My first therapist, a woman who specialized in working with Adult Children of Alcoholics of which I was a card-carrying member, had a sign in her waiting room that read:
Help is the Sunny Side of Control.
Above the words smiled a large yellow happy face.
Each week, that sign hung above my head like the sword of Damocles.
I would wait to be called into my therapist's office and then I would unload about all the ways in which my boyfriend didn't appreciate me, all the ways in which he had intimacy issues, all the ways in which he needed fixing in order for us to be blissful together. The healthier our relationship seemed, the more likely he was to run away from it. Only when he thought he might lose me was he suddenly unable to live without me.
How the hell do you fix that?
I tried for seven years.
It didn't work.
I also didn't work when I tried to "help" my friend who constantly moaned about her weight. I didn't work when I tried to "help" my mother get sober. Nor when I tried to "help" the drug addict I met a party by promising to go with him to a Narcotics Anonymous. Or when I tried to "help" my suicidal friend by offering to pay for therapy out of my student loan. I was so busy "helping" other people, I had little energy or motivation to help myself. But man oh man, "helping" people sure helped distract me from my own pain.
With the help of that therapist gently pointing out my fix-it ways, I came to understand that I was avoiding so much sadness in myself. My compulsive need to "help" was about control. Other people's pain triggered my own and I would immediately roll up my sleeves and dig in, "helping" them find solutions or resources or the will it would take to make things better. Thing is, even those who'd asked for my "help" didn't really want it.
My friend miserable about her weight is exactly the same size she was three decades ago. My mother got sober but it was when she was ready, not when I was.
And that crappy boyfriend invited me to coffee a few years ago to catch up...and then made a pass at me, despite being married himself and knowing that I was. His intimacy issues were there in full.
But old habits die hard. And knowing better doesn't always mean doing better.
Sometimes it means still trying to "help" my daughter when her friends exclude her from an event. Or "help" my son when a girlfriend dumps him. Or "help" my husband become more organized, more productive, less ADHD.
They don't want my help. They are capable, resourceful, smart people. Instead, they want to feel lonely for a day while they sort through why their friends aren't very nice. Or feel sad for a week until the sadness lifts. They don't need fixing, they need holding. They need someone to be with them in their discomfort, to trust that they can handle it. Often, they want to be left the hell alone. (Though my husband, seriously, could stand to manage his ADHD better if only to make my life less chaotic.)
My need to fix them isn't about them at all. It's about me. It's about my need to ensure that everyone around me is happy so that I can be happy myself.
That therapist taught me that I would be waiting a lifetime if the only way I could ever let my own guard down was to ensure that everyone else was a-okay. That was just never going to happen. There would always always be one more person who needed my help.
So I learned (mostly) to bite my tongue (though teens tend to trigger my fix-it instinct hard!). I learned, thanks to meditation and running, to fight the urge to fix people unless they specifically ask for my help and even then not always. I learned to get comfortable with my own discomfort and recognize it as anxiety, or sadness, or grief. To understand that the world doesn't exist on a binary of control and total chaos. That most of us, me included, exist somewhere in between. Able to control some things (me) and not others (everything else).
It's been one of the toughest lessons to learn in my life. I remain an enthusiastic fixer – everything from climate change to poverty/homelessness to refugees to a friend's difficult relationship with her sister. But I'm reminded often of another saying that resonates. It comes from Lilla Watson, an activist and artist:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”