“Sometimes the easiest way to solve a problem is to stop participating in the problem.” ~ Jonathan Mead
I don’t think I’m alone in having someone in my life whom I wish I could change. Someone I see struggling, who ignores or resents any lifesavers I send their way. I can clearly see how this person contributes to their own struggles, but they remain totally unaware of it. Sometimes, I want to shake some sense into this person; I think, “If only they would get their life together…”
For many of us, this person is a relative: a sister, brother, parent, or child. For others, it’s a close friend or coworker. A lot of times, it’s someone we want in our lives, even if it’s painful to keep them there. No matter who it is, it certainly isn’t easy to see someone you care about struggle.
Being in the presence of another’s pain used to provoke a deeply emotional response from me. And I know others feel the same. Sympathy and the desire to help someone in distress are naturally instinctual responses.
According to Darwin, humans and animals alike take comfort in one another’s company, protecting one another and defending each other against threats.
I get that. It makes total sense to me. I would have gone to the ends of the earth to see the people I care about happy. I did just about anything to try and change them; I read books and articles, reaching out for experts’ advice on how I could get them to see the light. In fact, I became one of those “experts” myself, and if I’m honest with myself, it’s because I was looking for a way to help the ones I love.
You see, I didn’t just have one person in my life who was struggling. At one point, it seemed like the majority of my family members were having a tough time. That led me to feel desperate and helpless, unable to live my own life while sensing their pain.
I always hung on to the hope that the people in my life would somehow change. That something I had overlooked would prove to be the magic bullet to help them live a good and fulfilling life.
I kept buying more books, reading more articles, and encouraging them to go to therapy, whether they wanted to or not. I reasoned, pleaded, led interventions. Dreamed of my ideal relationships with them, imagined them happy and full of life. Yearned for their smiles and enthusiasm for life. Believed that I couldn’t be happy until they were.
I made it my life mission to change others, becoming a therapist to help make changes in other people’s lives, fixing what was broken.
Well, as you can imagine, that never worked. When you have people in your life whom it hurts to love, the only logical solution seems like trying to help them change. But I had to learn the long and hard way, by running into dead ends and facing many disappointments, that you can’t make other people change. You can’t make other people happy. And you can’t rescue another person.
The only person you can change is yourself. So that’s what I did. I learned to manage my anxiety around other people’s discomfort. I decided that other people’s struggles and journeys were just that: their struggles and journeys. I stopped trying to be helpful and instead decided that I had a right to be happy.
It’s so important to understand that you can’t make somebody change. You can inspire them to change. You can educate them toward change. You can support them in their change. But you can’t force them to change just so that you can feel more comfortable around them.
Maybe that sounds like giving up. Maybe that even sounds a bit uncaring. However, I didn’t stop trying to be helpful to those struggling because I stopped loving them. I stopped because I saw it was not only not working, it was also contributing to their problems.
When I made efforts to take on other people’s problems I would do too much. I relieved them for a moment of their pain; however, I wasn’t providing them with the space they needed to solve their own issues. If I kept jumping in to help them, they would keep relying on me, instead of themselves, which wouldn’t allow them to better deal with life’s many difficulties on their own.
After years of doing the same things over and over again, with very little result, I decided it was time to change my approach. I was doing the very thing I wanted to see other people stop doing: I was contributing to my own problems. And it was time to stop doing that. It was time to be happy, not only for me, but for those that I cared about. It was time to be less helpful.
Our efforts to be helpful might be based on good intentions, but those good intentions don’t always yield good results.
By committing to learning what real help is, I came to understand that if I could manage my anxiety about other people’s problems and invest my time thinking about real solutions, I could change my responses and do something that was legitimately helpful.
As the first step in this process, I began to define my true beliefs, values, and ideas about helping others.
I’ve learned that in crisis situations, it’s best for me to calm myself down and respond as wisely as possible—when it’s needed and, of course, when it’s welcomed. The ability to manage my emotions in the highly anxious and emotional presence of another, especially a loved one in pain, is a lifelong mission of mine, because I truly believe it’s what will be helpful.
