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I have a confession. One of my biggest fears is being stuck in a bathroom stall. Not being able to get out causes me to panic no end. So a few weeks ago on an overseas trip when I couldn't get out of a stall in a museum bathroom, it wasn't pretty. Sweating and growing overly hysterical, I recalled the word for help in Spanish, and after a few short breaths, I yelled, "Ayuda!" A custodian came over and opened the door. She smiled sweetly with compassion on her face. I expressed my gratitude, and got out. Fast.

A few days later I was eating dinner with new colleagues. We didn't know each other's names. We were working in different parts of the world. We were having a good time. The youngest of our companions, growing red around her neck, announced she had a peanut allergy. She couldn't breathe. She must have accidentally eaten something with peanuts in it, and she needed to go to the hospital. Now.

We responded. The restaurant manager got us a taxi. One colleague helped her get admitted speedily. All turned out well.

The next night, bonded for life, my young colleague spoke of having this allergy her whole life. "People die from being too embarrassed to speak up. We can go into shock alone so as not to feel embarrassed being in the midst of others while having a reaction."

What is it about our reluctance to ask for help? If we get caught with a stalled car, we call AAA. If we can afford it, we hire someone to help us do things around our homes. But it is the position we are in while asking for help that we feel comfortable about. We are in charge. We are in control. We can ask or not. It is in our hands.


When we really need help and we can't do it alone, we feel vulnerable. We are scared. We are stuck. Many of us, independent types, don't like that feeling of not being strong, of not being capable, of not being in control.

I didn't die of embarrassment asking for help in that bathroom stall, but my colleague could have. Asking for help, for many of us, is both vulnerable and courageous. It is one of the greatest things we can learn to do. It saves us metaphorically and literally.

With a Perspective, this is Jennifer Abrams.

Jennifer Abrams is an education and communications consultant based in Palo Alto.