Martha Beck help resisters
Illustration: Guy Billout
Margaret's twin girls were halfway through high school when she started thinking about returning to school herself.

"I've always wanted to finish my degree," she told me. "Maybe get a master's, even. I'd like to teach."

"Cool!" I said. Margaret had been complaining of boredom, and I knew she'd thrive in an academic environment.

"But," she told me, her voice tightening, "there are problems. Jeff and the girls are used to me being home, cleaning, cooking...."

"Have you talked to them about it?"

"No, because there's more," said Margaret. "We only have two cars. Jeff drives one, and sometimes the girls need the other one in the evenings."

"Well, you can take classes when they're in school."

"But sometimes they drive to school. Then I don't have a car until afternoon."

"Then take the bus. Or have the kids take the bus. Or have Jeff drop them off. Or sign up for distance learning."

I was getting into quite a lather of life-coachy problem solving, but Margaret would have none of it. Every time I lobbed a suggestion, she'd smack it back at me like a tennis pro. After a 10- or 15-minute rally, I finally realized that the real issue wasn't Margaret's continuing education. It was something I call "help resistance."

There may be infinite reasons Margaret and others like her ask for help and then reject it; some people may be deeply ambivalent, others biologically anxious, or a few unconsciously combative. Whatever their motivation, people who resist help can frustrate you half to death, batting back every solution they request with the surreal persistence of Venus and Serena combined. The next time you encounter someone who resists help, I recommend stopping the fruitless verbal rally and addressing the real problem directly.

One of my personal mottoes is "Love it, leave it, or lead it." When faced with a problem, I allow myself these three options—and only these three. "Love it" means peacefully accept whatever's happening. If that's not possible, I may be able to "leave it," simply walk away from the whole dilemma. The third option, "lead it," requires that I recognize and use whatever power I have (even if I feel helpless). If I can't devise a solution on my own, I must "lead" my helpers by asking clear, purposeful questions and taking good advice when I get it. I've found that the "three Ls" are invaluable when you find yourself trading volleys with someone who doesn't want to change.

Next: Learn more about the three L's