If we can all manage ourselves in the face of other people’s problems, we can truly be present and accountable.
On my journey to find out what it means to be truly helpful, I’ve found some tools I keep in my back pocket when the going gets tough.
First, stay in touch.
This isn’t easy to do in the presence of someone who’s very anxious and upset. Some people naturally create distance when anxiety is high. Thinking that you can’t help, or that the situation is too large, can lead you to run in the other direction.
I try to stay in contact with people I care about, even if their problems are too big for me to solve or aren’t solvable at all, like having an illness. Staying in touch helps me manage myself around the big stuff I can’t solve, and learn to accept people as they are.
Second, see the person past the problem.
When I was walking around with a hammer, I was basically seeing everyone in my life as a nail. There was more to them than the issues they were facing, but I wasn’t relating to them as whole people. Now I look for other people’s strengths, and their ability to solve their own issues. People are more resilient than we tend to think.
Third, respect others’ boundaries and ability to solve their own problems.
Many people are vulnerable when they face life’s stressors, and some people look to others to solve their problems for them. These days, I try to respect other people enough to let them come up with their own answers.
Determining how much to say or not say in each situation we face is not an exact science. I respect others’ boundaries by supporting their autonomy, being there for them but staying out of the way when my opinion isn’t needed. I make sure that any ideas for possible solutions come from them. I offer useful information without telling anyone what to do.
Fourth, know your own limitations.
It was humbling for me to find out how little control I have over the way others decide to live their lives. I changed my thought process from thinking I knew what’s best for my loved ones, to defining what I really could and couldn’t do; then my responses became clearer.
I was able to be more open and honest about the reality of my own life and how available I could be for others. I learned the hard way that, most of the time, my limits of time and energy were reached before other people’s needs were met.
Fifth, become more objective.
Boy, is it hard to think objectively when it comes to our important relationships. In intense emotional situations, it’s easy to get pulled into it all and feel pressured to do something instead of taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture.
With each situation I face, I work on getting more objective about it, reflecting on how I can remain calm and not feel the need to solve anything immediately.
Remaining objective is about seeing the difference between reality and what you feel. So, for example, instead of thinking you need to break your best friend’s unhealthy relationship pattern because it hurts you to see her in the same painful situation over and over again, you might step back and recognize she’s making progress, even if it’s slow, and we all need to learn our own lessons in our own time.
Sixth, work toward being open and honest.
We all have a need to feel seen, heard, and understood. However, way too many people aren’t open and honest in their relationships. When we can be open about our vulnerabilities and share our own experiences, it can be healing and calming. We can let others know that we can relate to them. When we’re trying to solve and fix everything, we aren’t connecting with others at a deeper level. We’re acting as if we’re above them.
By making an effort to stop trying to be helpful, I saw many changes in my life. I no longer felt the pressure I once put on myself to be responsible for other people. I no longer made other people’s struggles about myself. And through all of that, I was able to foster better relationships with the people I care about—relationships based on reality, versus fantasies of who I wished they would be.
What I describe here is my own personal experience. I share it as a way to get you thinking, but there’s no one-size-fits-all method for determining what real help is.
The biggest lesson I learned in all of this is that I wasn’t helping anyone when I was swooping in trying to solve every problem without looking at the bigger picture. I understand now that when my “helping” is rooted in anxiety and an urge to smooth things over, it isn’t coming from a genuine place.
I now know it’s okay to not have all of the answers; it’s okay to take my time to think things over; it’s okay to throw my hands up and say, “This situation really stinks right now, and it’s going to be hard for a while.”
It’s okay for you to do all those things, too. Not every struggling person needs saving. Knowing that, and accepting it, might be the most helpful thing you can do.
About Ilene S. Cohen
Ilene S. Cohen, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, blogger, and professor. She’s a regular contributor to Psychology Today, with her most recent release of her self-help book entitled, When It’s Never About You. Her work is fueled by her passion for helping people achieve their goals, and lead fulfilling and meaningful lives. To learn more about Dr. Ilene visit www.doctorilene.com.