Thursday, June 28, 2018

Let Me Help You

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.
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.”


  1. Wow! Just wow! Thank you so much for this! This is ME exactly! I am struggling with this with my teenage daughter. I am constantly in emotional turmoil from all her problems! But she doesn’t need my “help” she just wants me to listen! I do this with everyone and I am a mess a lot of times inside and they are fine and just go on their merry way!! Light bulb moment!!

  2. This is a major struggle for me especially with my kids. I feel like this dynamic was the end during the early affair years. I grew up where my parents were a team in all they did. Not perfect but they supported each other and watched out for each other. If one could not do something they normally did the other stepped in. If they did not agree they worked through things. They had their defined roles but neither was afraid to step into the others role. When we got married based on what we had talked about in premarriage therapy and discussions I thought we were on the same page. I am not sure if it was the 10 years of marriage, kids, house, career or all of those combined with my husband's personality he became less of a team player. Not that he was ever great. Looking back I realize how selfish he was which started as a kid how he was treated in his home growing up. It ended up even the simplest things like changing a light bulb I would ask him to help out with and want him to do it in what I considered a reasonable time like over the course of a weekend. He said that I was imposing my needs on him and it should be up to him when he does things and that he should not have to indulge my need for it to get done. This was for everything in our house and life. He basically fell into the role of breadwinner and did that well and gave up on everything else. This was hard for me since I was not coming to him saying do this now. Also he would never plan one of our vacations but planned every vacation with friends. Now I realize he was in the thick of the affair years and had become skilled at gaslighting me. And interesting how I was always the problem, always the one complaining, always too tired, always having unrealistic expectations and he would say I was imposing my need for things to get done on him. In the end I hired a handyman to come in once a month to do everything. And his response was to ask if I was fooling around with this guy and said he did not like him being in our house while he was not home and I was here alone.

    Things have changed a lot since dday. Not perfect in this area but he does make an effort more without being asked and when being asked he steps up. He has told me though he had to rethink his entire life. He said before dday he never thought once about others first. It was always "what do I want to do". He said it was hard for him but now he is so much happier thinking of others first before always putting himself first. This is so hard for me to comprehend and now I see how his parents raised him and treat him that it has enabled this behavior and mentality.

    I end up questioning what out marriage should look like. What should I expect. Is what my parents have not realistic. I find it hard at times. Then the flip side is I become exhausted at time trying to work through this I have nothing else to give except my marriage, kids and work.

  3. This is SO spot on. I too was always a go between and make everyone happy, and make things ok again when my dad was drinking. It totally became a pattern. There is a fine line between helping and support. I'm just doing support now, and I will only help when asked. OH, also, there ARE people who ask for help and really don't want it. I see it over and over and over again. Trying not to waste my time and figure out what's really going on-- that is also a goal.

  4. There is a YouTube video called Nail in the Head. We use it at work to point out the importance of just listening and not immediately going into fix mode. It is funny and at the same time points out that people don't always want fixed, just heard.

    1. Yes! "what about the nail" our therapist showed this to both of us and I am not sure who it was directed at (wink wink). It had to be me because it took me a while to 'get it"

  5. It seems I'm good at fixing other people, anticipating their needs, jump up and get it, then I have the arrogance to tell them what they need to do. Like Elle said, I'm not responsible for all their happiness just my own. It is much harder to fix myself. If it is so damn hard to listen to myself, think how the "unsolicited advice" is to them. As for my grown children, I could see how I transferred both good and bad traits through my fixing advice. I called each one and told them, how I screwed up with expecting this or that from them. I explained how my own advice hurt me. I made a list of standards that were expected of me as a child to adulthood. I told them to look at the one which were transferred to them. I told them they didn't need to live up to these standards. They all understood what I was talking about and they disagreed with me about some standards and other they saw how crazy they were. So that is how I tried to fix what I messed up as a mom. It is not really fix but just to share with them what I learned after betrayal about myself. I didn't mention when this happened, that the light shined but that it just did. I'll try to dig up the standards and it is laughable. My undoing was trying to live up to these standards and they ended up eating my life up.

