This is part two in a series by Chris & Debra. Check out part one here.
I get it, I really do. You see so much potential in a person, and you just KNOW that if they have the resources, the support and the self-esteem that their potential will turn into something great and tangible in the world. They have so much to offer, how could it not?
One of my best friends for many years had an off and on drug problem. When she was sober she was ON, she cared about everyone and wanted to give just as much as she got, often more. When she was strung out, she was a druggie who stole money and pain killers. Unfortunately she was more attached to the drugs than anyone in her life. She refused treatment and therapy over and over again. She accepted money, places to live and emotional emotional crutches. She had not lost enough to feel the pain of consequence.
My last significant relationship was with someone I just KNEW had more to offer the world. I spent two years trying to help him harness all of that potential and use it to build a life instead of the awful, dark madness he’d been using. Unfortunately, he was rather attached to his darkness, and not at all interested in doing the work to build something else. No amount of effort and care and give a fuck on my part – or anyone else’s – was going to change that. He loved his misery more.
These two examples are people I’ve given an equal amount to in my life. The first was a person who deserved it – to put it the way Chris did, I didn’t give up on her even after she’d given up on herself. The problem was that she gave up on herself so completely that the only way back was to see the bottom. The bottom could not include someone there to catch her. Walking away was the only way to help her, my own heartbreak be damned.
The second person deserved some of what I gave, but I did not find the off ramp in time. What I thought was me “helping”, was really me grasping at straws with someone who was all too happy to keep taking and feeding his ego. To the extent that what started out a gift of encouragement and bottomless belief morphed into empty cheerleading because there was never any growth or change. Unless it was in a negative direction, into the realm of abuse.
These may be moderately extreme examples of trying to “fix” people who need to fix themselves, but the obviousness helps to illustrate the point: Both of these experiences had many things in common – the most important being the fact that even though they said over and over that they wanted more out of life and wanted to make an impact, they were not at all willing to do the work to make it happen. No amount of support, resources or cheerleading was going to change that. It was nothing more than enablement on my part. Toxic cycles happen for a reason – it’s no surprise that manipulative takers find themselves with naïve givers. Naïve givers who have never seen themselves as naïve for even a moment in their lives.
But what about relationships and people that aren’t “toxic”? Well, kid, that’s a lot tougher to discern. Every relationship and circumstance is different, and we need to be able to judge what is helpful and healthy ourselves to the best of our ability. You may try, you may even temporarily do these things for them, but until they are ready, willing and able to not only take on their problems themselves but also WANT their life to change…things will remain the same in the end. They have to need it like they need oxygen. Even if it’s just one change, one tiny little thing at a time, they are the ones that have to do the work. The whole “teach a man to fish” thing once again.
For me there have been a few things I’ve needed to learn to be sane, mostly healthy and legitimately helpful to the people around me (not just “feel good” helpful). And when I look around, these seem like they may be somewhat universal:
Evaluate your motivations for helping or supporting others FREQUENTLY.
Just because my overall motivation in a relationship is positive, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t check in on that on a regular basis. In any given situation, if we are giving advice, or helping someone for any reason other than to be of service to them, that help may not actually be what they need. Your need to feel like a savior is about you – it’s hard to help people in the way they need when it’s ultimately about how you feel. My old friend didn’t need me to keep saving her from herself, she needed me to stop saving her so she could show herself that she was strong too. Even if that meant losing face with her for what will probably be the rest of my life. Which leads me to my next point…
Be willing to do things that you will not be thanked for, and that may not be credited to you.
Maybe they will respond to direct help, or maybe they are like me and freak out when people try to help them (I’m working on it). Ask them what they need instead of assuming – maybe they just need to talk, and don’t even want your advice. If they fail, give them a hand up. Failure is one of our best teachers, but we need to be willing to work towards change after the failure. And finally, most people need to be a part of a solution, not just to be told what to do. So instead of telling them what to do, ask them questions to help them walk the path themselves. This means you may not get any credit, they may not even realize you’ve done anything – and frankly, they are the ones deserving of the celebration, not you. You’re going to have to occasionally fight with your ego on that one, but if you’ve checked your motivations…you see where I’m going.
Learn to see different types of relationships for what they are. Adjust expectations accordingly.
-I have some friends that I will protect with all of my might, and will try my best to help when they need and want it, but either they are not willing to do the work in some areas – often admittedly – or I’m just not the right person for them to go to. We will NEVER be that person for everyone in our lives. Coming to terms with that will ease a lot of stress.
-There are some relationships that are more charitable and that may feel cyclical. They may never ask for advice, and just need someone to vent with. They might ask for advice but never listen to it. I will listen and give, knowing I will get none of that in return and that’s perfectly OK with me – I’ve made the decision to be OK with these things, and my boundary lies in the level of my emotional investment. None of those things are frustrating to me because at the end of the day, they just need someone by their side sometimes. I think they deserve that. But when the world falls down, neither of us is going to rely on the other.
-Some of my friends are now my family, and I will fight and die for them. There is next to nothing that would make me give up on them. But that’s because I know they won’t manipulate, gaslight and take advantage of that – and I know they will do the work. By and large, I know they will do the same for me, and already have.
And finally, to my chronic fixers:
Please, please learn to accept help and advice too. Most of us are the way we are because growing up we were either expected to fix everything, or it was the only way to get positive attention. This makes it hard to not get a little (or a lot) defensive when someone else wants to help or offer advice – “that’s my job, I’m supposed to be able to figure this out.” Maybe that’s not a literal thought that you have, but I’m willing to bet that describes the feeling you have nonetheless.
Just try to remember: all those people in your life deserve someone who won’t give up on them, especially you.