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As a people-pleaser, it is my natural inclination to want to help others “fix” their problems. Anything from seeing a solution to another’s dilemma, to feeling the weight of someone who is angry, to playing referee in keeping everyone happy. The pleaser in me feels either morally responsible for fixing everyone and everything or I perceive that everyone believes it is my moral responsibility. And that can be overwhelming.
Years ago I attended a workshop with Gary and Joy Lundberg and enjoyed it so much that I bought the book of the same name: I don’t have to make everything all better. In this four-day course, I learned an eye-opening concept: I do not have the power to solve other people’s problems. I know, not a big surprise, but the perceived responsibility is an easy trap to fall into.
As a parent, it is easy to feel responsible for your children’s mistakes. As a child, we want to live up to our parents’ expectations. As a friend, we want to offer assistance and support. The reality is that we only have responsibility and power to fix our own problems. In all other aspects of life, we are only a supporting role.
The Lundbergs are proponents of validation. “It is not a cure-all. It is a way to let people close to you carry their own responsibilities while helping them feel loved by you to a far greater degree.”1 They teach six basic principles that can help “a fixer” leave the fixing to the one who is truly responsible. I would strongly recommend reading their book for the specifics, but here are the basics.
Be an Effective Validator
The Lundbergs define validation as “the act, process, or instance of confirming or corroborating the meaningfulness and relevance of what another person (or self) is feeling…it is being able to empathetically listen and understand another person’s point of view without having to change it.”2 An effective validator listens to help the other person feel they are of worth, that their feelings matter and that you care about them.
Leave the Responsibility Where It Belongs
The underlying principle here has to do with the difference between power and desire. We confuse our desire to make everything all better with the power or lack of power to fix it all. We can always ask if we can help. There are numerous ways in which we can offer to give assistance, but the words “ought” or “should” suggest obligation and expectation rather than choice. The choice should remain with the one in need. Allowing others to choose what they would like help with leaves the responsibility where it belongs. Always remember to stick to your personal boundaries, and do only what you feel comfortable doing. Don’t be afraid to decline with “I’m not in a position to do that right now, is there something else?” Be kind, gentle, respectful, and firm.
Emotions are something that we all feel. It is common to take our own assumptions and apply them to what we think someone else should be feeling. Learning to allow others to recognize and acknowledge what they are feeling can help their overall well-being. “There is increasing scientific evidence that unresolved negative emotions depress our immune systems and cause us to be more vulnerable to many diseases and physical ailments.”3 Failing to let other people recognize what they are feeling complicates their lives — mentally and physically.
Develop the Art of Listening
Effective listening requires practice. It’s easy to have our thoughts wander back into “fix it” land instead of listening to understand. Stephen Covey sums it up beautifully:
“To relate effectively with a wife, a husband, children, friends, or working associates, we must learn to listen. And this requires emotional strength. Listening involves patience, openness, and the desire to understand – highly developed qualities of character. It’s so much easier to operate from a low emotional level and to give high-level advice.”4
The purpose of listening is not to come up with a solution. It is to hear the feelings and needs that are being expressed and putting ourselves into the situation to understand.
Find the Right Time to Teach
The word teach makes me think this might only apply to our children. Actually, we can teach anyone we care about to learn how to find alternatives and possibilities for the best solution to their needs. A while ago my youngest daughter reached out to me with a need. She had left an assignment at home. My people, pleasing instinct wanted to swoop in and rescue her from figuring out how to solve the problem on her own. It was not easy, but in the end, we were both happy with the resolution.
I validated her feelings, and when she asked for help I didn’t step in to solve the problem for her. I asked her questions to let her know I still cared, and then complimented her on her ability to problem solve.
“Validation empowers others to more effectively solve their own problems.”5 Giving advice is the easy, common and unhealthy way of controlling people. It’s like telling them: “I don’t think you’re smart enough to figure this out, so let me just share my wisdom with you.” When I’m frustrated I just want someone to confirm that it’s okay to be frustrated and then the reassurance that I’m strong and smart enough to find and implement my own solution.
When we make the assumption that we have more power and influence than we actually have, or that our family or friend is helpless to handle difficult situations on their own, we take the responsibility away from them and open ourselves up to be overwhelmed. I’m not at all advocating that we don’t look for ways to serve those around us, but there is a difference between serving and taking over. The latter doesn’t teach any of us how to choose wisdom.
1Lundberg, Gary and Joy Saunders. I don’t Have to Make Everything All Better. p. xxiv. Las Vegas: Riverpark Pub. Co., 1995, xxiv.
4Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1990, 37.
5 Lundberg, xxiv.
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Will you allow life to teach you or defeat you