Why We Say No To Help


I have a very generous friend who invites me to stay at her luxurious condo when she leaves town. And every time she offers, I almost say, "No." (This is me hanging out on her roof deck.)

Why? Receiver's guilt. It's a thing.

Receiver's guilt can affect your organization's ability to support a co-worker affected by cancer, and it can affect you as the giver too!

Guilt is the feeling of psychological discomfort caused by something we've done that goes against our unrealistically high standards. In this case, receiver's guilt is the psychological discomfort we feel when someone has gifted us with something that goes against our unrealistically high standards of independence.

If you consider yourself a giver but feel that receiving help is wrong, you will feel receiver's guilt when people want to help you.

Guilt is different from shame. Shame is an innate sense of being worthless and or inherently defective. To be sure, there can be some shame involved in receiver's guilt, but for this piece, I'm focusing on guilt.

Here Is What Receiver's Guilt Looks Like in An Employee

You give your employee affected by cancer a gift card for unlimited rides with a rideshare company. You know they need it. When you reviewed different ways your organization can support them, the employee chose this option. One month later, you learn the employee has not used it and is driving themselves to treatment and work. You're flummoxed! (I love that word!)

There are three main blocks behind receiver's guilt, and any combination of them can keep an employee from using the support your organization or their team has offered.

1. Law of reciprocity

The law of reciprocity says if you do something nice for me, I feel this deep-rooted psychological urge to do something nice for you at an equal or higher value.

The problem with this law is that it leaves the receiver feeling like they have to pay the giver back. And when the receiver is vulnerable and receiving many gifts, that rule can lead to the receiver feeling overwhelmed! He has to pay all of these people back!

A great way to combat this is to remind the receiver that you are paying them back for all their work or for how much they have given to the team. Reminding them, they are receiving because of something they have already given can be helpful!

2. A high standard of independence

Don't mess with us Americans! We are an independent lot. And sometimes, the employee affected by cancer believes that accepting support is a sin against her independence. If that is the case, they will have a hard time saying yes to anything the company or teammates offer.

Sometimes those that are super independent are super givers, only wanting to give help and not receive it. In that case, the employee affected by cancer often will become more open to receiving, remind them how important it is to receive, to understand the other side of their giving. In the end, their experience as a receiver usually deepens their understanding of the humility it takes to receive.

3. Anger

Anger is a common but frowned upon emotion experienced by those affected by cancer because it is not part of the cancer fairytale we like to believe in. (More about the cancer fairytale on another post.)

Anger is also a masking emotion, which means it's a cover for other emotions like fear, anxiety, or loneliness. But it's a powerful blocker to receiving support. The good news is it's hard to be angry all the time, so it's often just a matter of time before they accept your offer. This is why offering more than once is a great tip. It gives the receiver the option to receive gracefully instead of coming to you to ask for what they initially turned down.

A quick mention of shame.

Receiver's guilt can involve shame. When it does, there is not much you can do. If the employee affected by cancer doesn't intrinsically feel like they are worthy of support, there is little you can say or do to change their mind.

However, if your organization offers similar support to other employees affected by cancer or crisis, it can make the receiver more open to support. Also, the more practical the offer of support, like grocery delivery, the more likely they will accept the support.

Getting past receiver's guilt is essential not just for the employee affected with cancer but for the team members who are watching. If this is the first time a teammate has been affected by cancer, that person is setting behavioral norms. And those same employees are watching you as a leader and an organization too.


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