Updated on 09.30.10

Seeking Help

Trent Hamm

When exactly do you know when you’ve crossed the line from a problem you can handle yourself to a problem you need assistance with?

That question comes up over and over again in so many avenues of life.

When is a plumbing problem severe enough that it’s time to call in a plumber?
When is a medical situation bad enough that we go to a doctor?
When is an investment situation complex enough that we seek out a financial advisor?
When is a psychological condition problematic enough that we seek professional help?

Whenever you ask questions like these, you’re going to get answers that vary all over the spectrum. Some people go to the doctor for a cough, while others won’t go until they’re calling an ambulance. Some people call the plumber when their toilet handle doesn’t work right, while others won’t call until the basement is flooded. Some people get ahold of a psychologist when they feel a bit nervous, while others won’t go until they’re unable to function in their daily lives.

I tend to lean towards the self-sufficient side of the spectrum. This means I usually try to solve problems myself, even when the solutions go a bit beyond what I’m currently capable of, until I’m convinced that the solution is truly outside of my grasp. Doing this – and sometimes succeeding – gives me the self-confidence to regularly do things for myself, which helps during those times when seeking help from others is not an option. For example, I believe I’ll be fine if I break my leg in a forest alone and out of cell phone range because I know I can overcome obstacles.

I usually follow an intuitive series of steps before making my decision to call for help.

First, is the problem urgent? If I don’t get it solved right now, will this problem lead to significant other problems? Severe pain is urgent; mild discomfort is not. A flooded basement is urgent; a leaky faucet or a broken handle is not. The inability to get out of bed due to fear is urgent; a nervousness talking to others is not. An urgent problem usually results in a call for help; a non-urgent problem might eventually result in a call, but not without proceeding forward. I rarely call for help quickly on a non-urgent problem.

Next, can I clearly describe the problem? Where is the ache? What situations cause the ache? What situations lead me to be nervous talking to others? What happens when I jiggle the handle? Is anything out of place when I peek under the lid that I can notice? The more details I have about a problem, the more I can learn about what it actually is and what solutions I can use to solve it.

After that, what can I learn about a solution to the problem? This means research. I try to stick to references from sources that I trust, such as widely-respected home maintenance handbooks, nurse hotlines, and other sources that are peer-reviewed and have a strong reputation. In a non-urgent situation, a person has time to do a bit of research to find out what kind of solutions are out there.

Once I’ve found a potential solution, what are the possible negative outcomes for that solution? More importantly, are those negative outcomes fixable if they occur? The worst outcome from a toilet repair, for example, is that call to the plumber that you’d be making anyway. The worst outcome from treating some ailments, though, can be even worse damage to yourself.

If the outcome from my own attempts has little chance of making the situation significantly worse, I’ll usually try to fix it myself. Almost always, I’ll learn something useful from the process, even if I don’t explicitly solve the problem.

Because of this, if people ask me for a solution to a non-urgent problem, I usually suggest that they seek safe solutions themselves first. I apply that basic principle to everything, from public nervousness to investment choices. If you seek a solution yourself, you will always learn something useful from that process, even if you didn’t directly solve the problem.

The time to turn to professional help comes when a problem is urgent or if the consequences from trying a potential solution are severe.

If you walk yourself through those questions when you’re facing a choice between asking for help and solving it yourself, you’re more likely to find yourself at a resolution that works well for you, protecting your safety and interests while also helping you to develop a healthy level of self-sufficiency.

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  1. Nick says:

    You can’t beat a man at his own game. No matter what it is you are doing you are giving up something to do things on your own. I would rather work an hour at my job and pay someone to work on my car/house or whatever then do it myself. I value time and my most productive use of my time is to work my current job.

  2. ABQBrent says:

    Many times you’ve already accomplished the bulk of the diagnosis yourself, by bringing on someone new to finish the job you are duplicating effort. I know that by the time I figure out if my oven is broken or my circuit breaker I’ll be most of the way to repairing it.

