What happens when your partner or friend tells you about a problem? Do you automatically go into “fix it” mode? It’s a pretty common response to want to right a wrong. Something bad has happened, someone I care about is upset, and now I’m going to make it all better. What could possibly be wrong with that?
It is not inherently wrong to want to make a bad situation better. I mean, my goodness, it seems like it would be the best of things, right? Anything from a little tiny problem to a huge social injustice…we all want to make the world, or our little corner of it, a better place. Why then, am I teetering on the suggestion that there may be a pitfall to be aware of in being “a fixer”?
Well, I’m done teetering and I’m going to come right out and say it…there can be a significant pitfall in wanting to, or even feeling you have to, fix problems that come up for your loved ones. There is a very sneaky and stealthy trap to be avoided if you want to handle these types of relational situations like an emotional samurai. We’re going to illuminate it by looking at an example.
A Case Study
Joe and Gina are our married couple for this illustration. Gina just got home from a busy day at work, and Joe asks her about her day. Gina tells him a rather lengthy and in-depth story about how a co-worker is driving her nuts. At the end of her story, she asks Joe for his opinion on how she should handle the situation.
What should Joe do?
If you answered “Give her his best advice to help her feel better”….you would be in incredibly grave danger of falling into this well-disguised trap. I mean…(poor Joe)…after all, Gina did ASK for his advice. But so many times, way too many times, this is absolutely the worst thing Joe could do. Gina has unknowingly set Joe up for failure, and actually poked a wound inside his heart, too.
What does Gina really want in this situation, the vast majority of the time? Understanding. Compassion. Listening. NOT fixing. She wants Joe to come into her world for a few minutes and just understand what it is like to be her. She’s more than likely quite capable of solving her workplace issue, and is not really looking for advice. (Most of the time, by the way, it’s much more subtle than someone coming right out and asking for advice. They just want to tell the story of their frustrations. Even if they overtly ask for advice, like Gina, DON’T FALL FOR IT!)
The Deeper Story
Truth be told, fixers are actually not being all that selfless and altruistic, even though it might seem like they are only trying to be helpful. What they are actually doing, to some degree at least, is attempting to moderate their own anxiety in the presence of the other’s magnified emotions. They have a level of discomfort in the other’s level of feelings, and they’re talking the other person down so they can feel less anxious. The only problem with this is that it can be very abandoning for the person on the receiving end. They can experience that as the fixer trying to tell them not to feel, shut them up, shut them down, be expeditious to move on to the next thing and return to the status quo, etc. It very rarely feels like or comes across as true caring, even if they truly do care!
There is a way to tell if you’ve fallen for the trap. Do you regularly give your spouse or close friends advice, unsolicited or otherwise, that they don’t follow? Bingo. This is a huge indicator. They are not really asking you for advice. They can totally be looking for connection, which is a best case scenario. Worst case, they might be looking for a dumping ground for excess emotion that they don’t know what to do with (venting). If it’s a dumping thing, it is really not intentionally malicious behavior, it’s just unknowingly doing what they do until they learn a new, safer way of relating.
The Result For The Fixer
Ultimately, being a fixer can internally trigger some pretty decent sized resentment and resistance. There is an underlying (probably subconscious) invasion that feels like the other person is expecting too much from you…to manage their emotions or be the fixer. This usually causes some type of reactivity: cut-off, psychological walls going up, and/or some pretty toxic resentment.
Avoiding The Trap
“Fixing” is a snare that can be avoided, but usually only with some serious relationship skills. It takes knowing what to listen for and working on your own anxiety with emotional closeness and distance to control. Most fixers go into fixing mode without even thinking about it, particularly if they have some decent-sized shame.
The key to choosing an alternative response that shows a deep understanding to what your partner needs, instead of what they are perhaps even blatantly asking for, is insight and awareness, coupled with some serious skill. It’s an advanced samurai move. When it comes down to it, you aren’t responsible for your partner’s emotions or happiness, but you can learn to take excellent care of their feelings, out of love. Go for understanding them instead of fixing their problems, even if they ask. Give it a try. Become an emotional samurai.
Healing Hearts provides counseling services to the surrounding communities of Indianapolis, Fishers, Carmel, Zionsville, Westfield, Noblesville, and Geist. E-Counseling is available for residents of Indiana. Call or text today to set up your appointment. 317-218-3038
© 2015 Nancy Eisenman, MSW, LSW