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Image by Tengyart on Unsplash.

“My best friend is getting married. She left me out of the wedding party.”

“My sister went on vacation to Mexico with her family. I’m single. They didn’t invite me to go along.” 

“My brother earns a lot more than we do. He didn’t spend much on my daughter’s wedding present.”

“When I drove through my friend’s town, she invited me to dinner in a restaurant. They’ve got a big house. They didn’t invite me to stay over with them.”

“When I got sick, a few friends dropped by. They didn’t offer to help with anything.”

We see stories like these on social media posts. Maybe you know someone who shares these views with you in person

They’re sad. Maybe the writers feel lonely. Some definitely will be going through some tough times.

The truth is, you’ll be happier when you scale back your expectations. It sounds harsh but you’ll actually find freedom, friends and support this way.

When you need help, prepare to pay for a professional service. Maybe they “should” help but realistically, in the 21st century, it’s not happening.

Unfortunately there’s a lot of propaganda – often from the medical world – promoting the idea that asking for help is a good thing. 

A page from the Mayo Clinic website advises people diagnosed with a serious illness, “Often friends and family are happy to run errands, provide transportation, prepare meals and help you with household chores. Learn to accept their help. Accepting help gives those who care about you a sense of contributing during a difficult time.”

To this I say, nonsense! Not everyone places a high value on a “sense of contribution.” Not everyone can take time from their jobs to help you, even when you urgently need it.

As I wrote in my article, “Am I having surgery to joining a country club?” the medical world assumes you’ve got a loving family standing by to offer unlimited help. Some hospitals ask the relatives to remain on site for the duration of a procedure. It’s not clear what those relatives are supposed to do – perform CPR? yell at you when you. tell the medical staff where to shove it?  Say a final good-by if the procedure fails?

These requirements create unrealistic expectations that carry over into other areas of life.

To be sure, you may get amazing offers of help.

When I injured my knee, a wonderful neighbor showed up to help. She shopped for me, did a quick cleanup and even changed the cats’ litterboxes. We’ve since become good friends.

But I didn’t start by asking for help. I posted a request for doctor recommendations and she volunteered. I accepted her help (bottles of wine were involved). But I hired services for 90% of what I needed.

You can listen for signals: are they really ready to help you?

Lisa (a composite of people I’ve talked to) was going through a medical crisis, waiting for test results to learn if she had a serious illness. She told a friend about her medical appointments. The friend wrote, “Good luck with everything and I hope it all works out.”

Lisa realized her friend didn’t really want to know if things got bad.

She could get upset, thinking, “My friends should be there for me.”

Sharing problems and asking for help means asking others to do emotion work for free.

It takes energy to listen empathetically to someone’s problems.

Sometimes you just don’t have the capacity. Sometimes you’re not the kind of person who knows how to handle these situations.

Emotion work takes a toll. As sociologist Arlie Hochschild wrote, professionals who manage their emotions pay a high price. Examples include flight attendants and bill collectors.

Your friend who’s distant from your problem might be the friend who’s there for you when you need to celebrate. She might be there for you when you need stimulating conversation over coffee, a shopping buddy who will tell you the truth about that blue sweater, or the extrovert who invites you to networking events you couldn’t reach otherwise.

But here’s the worst thing you can do: Question their decisions and lay a guilt trip on them.

A relative who feels left out can send a message, “You’re a horrible person! Why don’t you spend more time with me?” or, “Why did you leave me out of your vacation [or party or celebration]?”

Who wants to spend time with needy people? Who wants to spend the emotional energy dealing with someone else’s resentment?

People’s lives rarely are reciprocal. For a few years, you’re the one with needs. You – or your friend- may have moved away when you’re in a position to help. Or vice versa.

Advice to “ask for help” and “give people a chance to be generous” can be dangerous.

One of my friends went through a difficult time with a serious illness, several years ago. She soon learned to be careful when she told people about her illness, let alone asking for help.

“People have funny reactions to certain types of diagnoses,” she said. “Once you reveal your problem, things are never. the same.”

The same warning holds for other types of problems, such as family conflict and economic hardship.

Bottom line: Relationships are like bank loans. They’re easier to get when you don’t need them. Appearing needy and desperate will drive them away. 

It “shouldn’t” be like this. But it is.