
Give them an out
Try not to put people on the spot with requests. Give them some time to think before answering. Text or email instead of calling. If you do ask someone in person, offer them an out.
For instance: “I was wondering if you could watch my kids Friday for a couple of hours while I go Christmas shopping? Feel free to check your calendar and get back to me later!”
Be really honest
Your loved ones want to help because they love you. Asking for help requires being vulnerable and opening up in ways that might feel uncomfortable at first. But the more honest you can be, the better they’ll be able to help you. (And the more you can feel their love!)
Provide the tools
Have everything the person will need to help you at the ready. For instance, if you need help shoveling and de-icing, have shovels and salt already out.
Make it fun
Do what you can to make it fun. Even if they’re doing something very un-fun—like cleaning out your oven after a cookie disaster—you can do things to make it better. You can offer to provide snacks, drinks, and a fun playlist, for example, or perhaps offer a sympathetic listening ear.
Widen your circle
It can be tempting to only reach out to your closest go-to people, but they can burn out from helping. Think about who could help you with what you need, and then look for a variety of people with different skills or availability.
Learn to say ‘yes’
Don’t let your pride or fear get in the way of accepting offers of help from trusted people who volunteer it. For instance, consider saying yes if your neighbor offers to pick up your kid from the holiday party, or if your grandma offers to spot you some money for gifts. Believe your loved ones when they say they want to help you.
Accept a ‘no’ graciously
Sometimes people won’t be able to help, and you may feel embarrassed or guilty for having asked. Let the negative feelings go and be grateful they were honest with you. Healthy communication is vital for loving relationships. Resist the temptation to argue with someone when they say no.
Remember the upsides
This is the season of giving! There are a lot of positive things that happen to both the giver and receiver during a charitable act. Think of it as bonding time or a way to learn something new. Be sure to tell them how much you’re enjoying being with them.
Tell them ‘thank you’
Everyone appreciates thanks for their efforts, so find a way to show your gratitude. It could be a handwritten card, a bottle of wine, a gift card, a dinner, or whatever small thing would make them feel special.
Return the favor
Giving to others can be incredibly rejuvenating, even when you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself. Don’t feel like you have to return the favor immediately. Consider a helpful swap (“first we set up your lights, then we’ll do my house”) or something in the future (“I’ll watch your kids on New Year’s Day if you can watch mine this weekend”). If they don’t need anything in return, pay it forward by helping someone else in the future.
- Jeff Gardere, PhD, psychologist and an associate professor and course director of behavioral medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City
- Laurie J. Ferguson, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist specializing in chronic illness, certified coach, ordained minister
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: "Mental Health and the Holiday Blues"