We live in a world where we are bombarded with help and information that can move freely around the world faster than a wagging tongue. Need to verify a fact? Google it. Want to find the one bra you love that’s no longer for sale at your favorite store? Look online. Struggling to put a bookcase together? Fix your T.V. or printer? Do this, says one website; try that, says another. YouTube offers videos for even more detailed explanations.
Then consider the countless people we know who are willing to throw out their help and favors faster than Donald Trump did with paper towels in Puerto Rico. Too much help can sometimes be unhelpful, overwhelming and lead to wounded egos.
It’s human nature to do nice deeds for others. It also helps to have a circle of close friends and family who are clever, talented, opinionated and willing to pitch in, if asked. “If you need any assistance at all, just ask,” some volunteer and really mean it. All sounds good, right? However, as a wise person once said to us, be careful what you ask for. If we ask for a favor, what if we don’t like how it’s handled? Will we have regrets? Will friendships break up? Family members no longer speak to us? Sometimes. What really matters is that, if asked, they offer their help graciously, and we accept what they offer graciously, as well.
Margaret knows this firsthand. Let us preface this by saying all help is appreciated, whether volunteered or solicited. Margaret is selling her condo. Her eyes were glazing over as she became overwhelmed with ideas and suggestions about how to stage it from friends and family, plus her own thoughts after looking online at ads. Staging is real estate parlance for getting it ready to sell by making it look pristine.
She debated: Should she repaint or touch up? Stage her screened porch? Apply a shiny coat of wax to the terra cotta floor? Wax the hardwood floors in the kitchen and if so, with what? Get rid of most of her books and only leave a few titles so the shelves don’t look empty? Take out the sconces over her bed? She was all over the place and knew she needed help.
Quite frankly, we are both uncomfortable asking anyone for a favor. In addition to the fear that we might not like the results, we also are afraid of being rejected. However, Margaret mustered her courage and asked for help from her good friend Rena, who organized all the belongings in her home before she moved almost six years ago to a condo. Now she’s moving from her condo in St. Louis to a rental in NYC and she figured Rena most likely would enthusiastically help.
She sent Rena an email: “I’m stuck. Would you consider taking the time to help me stage my screened porch?” Rena replied: “Sure, I’ll be over the Friday after Mother’s Day.” In the meantime, she suggested that Margaret send her photos of the screened porch so she could eyeball the space and utilize any porch furniture she had.
A few days later, Rena sent a text asking Margaret to find a shopping cart and meet her in the garage of her building. Like a magician who pulls item after item from under a silk scarf, Rena took the props she brought for Margaret’s porch out of her car one by one: plant stand, several pink impatiens plants, one red geranium, two 5-by-5-inch square tin containers of plastic grass for the table top, kelly green place mats, green and white dinner dishes and salad plates, solid green chargers, votive candles in green containers, green and white salt and pepper shakers in the shape of two birds, pink, white and green napkins and color-coordinated napkin rings with a bumble bee atop each. They carted the paraphrenia up the elevator to Margaret’s condo.
“Stage time.” Rena announced. She placed all the plants—a fluffy lush fern on a black wrought iron stand, impatiens and geraniums in the corners, put the two tin containers of plastic grass on the table, and then meshed all with Margaret’s green plants and one orchid. To complete the picture, she found a pretty white vase Margaret owned with hand-painted pink flowers on it, retrieved some plastic flowers Margaret was about to throw in the trash, arranged them in the vase and created a table centerpiece. Voila! The flowers looked real and halleluiah, they did not need to be watered.
Next, Rena performed surgery on Margaret’s green plants to get rid of the dead and brown leaves. “They look like burn victims,” she said. “Do you have some kitchen scissors?” Chop, chop, chop. She trimmed and pruned the plants bringing them back to life. Now, the stage was set for when the photographer arrived the next day.
Barbara has recently had to make certain decisions about care for her mother after she left rehab. She has barraged people asking for advice regarding what kind of care to provide her 99 ½ year-old-mom, as both navigate this new terrain since her mother’s bad fall. And the advice flowed in like a gusher. This one knew an aide who was available; another offered a different name, and everyone seemed to have an opinion about how many hours were needed, what they should and shouldn’t do and how Barbara should deal with them and her own very frayed emotions. “Become the case manager and supervise, so you don’t get involved too directly,” one said. Another advised her to bow out of the picture totally as soon as possible since she was emotionally too invested. The aides wouldn’t be. “Don’t take it personally,” almost everyone said when Barbara shared about her mother’s annoyance about how Barbara kept telling her not to try to walk without assistance or wanted a fifth or sixth macaroon.
Had she really wanted so much advice? Barbara no longer was sure and tried to take it all in, then make her own decisions, with input from her grown daughters. In the end, she relied on instinct. She needed to be present to transition the caregiving team and show her mother that she wasn’t abandoning her. Bowing out would come, but not for right now.
Those who shared their expertise whom she knew would want her to follow their ideas, she simply said, “It’s still a work in progress” and didn’t provide more details. Or as Alicia in “The Good Wife” TV show, had said, “We’ll get back to you.” Maybe, yes; maybe, not.
And when asking for any favors, she has kept in mind a long-ago friend who didn’t take well what happened when she arrived on Barbara’s doorstep with an over-zealous offering of homemade food after Barbara’s first daughter was born. Barbara had asked for some food when first home. She never expected a small grocery store to be delivered. When the friend went to open Barbara’s refrigerator to put the food away, she saw how well stocked it already was due to others’ gifts. She was appalled and left in a huff, which Barbara can still picture 37 years later. “You should have told me others were helping,” the now former friend explained, and went on to lecture Barbara that things are done differently in her low-key Midwest versus Barbara’s uppity New York.
Moral of this blog post: If you ask friends and family for help, or you accept their offers, be careful how you ask or accept a favor and how you can set boundaries to avoid hurt feelings all around.
- Muster the courage to ask nicely: “I could sure use your help. You always set such a beautiful table. Would you mind if I asked you to help me set the table for a dinner party that I’m having this weekend for people with whom I used to work?”
- Once someone agrees to do your favor, you might be expected to accept it unconditionally. Therefore, have a conversation in advance to subtly set any boundaries. Be specific. Say, “I have the dishes and flatware I want to use, but I could use help with the table settings, napkins and centerpiece.” That gives you some leeway to make your own decisions. Maybe, compromise on the centerpiece, combine your vision with that of the person helping.
- After they do the favor, thank them profusely—write a thank you note, take them to lunch, give them a little gift or return whatever you might have borrowed with a little treat. Rena loves Margaret’s chocolate chip cookies, and she returned Rena’s items with a plate of freshly baked sweets.
- If you don’t like what they do, whether setting a table or arranging furniture, for example, don’t post a photo of it on Facebook or Instagram if you make changes. You needn’t hurt their feelings by blasting it out to the world.
- If you do make a change and they want to come over to see it, kindly say before they walk in the door, “I did move the plants in the corner because they were getting too much sun.” You can also move the plants back before they arrive.
- If someone offers to do a favor such as cook a meal for you if you’re ill, say, “I have plenty of food, but it’s so nice of you to offer.” If they want to help you move your aging mother to an assisted living facility and you don’t need or want their help, say so politely. “Thanks for the offer, but I have my own way of doing things that my mother prefers. The best thing you can do is just check on her from time to time.”
The next time you ask for a favor, consider accepting it unconditionally, if possible. If that’s a problem, trust your own gut or hire a professional and there will be no hurt feelings.