  3. KP says:

    I’m all for do-it-yourself fix-its and personal growth – provided the problem is not a BIG one. :)

    The Internet is a great resource for people looking to do-it-yourself, I’ve found product guides, expert opinions and helpful tips/solutions that have helped me save money and more importantly fix the problem.

  4. eva says:

    How do you define an urgent problem? What about things that don’t SEEM urgent, but might become very serious if ignored? A leak, for instance, or a small lump. If you don’t attend a leak right away you might have significant damage to your building. A little bump that doesn’t hurt but just seems a little funny, not urgent, right? But if it’s cancer–in that case, you really shouldn’t wait a month or two months.

    How do you handle problems that have cumulative consequences? Do those fall under the ‘possible negative consequences’ thing?

  5. Josh says:

    “If people ask me for a solution to a non-urgent problem, I usually suggest that they seek safe solutions themselves first” …

    Many people get very emotional and panic about a situation and they lose sight on which problems are urgent and non-urgent.

    It’s best to let yourself calm down and give yourself a little bit of time to make a clear decision, especially if you are going to be spending money.

  6. Adam J says:

    I do what I can to diagnose the problem, and then decide if I’m in over my head in time, expense, or consequences. For example, drains. I can handle clearing a clogged toilet. I can clear a sink trap, or snake the bathtub drain. I can even snake the house trap under the basement floor; I have the equipment and knowledge to do all of this, and am entirely willing to do so rather than call my landlord to take care of the problem. I’d much rather have a toilet that I can flush than wait the day or so it might take my landlord to get someone out to look at it.

    However, when my basement floor drain started backing up, snaking the house trap didn’t fix it. The snake got pretty caught up in the main drain line, and when I pulled it back, I had a bundle of roots on the end. I then decided I was in over my head for a few reasons:

    1.) Since it’s clogged with roots, not toilet paper, potato peels, and cooking grease, it’s my landlord’s responsibility.
    2.) It’s no longer a ten-minute job of snaking a pipe. I’d need to cut away and pull out the roots with a power auger and cutting head.
    3.) I don’t have a power auger, so I’d have to rent it.
    4.) I don’t know how to use a power auger, and might break off the cable in the drain. That WOULD be my fault, and I’d have to pay for fishing out the end of the cable, clearing the drain, AND a new cable for the auger.

    On the upside, I had an exact diagnosis for my landlord, which the plumber he sent agreed with when I explained my thought process and showed him the bundle of roots.

  7. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    There’s an old saying by a certain politician that goes something along the lines of “I can’t define porn, but I know it when I see it”. This is sort of the same :)

    I can’t define an urgent problem, but I know one when I see one. For example, because of my family’s problem of skin cancer, I do pay close attention to that. I’ve asked my doctor what I should pay attention to and if I see something like that I immediately make an appointment. However, I don’t go to the doctor each time I cough or have a headache.

    Similarly, I know enough about computers to know that many problems go away if you just reboot. I also know enough to know when I should call IT.

    I suppose if you don’t know, you should ask an expert, but when you get that expert to help you, take the time to ask them about the problem so that next time you’ll be better able to decide if the problem is urgent or not.

  8. Kevin says:

    The quote is from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart:

    “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

  9. deRuiter says:

    The presence of a lot of flowing blood is a good hint that things are not going well. You may need to act immediately and then quickly call in an expert! With your health (except you hypochondriacs out there!) you’d better call in a professional at the beginning and maybe head off a lot of problems, or at least get a jump on the problem, like the person with the “lump.” Working on an inanimate object gives you more leisure to diagnose the problem and decide if you can fix it yourself.

  10. TigerLily says:

    Regarding this statement:

    “When is a psychological condition problematic enough that we seek professional help?”

    If you are being seen at the VA, I just discovered that answering questions like “I feel like hurting myself or others,” will put you on a reportable list and you will be unable to exercise your 2nd amendment rights – i.e., no gun registration for you.

    So much for “confidentiality.” Big brother is ever-so-in-your-life to keep you safe from yourself.

    The idea of psych treatment is to get therapy and possibly meds (Omega 3 – Flaxseed is the best natural “med.”)

    This policy is counterproductive to good psych health. Too bad :(

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