Are You Putting Out Fires That Aren’t Your Own?
“I’m just so worried about him,” a friend said to me about her on again/ off again boyfriend. “He’s on a path of self-destruction and I don’t know what to do for him.”
This pronouncement came less than a latte after this same friend was crying about the uncertainty in her own life, calling herself a “wreck.”
Yet she had shifted her attentions from her own fires to those of her sometimes boyfriend.
This tendency to attempt to put out fires that are not our own is so common that AA even has an oft-repeated phrase for it – “Keep your own side of the street clean.” And it’s not just those battling addiction that face the temptation of turning on the sirens for other people’s drama.
It’s all of us.
We hate to see those we care about suffering and we want to alleviate their discomfort.
Wanting to help is a testament to your ability to empathize and a reflection of the selflessness of your character. There are times when your willingness to drop everything to come to the rescue is needed and appropriate.
And there are times when it is not.
This was something I struggled with when I first started teaching. I thought that I could “save” all of my students by simply stepping up my effort to deliver them from whatever corner they were currently backed into. I would accept endless excuses, dismiss poor choices and give them opportunity after opportunity with little repercussion.
And it didn’t work. I became exhausted, frustrated and eventually, even resentful as they continued to take advantage of my kindness without making any progress. In my attempt to help, I was actually holding them back by not teaching them how to take responsibility for their own actions and outcomes.
So I changed my approach. And instead of being willing to help no matter what, I vowed to never help someone more than they were willing to help themselves. I set and communicated boundaries with my students – I will go this far for you and only this far; it’s your choice if you want to meet me there.
It wasn’t always easy in the beginning (or sometimes even now). I had to let students fail. I had to allow the tears to fall. I had to give them the space to make the wrong decisions so that they could experience the consequences.
But time and time again, I saw that by allowing them to figure it out on their own, they started to…well, figure it out.
Someone else’s pain distracts us from our own.
This was undoubtedly one of my friend’s motivations as she fixated on her maybe-he’s-her-boyfriend’s problems. She was overwhelmed with her own situation and felt hopeless and scared whenever she began to consider it too closely, so instead, she looked away.
It can become an excuse, “Oh, I don’t have the time/energy/resources to deal with my own stuff right now. I have to put it on the back burner while I attend to this other person’s needs.” This may be true for a while, but if you always find yourself rushing to extinguish the fires of others, you’re ignoring the conflagration that’s right in front of you.
It’s easier to find clarity in a situation when we have some distance.
Even advice columnists need help sometimes. When we’re inside a situation, it can be difficult to see clearly. Yet, when our loved ones are in crisis, we have the gift of perspective born from being just one step removed.
And of course, you want to share your observations and conclusions that you have from your viewpoint. After all, it seems so obvious. So clear-cut. Once they hear your position, surely they will have that same gift of a bird’s eye view.
And maybe they will. Perhaps hearing your perspective is enough for them to see the bigger picture and develop a clear course of action.
Or maybe, they’re not ready to take a step back and see things through a more depersonalized lens. You can’t force someone to see when they’re stubbornly closing their eyes.
Or maybe, your interpretation is off, neglecting elements that are unknown or not understood by you. Imagine trying to describe a painting to someone whose back is turned. You will select words based upon your experiences and understanding. The mental picture formed by your description will likely vary significantly from the person’s own views once they turn around.
We want to be needed.
I have witnessed time and time again a particular type of grief in mothers of young children. Even as they rejoice in their offspring’s newfound independence as they approach school-age, they mourn the feeling of no longer being needed in the same way.
It feels good to be needed. There’s a certain security in knowing that others depend upon us and therefore, won’t want to leave us. Yet this impulse can easily set up an unhealthy dynamic where the goal becomes dependence rather than independence. A bond formed from fear, rather than love.
Because, ultimately, the objective when coming to someone’s aid is to help them learn how to help themselves. When you find yourself no longer needed (and instead, the person is still there because they want to be there), you’re doing something right.