Are you a helper, fixer, or rescuer?
It’s hard to watch a friend or family member struggling with a problem or making “bad” decisions. You naturally want to help. You want to make your friends’ and family members’ lives easier and more joyful. You want to fix their problems and relieve their suffering.
Trying to keep a loved one out of harm’s way seems like a good idea, except that it doesn’t work when they don’t want your help. Not everyone wants to change (or not in the way you think they should) and that’s their prerogative. Despite your desire to help, you can’t make people change and you can’t fix their problems (even when you have great ideas and their best interest at heart!). You simply can’t fix or solve other people’s problems and trying to do so often just makes things worse.
Whose problem is it?
Most people accept the notion that they can’t control other people or solve their problems. But we get sucked into trying to change and fix because we’re confused about whose problem it is. Sometimes our desire to help, protect, and be the hero clouds our judgment. And sometimes we think we know what’s best and foist our ideas upon others regardless of what they want.
We tend to think that problems that affect us are ours to solve. This false belief leads us down a futile path of trying to control things that aren’t in our control. For example, just because you’re affected by your spouse’s unemployment or your teenager’s smoking, doesn’t mean these are problems you can solve. You can’t get a job for your spouse nor can you make your child quit smoking. However, if your spouse’s unemployment has left you in debt and feeling anxious, stressed out, or angry, those are problems you can do something about.
And yet, some of us persist in trying to fix or change other people and their problems. This is classic codependent behavior. We abhor having things out of our control. It reminds us of bad things that have happened in the past. And we get anxious and afraid of the catastrophic things we anticipate happening if we don’t step in and try to change things.
Accepting what’s out of our control and that we can’t solve other people’s problems doesn’t mean we’re powerless. Quite the contrary; it allows us to put our energy into solving our own problems and to change the things we can.
Trying to solve other people’s problems often makes things worse, not better
Not only is it impossible for us to solve other people’s problems, we can inadvertently cause a host of other problems in the process.
To be honest, I often wish that I could solve other people’s problems. But it always ends badly when I try. I get bossy, give unwanted advice, and act like I have all the answers. It’s definitely not something I’m proud of and I imagine at least some of you can relate.
Sometimes, it’s downright presumptuous for us to assume that we know what someone else needs or wants. Our efforts to help may actually be conveying this harmful message: “I know how to solve your problems better than you do. I don’t trust your judgment or abilities. You’re incompetent or unmotivated.”
It’s not helpful to try to solve other people’s problems because:
- Nagging and giving unwanted advice leads to more stress, conflict, and negatively impacts relationships.
- When we try to fix, change, or rescue, we assume that we know what’s best. We take on an air of superiority and can act condescending.
- Making decisions for others takes away their autonomy and their opportunity to learn and grow.
- We become frustrated and resentful that our efforts to solve other people’s problems don’t work and that they aren’t appreciated.
- We get distracted from solving our own problems. For some reason, fixing other people always seems easier than fixing ourselves!
Instead of doing things for other people, we need to allow them to live their own lives, make their own decisions and mistakes, and deal with the consequences of their choices. Not only does this free us up to focus on what we can control, it respects other people’s autonomy.
Sometimes you can help
Of course, sometimes we can and should help others. But it’s important to distinguish help from enabling or doing things for people that they can reasonably do for themselves. The most important question to ask before trying to help someone with their problems is: “Does this person want my help?” If you’re not sure, ask them.
In addition, be sure that the kind of help you’re giving is the kind that’s wanted. For example, your wife might like some help with her efforts to lose weight. However, she’s not going to appreciate your help if she’d like you to cook healthy meals several times per week, but your version of help is to remind her of the calorie count of everything she eats.
When someone doesn’t want your help or advice, it’s best to keep your mouth shut. Otherwise, the unsolicited advice is probably to quiet your own anxiety or a bad habit, not really to be helpful. If you’re available and approachable, your friends and family know they can ask for your help if they want it.
Control vs. influence
Another common pitfall is that we confuse control with influence. Often we can influence our loved ones, but we can rarely control them. Meaning we may be able to shape or guide their decisions. We can counsel them or provide them with information, if they are receptive, but we can’t force our own agenda.
How to stop trying to change, fix, or solve other people’s problems
Before launching into “fix-it” mode, try asking yourself these questions:
- Is this my problem or is it someone else’s problem that’s affecting me?
- Is this a problem I can fix or change?
- Is changing this person or situation in my control?
- How can I redefine the problem so that I’m focusing on what’s in my control?
- Do I have any influence?
- Did they ask for my help or ideas?
- Am I forcing my solutions and ideas onto someone?
- Am I helping or enabling? What’s the difference?
- Why am I trying to solve this problem?
- Is this actually an attempt to manage my own fears and anxiety about what may happen? And if so, how else can I deal with uncertainty and feeling out of control?
If you’ve been trying to fix or change people for years, it will take time and effort to change these patterns. In addition to being patient and compassionate with yourself along the way, try to focus on what’s in your control and the problems that you can solve. And remember that if you’re feeling particularly frustrated with your inability to change or solve a problem, you may be trying to solve someone else’s problem.
If you live locally, I’d be happy to support you with counseling and therapy in my Campbell office (easily accessible from San Jose, Santa Clara, and Los Gatos). You can find out more about counseling here.
©2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.