When anyone in my life is going through a hard time, I always have the same knee-jerk reaction. I dive into their problems like Hasselhoff sprinting into the waves with an orange floatie and a need to SAVE! Most of the time I get the same reaction: “What the hell dude, I wasn’t even drowning.”
One time, I offered to take an online class for my brother just to help him FINALLY graduate college. I used to spend hours each day on the phone with my mom, counseling her through the emotional valleys of divorce. I spent hours at a time on messenger, trying to help my friend through an exhausting mental illness. I felt responsible for everyone’s feelings.
In the end, I wasn’t much help. In fact, my loved ones ended up resenting me more. I felt exhausted and emotionally depleted. I felt like a judgmental asshole. A voice in my head said, “What gives you the right to tell these people how to live their lives?” I was just trying to help, but I was doing more harm than good.
These are the lessons that took me years to learn – the lessons that eventually improved my relationships, saved me energy, and freed up valuable time in my days.
Get clear on the role you play in their lives.
It’s hard to watch your husband, mother, brother, or best friend go through a hard time. It’s hard to not crack open the “Mister Fix It” tool box. Here’s the thing: you’re not their therapist. You’re not their life coach. You’re the snarky sister who’s supposed to make fun of their awful yellow turtleneck, the friend that’s supposed to bring them red wine and Chinese takeout.
If your husband is going through a hard time, be his wife, not his mother. If you try to fix things for him, he’ll feel inadequate, like you don’t trust him to figure it out. He doesn’t want you to direct him, or to solve the problem. He wants you to just be there, to crack jokes with him, drink some beer with him and to hug him under the sheets.
If your mother is going through a hard time, be her daughter, not her therapist. She might be tempted to tell you private information (that you never needed to know, thank you very much). She might position herself as needing help. But perhaps she really just needs a girl’s outing to the ice-cream parlor for an afternoon, not an entire diatribe of how she can fix her life.
If your friend is going through a hard time, be her friend, not her mentor. Friendship is about walking beside a person, simply showing up, being there, and lending an ear.
“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” – Albert Camus
Getting clear on the role you play is about drawing boundaries. It can be easy to get caught up in someone else’s life, to the point where it’s hard to distinguish where your life ends and theirs begins. Know when it’s time to put down the phone. Know when it’s time to log out of messenger. Know when it’s time to check yourself, to get up from the director’s chair.
Know that you can’t think for them.
Are you always giving advice, just to realize that no one takes it seriously? They might nod their heads, say “Yeah, you have a point…” and then completely ignore your wisdom. Sound familiar?
Remember: people will make the right decision only when they’re ready to make it. There’s nothing you can say that will get them to do something. You can’t get your dad to go to the doctor about his alarming symptoms. You can’t get your sister to stop binge drinking. You can’t get your wife to look for better jobs.
You cannot control what other people do or think. You can only control your own actions, thoughts and words.
Practice the phrase, “I know you’ll figure it out.”
Even if you never say this directly – even if you only think it – you will send the message that you trust this person to direct their own life with grace and skill. You will be able to classify this problem as theirs and not yours.
You may feel like you’re sitting on top of a peaceful mountain, watching your loved one make mistakes. Be okay with their journey. Allow them to find the path for themselves.
Understand that you don’t know what they need. They know what they need.
You might be the world’s best advice-giver. You might have your own life so figured out that you make Martha Stewart look like a dirty hippie. You might be the most giving, most wise, most understanding human being on the planet. But that doesn’t mean that you know what John needs, or what Betty needs, or what your friend in Denver needs. Only they know what they need. All you can do is pour yourself a cup of Matcha tea, draw a bath and exhale.
Practice active listening.
Most of the time, people just need to talk through a problem without having to worry about you busting out the suggestion box. Stop talking, stop squirming and listen. Still your mind. Put away your phone. Focus on what they’re saying, the cadence of their voice, their facial expressions. Ask them questions. Allow them space to process thoughts. Be there for them in the calmest way: in trusting their judgment, in allowing them to make their own decisions, and in providing an atmosphere of peace and acceptance.
Once I stopped trying to save everyone, I realized that there was plenty in my own life that needed fixing. Like the constant thrum of anxiety in my gut, for example. And the fact that I had to quit my job and get clear on my career. And how I wanted to spend more time on art and music. And how the guest room ain’t gonna paint itself.
Letting friends and family figure things out for themselves doesn’t mean that you care about them less. It just means that you’re trusting them more. They, too, have the ability to swim life’s tumultuous waters. Give them the satisfaction of swimming to shore alone.
Author: Rebecca McCusker
Author Bio: Rebecca is a freelance writer, musician and creative marketing consultant. She lives in the Ohio countryside with her husband, where they garden and ride around on mopeds. When she’s not writing, she’s playing guitar and piano in her folk-rock band Linden Hollow.
Link to social media or website: Twitter @MccuskerRebecca