As a toddler, I refused to be treated like a child. I wouldn’t drink out of a cup with a lid; I thought sippy cups were patronizing. I retaliated with cold-shouldering and other methods when my mother tried to put me in time-out. Even though I was a small for my age and a girl, my mother would warn the mothers of boys at my preschool that I could be very strong and aggressive if messed with.
Thankfully, my aggression and outright stubbornness did not persist long into childhood, but my independence stayed with me through the years. I never wanted help carrying my backpack or putting my shoes on or, in my teenage years, completing any assignments. I would prefer to embarrass myself struggling to lift a heavy box than to ask someone else to help me. I shopped for groceries and cooked mostly for myself in high school. I didn’t rely on too many people for emotional support, and I prided myself on being highly comfortable with solitude, hard work and self-reliance.
When I got to Stanford, I was excited to make new friends like anyone else, and I thought the best way to do so would be to help other people with the ins and outs of daily life: carrying luggage, fetching things for them at the store, bringing them food from the dining hall and so on. I thought being a good friend entailed doing favors without asking for anything in return – and since I was so dispositionally independent, I preferred it this way.
It was not until sophomore year when I was confronted by the problem with my approach. A close friend of mine commented (a paraphrase): “Avery, you have to let friends help you out, too. It makes them feel good and makes them feel close to you. It’s not a real friendship if it’s a one-way street, no matter which way that street runs.”
I immediately recognized the truth in this statement. If I wanted to make and maintain close friendships, especially with like-minded people, I needed to receive their help as well as offer mine. I would personally hate to be in a friendship where only the other person were doing me favors, so why should I expect that others would be fine with the same arrangement when I was the one doing all the favors?
People want to feel useful; they want to feel depended upon. People do favors partially to be altruistic, but also to build bridges and intimacy with people. Altruism is always a little bit self-serving, in the sense that cultivating community and closeness benefits the individual as well as others. Some call this a cynical view; I think it’s among the most beautiful consequences of natural selection. We evolved to get pleasure from helping others, and we should feel deeply grateful that evolution did not give us the opposite.
I did not shift out of my independent mode of living all at once. (That would have been far too much to bear psychologically.) But I gradually learned to ask people for help, to turn difficult individual projects into easier team jobs and to allow myself to accept time and emotional support from others without feeling guilty or obliged to return the favor as fast as possible.
In a strange sense, accepting help from others also made me more generous. I became more in-tune with the needs of others and the nature of community and relationships. I stopped thinking so much about my own capabilities (“I bet I can do this by myself”) and more about the capabilities of humans working together.
Many of us at Stanford pride ourselves on rugged independence. In fact, many of us were selected for it. But if you are one of those people who hates to ask for any sort of help, I entreat you to let your friends carry some of your burden. If you have to, think of it as a favor to them; they get to feel important to you, and that feeling far outweighs the inconvenience of the helpful gesture.
Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.