Its 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 the lives of your friends and family members easier and more joyful. You want to fix their problems and relieve their suffering.
Trying to keep a loved one out of harms way seems like a good idea, except that it doesnt work when they dont want your help.
Not everyone wants to change (or not in the way you think they should) and thats their prerogative. Despite your desire to help, you cant make people change and you cant fix their problems (even when you have great ideas and their best interest at heart!). You simply cant fix or solve other peoples problems and trying to do so often just makes things worse.
If you’re frequently frustrated that someone doesn’t take your advice or want your help, you’re tired of nagging, or you feel like you’re talking to a brick wall, you may be trying to help someone who doesn’t want to change.
Most people accept the notion that they cant control other people or solve their problems. But we get sucked into trying to change and fix because were 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 whats 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 arent in our control. For example, just because youre affected by your spouses unemployment or your teenagers smoking, doesnt mean these are problems you can solve. You cant get a job for your spouse nor can you make your child quit smoking. However, if your spouses 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 dont step in and try to change things.
Accepting whats out of our control and that we cant solve other peoples problems doesnt mean were powerless. Quite the contrary; it allows us to put our energy into identifying what aspects of a problem we can solve and to change the things we can.
Not only is it impossible for us to solve other peoples problems, we can inadvertently cause a host of fresh problems when we try to help people who dont want to change (in the way we think they should).
To be honest, I often wish that I could solve other peoples problems. But it always ends badly when I try. I get bossy, give unwanted advice, and act like I have all the answers. Its definitely not something Im proud of and I imagine at least some of you can relate.
Sometimes, its 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 dont trust your judgment or abilities. Youre incompetent or unmotivated.
Its not helpful to try to solve other peoples 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 whats 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 peoples problems dont work and that they arent 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 peoples autonomy.
Of course, sometimes we can and should help others. But its important to distinguish help from enabling or doing things for people that they can reasonably do for themselves.
Its also important to be sure that your help is wanted. Before trying to help someone with their problems, ask yourself: Does this person want my help? If youre not sure, ask.
In addition, be sure that the kind of help youre giving is the kind thats wanted. For example, your wife might like some help with her efforts to lose weight. However, shes not going to appreciate your help if shed 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 doesnt want your help or advice, its best to keep your mouth shut. Sometimes the best advice is no advice. Otherwise, the unsolicited advice is probably to quiet your own anxiety or a bad habit, not really to be helpful. If youre available and approachable, your friends and family know they can ask for your help if they want it.
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 cant force our own agenda on them.
Before launching into fix-it mode, try asking yourself these questions:
- Is this my issue or problem or is it someone elses problem thats 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 Im focusing on whats 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? Whats 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 youve 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 whats in your control and the problems that you can solve. Remember, if youre feeling particularly frustrated with your inability to change or solve a problem, you may be trying to solve someone elses problem.
2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net