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  • Writer's pictureTasha Harmon

He Asked If I Needed Help – Why Did I React So Defensively?

I am a super competent person. Or at least, I am super attached to my sense of myself as a super competent person. 

I have always known I cared deeply about being competent (useful, of service, reliable… lots of stuff goes with “competent” for me), but I only discovered a few years ago how much that valued self-identity gets in my way.

That discovery emerged when my partner and I began noticing a pattern in our communication. Shawn would say, as I was maybe dragging the heavy bag of cat litter up the stairs, “Do you need help?”

I would respond, “No, I’m fine.” 

And later, I would find myself resentfully thinking “I take care of way more than my fair share; why doesn’t he help?”

When Shawn and I talked this out, he pointed out, gently, but with some sense of hurt, that he did, in fact, often offer to help, and that I almost never said yes – and indeed sometimes got bristly in response to his inquiries.

I pondered this, and, the next few times it happened, tried to notice what was happening in my body. 

Here’s what I found:

I would be doing a task that would indeed be easier with help (often crankily). 

Shawn would say, “Do you need help?”

My body would contract. I would feel… threatened, like my competency was being questioned.

Some part of me was responding, “No, of course I don’t need help - I can do this! Why would he think I can’t do this!?!”

And, underneath that, some smaller, scared part of myself would worry that if I stopped being so competent, people would stop wanting me around, stop loving me, that I would become a burden…


I knew, in fact, that he was not intending to question my competence. 

That is, my mind knew – but my body and emotional-self did not. 

My identity and sense of safety was tied up in being seen as competent at all times.

This makes many things more difficult than they need to be: asking for help; accepting help; being a beginner at almost anything (at least where anyone can see me); taking a break; letting a ball drop so someone else will step up and take care of a thing; etc.

I needed to find a way to begin to shift the pattern, so I asked Shawn if he would try an experiment with me. 

I asked him to try saying “would you like some help?” rather than “do you need some help?”

I wanted to see what would happen.

And it worked. 

My body took that in differently; my identity as a competent person was no longer at stake. 

I could say yes or no to the offer from a place of calm, and feel pleased by the offer regardless of whether I accepted the help in that moment or not.

I’m not the only one who struggles with this. I see it in my coaching clients, and in workplace dynamics, again and again.

There are three core identity pieces that are important to most people:

🔹 Am I competent?

🔹 Am I a good person?

🔹 Am I worthy of love?

And there are others that may also be important, including: 

🔸 Am I understood/seen and heard well/accurately? 

🔸 Am I (good) enough? 

🔸 Do I belong? 

🔸 Do I make a difference?

I invite you to think about what your core identity questions might be – which ones above resonate with you? Are there others I didn’t list?

Here are some ways to work with this:

🌱 How might the sense of threat to your valued identities show up in your interactions – at work, at home, in your friendships… 

🌱 When might you be hearing an offer of help, or an expression of genuine concern/caring, or an attempt to give you useful feedback, as a questioning of these identities you value so highly?

🌱 What does it look like, and feel like, when that happens?

🌱 And what might you do to shift the dynamic – to let in what the person offering is intending, rather than what your fears read into the words they are using?

🌱 What would help that happen? What could you ask for from the people you’re interacting with? (No, you don’t have to do this all on your own.)

This is not about defending our identities, nor is it about “letting go” of them – there are useful things about those identities.

This is about softening, and allowing people to collaborate with you, so you can feel less defensive, and let in what is being offered to you in good faith.

I’d love to hear what comes up for you as you explore this. You can share in the comments, or, if you prefer, just send me an email (but others might find your experience helpful if you are willing to share here).

PS: I created a handout called Identity Questions: Understanding One Key Root of Conflict, that digs into this work in some other ways. You can find it in the Facilitation and Team-Building folder on my Resources page.

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