  6. I have decided that I will only "help" my H if it the outcome will affect me. In other words, if there is something that needs fixing, I make sure I recognize and acknowledge openly that the reason for fixing it will be to serve me and my needs. I get clear with him and myself when I push for something done a certain way or at a certain time it is because of something I need or want, rather than making it about the the "right" way. That helps with me not getting caught up in his stupid, impulsive stuff that has nothing to do with me. So if he decides to blow off work to drive our daughter around for unspecified reasons (as he did today), I drop my commentary. However, if he fails to drop her off when I need her to be here, then there is a problem. Who knew that getting selfish, would be making my life easier.

    1. I may take a page from your playbook, MBS... "help" my h only if the outcome may affect me. That makes complete sense to me. This seems so simple; it's one of those, why didn't I think of this? moments. Thanks for sharing!

      Ya know what? I don't see your strategy as "getting selfish." I think it's self care. ��

  7. This is me too and I've been working on this exact thing for the past couple of weeks. It is difficult to watch two of my kids make decisions that I know are irresponsible so I'm working hard to not offer my help or suggestions. My younger adult child has some developmental and executive function challenges that create constant problems, especially around money. I've always jumped in to rescue my kids but over the past six months I've become a much stronger person in this arena. It is still hard but it is necessary for me to step back and let them be who they are and figure things out. As for my spouse, I'm done running interference between him and everyone else and I have been done since shortly after D-day and that is working great. I've got one more relative to deal with on this and then I think I'm good to go. Such a great post.

  8. Yep
    I’m guilty of being the peace maker... I did allow our children to be children and learn hard lessons from life altering choices they made. Always there when asked advice but not expecting them to follow my advice! Both are well adjusted adults and have learned how to function through their adhd their way just as I have learned how to deal with h like yours Elle, could work a bit more on organization skills. I’m sure he is grateful for the fact that I continue to know where his keys are and his’s the little things that he just doesn’t take time to do...I don’t try to fix my mother anymore. I spent 4 years chasing doctors for her many problems due to her lifestyle. Never a drinker but a compulsive shopper who has type two diabetes that has contributed to kidney failure as well as heart disease. I’m not sure which organ will fail next but our hospice team has it all under control for now!

  9. My H and I offered to have a wedding at our house for a friend of my son's who parents are dead. I felt sorry for my son's friend. I thought you can handle this. I did pretty good until 4 days before. I was despondent. My H knows when I'm a little off. I told him I couldn't talk about now but we would the next day. I explained how a reminder can just go and go not stopping until it feels relief. I told him, here is how my mind goes yesterday. Love songs I used to think was about us now makes me sick, the class he told me about had a female helicopter pilot, you fucked her, the wedding at our house was happily ever bullshit, the stylist I know, his wife had an affair for 20 years with another family. In his culture, HE is SHUNNED. His kids don't talk to him. He is so broken, I can see the hurt and anger in his poor eyes. His family members knew but didn't say anything to him, the bride getting married, her now husband of 3 days someone ask me if he goes to strip clubs is that normal? 1 + 1 = Explosion. I told my H this shit doesn't go away for me. I said you can be smiling looking at me and I can be thinking about your affair. I'm not over it and he said, "I'm not over the shame and hurt I caused." "Relief

    1. LLP, This is what is going on inside of me. My husband has this thing he wants me to be "happy" more than anything. Great I understand I think more than anything it would help him to feel less guilty. I struggle with this since I just cannot figure out what happy is anymore. I mean I see glimmers of it but really happy just does not seem possible. I feel like I am in a constant "fake it till I make it" mode. Just recently my husband was talking about the first time a friend of his and his wife met. Before dday I would have thought great story and thought about how we met etc. Now these stories or being around other people makes me sad. I just cannot see the good out there. It makes me want to isolate and control what comes into my world. I know I am not letting myself be vulnerable but I don't know how to be happy or find joy in so much. I just think back to when my husband telling me he should have never asked me to marry him, he was too young, didn't get to play the field. etc. That is what I think of when I hear about people meeting, getting engaged and married. I just think why me. Why did he want to have kids. It feels like a charade of what he "thought" he should do at the time. The odd thing things are good between us and I do not have any concerns about his transparency etc. But it is that nagging feeling.

      LLP I feel the same way this does not go away for me. It is the smallest thing. This past weekend my husband scheduled golf without saying anything. I do not mind him doing it or playing golf. What I hate is I have to ask is it just the day, overnight, who is it with. This is what wears on me. I am sure he meant nothing by it and we are busy but it hits me. It feels like it used to during the "affair years".



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