Fixing Other People's Problems
And why it leaves us with more of our own.
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” ―Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela said it right, and that happens to be one of my favorite quotes of all time. It really sends home the notion that although we may not recognize our progress on a day-to-day basis, it’s through this form of juxtaposition that we really grasp how far we’ve come.
I’ve been having these moments where something bothers me about a friend or family member’s behavior. What they’re doing is nothing new, but the fact that I’m taking issue with it is.
You see, it’s not as though people have spontaneously decided to annoy me. But lately I’ve been trying to change my tolerance level and establish some stronger boundaries within my relationships.
And while we all know that we can’t change other people, we can change how we respond to them — which will hopefully alter our understanding of the situation or at least, how we deal with its outcome.
One of the things that I’ve had to change within my own relationships is that I can no longer be the one with all the answers. No matter how much I care, or how educated I am on the matter, I’m finished with being the person sought out by others during their time of crisis.
I no longer want to be the one who always tries to fix people.
Admittedly, I’ve always had a proclivity for taking on and internalizing other people’s problems, especially if these problems parallel ones I’ve faced in my own life.
I get committed to helping a friend “see the light” and feel grateful to be their trusted confidante. Then, not even two minutes later, I resent the hell out of them when they fall right back into another toxic situation or relationship.
And let’s be honest, they usually do.
Now, I used to think I fell into this trap because I enjoyed serving as a sort of mentor, someone who’s been there and done that. I could become the source of support I needed when I was going through my own struggles; the one person I never did find.
Giving advice and holding space for others became sort of an homage to my younger, less-put-together self.
But then I realized, the only way I got onto my own solid ground was by finally stepping up and saving myself, not by waiting for someone else to come save me.
And so lately I’ve been working on not engaging in this pattern anymore and not accumulating a heavy sense of disdain for everyone else around me. But, like all bad habits, it’s a hard thing to break without understanding what it means to me.
Ironically, I stumbled upon this article by Brianna Wiest recently and it truly couldn’t have come at a better time.
The first point she makes that really stands out for me is “When you try to solve people’s problems for them, you rob them of the most valuable teacher there is: discomfort.”
Dammit – I know this! I’ve lived this! I’ve written articles about this! And yet, and yet, I too soon forget this.
It’s precisely this “sense of discomfort” that was responsible for propelling me into my own personal growth and change. (It certainly wasn’t someone else telling me what I should or shouldn’t do, by the way.)
I got so profusely fed up with my own life and the excuses I was making that I found the resolve to change the circumstances on my own. It was a heavy burden to bear when I recognized I was at least semi-responsible for my own chaos, but it also implied that I was in control of changing things, too.
So why would it be any different for other people?
Liken it to giving someone the answer to a math question and then being surprised when they can’t hash out the formula for how they arrived at it. Or, to constantly cleaning up after your kids and yet never teaching them how to load the laundry. Can you guess how messy their dorm rooms will be?
The article then goes on to explain that “You are probably less concerned about someone’s well being as much as you are trying to avoid vicariously feeling the discomfort you’ve pushed away and don’t want to experience again.”
Boom. The sound of new neural pathways being formed, ladies and gentlemen. Holy cow, how had I not figured this one out yet?
As humans, we often create what we fear. I know that I’m very sensitive to certain behaviors, and I spent years understanding and eradicating the traits that didn't work for me. But instead of shutting that energy out completely, I kept harnessing the bad habit of rushing right into it and trying to fix it. Go figure.
So, what have I learned from all this?
Well, I have the right to be sensitive to something, and I have the power to get rid of it, but I don’t need to get involved in it if it’s not my problem in the first place.
If it’s something I’ve already dealt with it in my own life, then the only real reason it’s back in full force is that I’m choosing to engage with it by proxy.
And that’s a choice I can choose to not make.
“I am not young enough to know everything.”
But these discoveries left me with a ton of questions.
Such as, where do I even get off thinking that I have all the answers to everyone’s problems? Why do my friends treat me like I’m some magic eight ball, ready to spit out the truth at their beckon call?
Who am I to even assume that what’s worked for me in the past will necessarily work for someone else? I mean sure, we can all do things that increase or decrease the odds of having our lives utterly implode, but who’s to say that someone won’t beat the odds?
And can I really assume responsibility for the direction that someone else’s life will go, even when I can clearly see the path they’re carving leads to a dead end? What happens if I call in sick that day, does that mean they’re at the bottom of a ravine and it’s all my fault because I could’ve stopped it?
No, what foolishness.
It’s only my job to communicate what doesn’t work for me. And it shouldn’t feel so foreign for me to have to tell someone I can’t help them through their problems.
Besides all of that, I don’t want to be a friend of mere convenience, useful only when someone refuses to deal with their life or is in search of a quick fix. I’ve actually ended a friendship in the past, and the person’s final words to me were “I’ll miss your advice.” Yeah, that really happened.
So I think I deserve to be appreciated for the million other things I bring to my relationships other than life-saving. Or, you know, I can forge better friendships than ones centered around individuals who put all their weight on others in order to stand a little taller.
As a result of all the aforementioned revelations, instead of putting out other people’s fires I’m now making a vow to pay more attention to the sound of my own alarm. I mean, without actually feeling the heat, why would anyone need to get out of the flames?
This article was originally published on Medium.