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-descruction 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 began 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.







Vanilla, Please

“Vanilla, please.”

That was all I had to say, accompanied with a dollar bill in an outstretched hand. Two words. A simple exchange. Yet I could not do it.

I wasn’t always shy. I remember riding on my dad’s shoulders as a toddler, waving and saying, “Hi” to everyone I passed. I remember visiting the cockpit in the airplane and flirting with the pilot in that way that little kids have. I was three.

But soon after, shyness washed over me and cloaked me in fear. I would hide behind my mom’s leg even while in the company of known people. I would protest about talking to my grandparents on the phone as though I was delivering some great speech to thousands of followers. Instead of making conversation, I would simply recite the alphabet since it calmed my nerves.

The shyness slowly grew until it reached an apex in my eighth year. It was bad. One afternoon, I asked my mom to call my best friend to see if she could spend the night.

Lisa and Friend

She said no. Not my friend, but my mom. It was the best thing she could have done. She knew that if she enabled the behavior, I would be paralyzed through life; hamstringed by my fears. It was a tough lesson for me to learn. That afternoon, my eight-year-old body was on the floor, crying and screaming in protest. I was way too old for a temper tantrum, but that didn’t halt my attempts at creating a record-breaking fit.

The fears were imagined. All I had to do was pick up the phone, dial a number I had memorized, and say to my friend’s parents or brother, “Hi. this is Lisa. May I speak to  – .” So simple. I knew the family. It was only a few words. It was such an easy request and one that could only receive a positive response. It was so simple, yet I made it into something insurmountable.

I don’t remember if I ever summoned the courage to call that day. But I eventually did. I learned how to work through that irrational shyness and speak up for myself. I realized that I could choose to let the fear overwhelm me or I could turn the tables and overwhelm the fear instead.

As adults, we don’t have mom following behind us, forcing us to face those difficult lessons. We have to be our own parent, holding ourselves accountable and refraining from enabling dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors. Your issue may not be shyness. Perhaps you allow yourself to be lazy or engage in excessive procrastination. Maybe you make excuses that prevent you from growing. Or, possibly you permit anger to drive you. Regardless of your personal struggle, think of how you would respond if you were your own parent. Would you allow the behavior to continue? Or, would you stop enabling the actions, thus encouraging a new way of being?

As for the vanilla exchange? It had a happy ending. I decided I wanted some ice cream from a booth at the Kerrville Folk Festival where I had my choice of two flavors pre-served in plastic cups: vanilla or chocolate. When I asked my mom to buy me the ice cream, she responded by giving me the money but she required that I complete the transaction alone. After an entire day sweltering in the intense Texas sun, I finally approached the booth, quietly uttered my two words, held out my sweaty dollar bill and walked away with a cup of creamy and delicious ice cream.

The booths at Kerrville. Scary, aren't they? :)
The booths at Kerrville. Scary, aren’t they? 🙂

I gained more than just a cold treat that day. I learned that I couldn’t expect others to come to my rescue. I learned that I needed to practice being assertive in order to have my needs (okay, wants in this case) met. I realized that my shyness was irrational and that others were not even aware of it. I gained confidence in my ability to face my fears. I am thankful for those lessons every time I face a classroom full of kids, speak in front of adults, engage in conversations with strangers and make media appearances. If it wasn’t for a mom who refused to buy the vanilla ice cream, I might still be hiding behind her leg.