This past week I found myself in a space of resurrecting an old habit proving the saying “old habits die hard”. The habit I’m talking about is one of fixing things for other people. I’ve always been good at fixing things for other people, and there are many people over the years who I helped to feel better in a sticky situation. It’s a well-honed skill I carry around with me.
The way it works is I take responsibility for your problems or discomfort. I make them better for you so you don’t need to be with the discomfort. It’s kind of like when I go to see my mechanic. If I’m being annoyed by a squeak in my truck, I ask him to make it go away. The problem is, unlike with my truck, when my mechanic does something to my truck he’s truly fixing it. I don’t know how to fix things on my truck, so I count on him in this situation which is a huge help for me.
When I try to fix something I perceive someone else is struggling with I’m actually not helping them. If anything, it’s possible I’m setting them backward.
This realization was triggered last week when I was thinking about a friend who was struggling to be with something. I came to realize part way through the day she wasn’t looking me in the eye much. I started to make up stories about this. Then my stories started feeding on each other. It started with a good story that “I’ve done something to upset her.” This fed another one, where I started to convince myself “no, she’s actually just tired of being with me.” Then it got really interesting where I turned my stories from being about me to being about her “she won’t look me in the eye because she’s afraid of what I might see”.
The truth is these are all just stories I was making up (I know this to be fact as I talked to her). This wasn’t about her at all, as the stories were actually a reflection of my own messiness. They were just another instance of me going down the path of taking responsibility for someone else’s problems. Sure it’s probably true she’s dealing with something (or a lot of somethings). Which of us isn’t dealing with something? What she’s dealing with is actually none of my business.
We’re like these machines just churning out our stories, judgments, assumptions and so much more. It’s what makes us humans amazing, beautiful, complex and messy all at the same time. When I stop to look at my actions it’s not hard to see lots of cases where I’m creating a juicy story.
What it means to take responsibility
When it comes to taking responsibility for someone else’s problems, it means I’m going to evaluate what is happening, apply my filters to it, then make a determination on the best way to make the problem go away. For example, I may give some advice, or I may go off and deal with the problem to somehow make it less painful for the person. This process is what is known as The Control Cycle, and although it may seem to provide some temporary relief it does nothing for the person’s growth.
These days I spend my life helping people grow. When I take responsibility for other people’s problems I am taking away the opportunity to grow. They stay in their comfort zone, and they do not grow as an individual. When they re-encounter the problem (and they likely will) what strength have they built for themselves in being able to take on the problem by themselves. Perhaps they will even be set backward as they thought I had fixed it, and then it re-emerges. Thanks to my fixing they can certainly blame me for not having actually fixed it as they never owned the resolution.
When I take responsibility for someone else’s problem, it’s such a limiting experience for both of us. In addition, this starts to limit my own growth as a leader in this world. I’m so busy taking responsibility for other people’s lives, I leave little space for my own. I start to act inauthentically and am burdened by their lives, and when this happens my impact on the world around me starts to shrink.
In my work as an Agile Coach, I spend time helping teams figure out how to work more effectively within a dysfunctional organization. Most of these teams are struggling with corporate accountabilities. Bureaucratic approaches to working born out of some belief that by industrializing knowledge work they may somehow produce better and more repeatable results.
The truth is I worry for the future of our economies and civilization, as some of the biggest corporations are struggling to shed their outdated skin. Companies with the reality created by a culture born long ago and hardened by layering on more process.
When a large company tries to change how the work is done there is discomfort as new bumps into the old ways of working. People start to feel caught in the middle, unsure what to do at times. What makes it more challenging is often the people feel vulnerable as suddenly they’re being asked to act with more autonomy than they’ve been used to. It’s pretty uncomfortable at times!
The problem starts when I would then also step in and take responsibility for their comfort. I try to convince them it’s not that bad, or give them some advice on working around the discomfort. When I take responsibility for their comfort the team stays stuck in their limiting beliefs robbing them of the opportunity to grow.
Not my responsibility
Things are shifting these days. For my friend at the start of this post, when I realized I was falling into this old habit I simply when to her and told her I love her. I know she’s strong and doesn’t need me to fix anything. I also know if there is something she wants she will simply come ask for what she needs.
For teams I’m working with, my approach these days is not to fix any discomfort for them. It’s actually quite the opposite, and rather than fixing anything for them I actually help them stand in the middle of discomfort to figure out what is real or true for them. When they can see their truth, I know they will be able to do something about it.
This all comes down to “it’s not my responsibility.” It’s not my job to take responsibility for your discomfort. It’s not my responsibility to fix your problems. It’s not even my responsibility for what you think of me for taking this stance. None of those things are about me. I don’t know if I will ever get rid of this habit, so my focus is on being able to see myself doing it quicker. When I can see I’m doing it, then it becomes easier to choose not to take responsibility.
Wow that was great Mike. It sheds new light for a problem with a coworker. Actually not my problem at all. I just need to get past the loss of what I thought was a friendship. I actually think she is planning to leave the company and is just biding her time until then. But then again I have no idea.
Yes it’s amazing the stories we can make up. Glad it was helpful!
Beautiful again Mike. Thank you. And thank you for your reference to The Control Cycle and to my new book. How generous!
Your story also reminds me of a principle stated by a therapist friend, Linda McCarley, PhD. She says “when I’m working harder than the client (on his/her problem) I’m in trouble.”