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.
How do I stop and get out of my depression I have lots of trouble with my back and can’t do stuff like I use to do and can’t work so I home Evey day taking care of my wife who is on oxagen24/7 I do have problem lots stress and high blood pressure they say I’m depressed
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
How do I fix me ?
I would suggest that you seek professional help for your depression. You can locate a mental health professional by asking your doctor or health insurance for a referral or try using an online directory such as Psychology Today. You might also find a 12-step meeting, such as Codependents Anonymous, helpful.
Working with your doctor, a therapist and/or attending a support group in your area might be helpful in managing your depression and stress.
Thank you so much for sharing this article it was very helpful. I could use some advice if possible please. I am in the process of establishing boundaries with one of my siblings. I have an older sister, growing up she often put me down verbally, and threatened me. Overtime I coped by being overly agreeable with her to avoid being bullied. Now as adults, things have gotten better, however she is still in the habit of attempting to maintain control. She often puts me down when I confide in her, gives unsolicited advice or says things such as, “Well I am glad I don’t have that problem,” or I am happy I don’t take things personal etc.” I’ve let her know that I don’t appreciate this, yet she continues and says, “Well that is the way you see it, or take it.” I have distanced myself further from her, but I don’t want to completely because I want to spend time with my nephew. Now she has been messaging me often attempting to “gather information” I just say I am working or busy. She messaged saying “You seem distant, let’s hang out” She has never really suggested hanging out. I have been harassed by her and my mother before when I attempted to set boundaries. Any advice?
Hi Karine, your situation seems similar to mine except mine is with a younger sister. So, I understand what you are going through. I suggest continuing to speak your mind and letting her know that her behavior is unacceptable and that you feel disrespected when she puts you down. If she continues to talk down to you and gives you unsolicited advice then say thank you for your input, but I’m taking a different route that works better for me. As for the rest, take the high road and ignore it because that’s more of a projection of her insecurities than yours. I hope that this helps you out. I noticed that this was posted a couple of years ago, so I hope it has gotten better. Here’s to your success.
Thank you for this article! We have been trying to steer my inlaws in what we think is the right direction, as they age and care for a handicapped adult in their home. This article really shows me their possible perspective of us, as being nagging and condescending, and I expect it will help us all be less angry and frustrated in the end. Thank you!
This was an awesome message! I have been a “fixer” for years. 7 years ago, when I lost my wife to breast cancer (she was only 41), I had to come to the realization that I can’t fix everything or even anything. I just have to run my own race, and try to at least get to the “finish line” the best way I can. Thank you for sharing!
i have toxic parents and an extremely toxic sibling who have been ruining my life for years now and i am still not able to understand them properly thus i am extremely exhausted. These people have made me a zombie and i feel super unlucky to have such brother and parents i guess it’s time i sacrifice my relation with them for my greater good please help me in doing so.I literally need your help in this cz i am even having suicidal thoughts
I’m sorry you’re going through such a difficult time. Please take good care of yourself. I encourage you to reach out for some help through a free service such as the Suicide Lifeline (24/7, phone or chat) 1-800-273-8255 or https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
What do you do if you have people who are depressed and suicidal, and come to you about wanting to end their life?
I have had both family and friends come to me to share their life frustrations and then their desire or attempt to take their life. I know I’m offering unsolicited advice about how they can clean their life up by reducing their stress load or not drinking, but I offer the heart felt advice with all good intention, to keep them alive. How do I be an active supportive person in this situation?
I’m not sure I fully understand the situation. And I think you live in another country, so your resources and laws may be different. But here are my thoughts.
If a friend or family member expresses suicidal thoughts, I would suggest first asking if you can help in a particular way or if they are open to hearing about resources/treatment. You can express your concern and care for them and desire to help. If they refuse your offer of help, but you think they may imminently hurt themselves, call the police or mobile mental health services to come do an evaluation regardless of whether they want you to call. In the U.S. we can’t force people to get mental health treatment unless they are in imminent danger of hurting themselves or others.
I have a new friend who is constantly calling me out on my fixing problem. I know I have a problem. I am 50 years old and was raised by a parent that was also controlling and made almost all decisions for me. I am aware of my issue. I am even catching myself in the middle of my “you should’s” and my friend still is hard on me for it. It is an accomplishment at all that I have self confidence enough to offer “help” I am proud of my advice, but realize its unwanted. This is so frustrating. I refused to see and talk with my friend today because of this. Now I have to try and not offend my friend and explain why I “checked out” of the friendship today.
This article is just fantastic, it describes exactly my attitude towards the other’s problems. This behavior affects me a lot because I cannot have peace, always thinking about the problems of my family and my relatives, even the small problems make me feel obliged to try to solve them. I had never stopped to think so deeply about this situation. I need to get rid of it. In this pandemic, I found myself forced to review my attitudes or I would simply freak out. I have reflected a lot on my negative thoughts and various distressing feelings that have plagued me for years and only now do I decide to face them truly and try to help myself. For a long time I postponed the search for help and even the acceptance that these problems do exist.
Thank you so much for that. A little codependent I think. My son has mental illness and I want so much to help him but it’s out of my hands, I’ve tried for 30 years. He just got out of prison and he hasn’t been to his parole officer yet, and everyone keeps saying he’s an adult and he’ll have to deal with the consequences. my heart just goes out to him for he is in such a struggle. I think I’m going to start NAMI again or codependency group or something I can’t do this on my own,. I’ve been a mess since he got out of prison and I need to stop and love him through it.
Thank you again.
I do this. I know I do. But my family calls me with their problems and I feel obligated to help. Then I get accused of acting like I know everything or like I am better then them when I do. It is so frustrating and heartbreaking. I live 3 hours away from my family, so I know it is guilt of not being around that causes a lot of this. My dad passed away a couple years ago. My mother was recently diagnosed with early Alzheimers and even though I have 5 other siblings that all live in the same town I feel as though they judge me for not being around more to help, even though I use all my vacation time to go home and do what I can. In the past, when a big problem happened they would call me and I would drop everything and go home to take care of things..ie my dad going into the hospital. My siblings would all go back to their lives because they knew I was there to do it. But I can’t do that anymore. I can’t drop everything and run in like they want now, but they still call and then get angry when I offer them solutions. For my own sanity, I can’t. Am I being selfish?