Stop Solving Other People's Problems

In my family of three sisters we get told a lot how similar we are. And it’s true, when you spend your formative years with someone all day every day, as our homeschool family did, a lot of behavior rubs off. But I see more differences between us than most people notice, especially in our motivations and the way we relate to the world. I oversimplify if I say we don’t still each have these traits, but in different proportions. The balance between them is what gives us each our unique personalities and motivations.

My youngest sister, for example, is a very empathetic person. She feels everyone’s feelings for them, pain, joy, sadness, excitement, everything. This makes things like reality TV and everyday interaction with people a challenge for her, but it stems from her vivid imagination, which in turn helps her to write engaging stories.

My other sister is empathetic too, but the way she shows it is to care deeply about everyone around her. She loves everyone in spite of their flaws, including when loving them means her heart breaks for them and their flaws. I can see this aspect of her personality shine through in the way she cares about nature and conservation. To her, even killing bugs hurts her heart.

I am the oldest of the three of us. I have always felt responsible for my sisters’ wellbeing, and sometimes for other people around me. I am also intensely curious. Those traits contribute to the fact that I am constantly driven to fix everyone’s problems.

Problem solving is a skill that serves me well in my job, and it is part of the reason that I got into the field of computer science in the first place. The critical analysis doesn’t always stop with coding problems though, I usually have an opinion on what is going on around me. I certainly have the drive to come up with solutions; I have a hard time letting things go. But it also means that I constantly have to control that impulse, and leave others to solve their own problems and live their own lives.

Coming up with solutions for other people’s problems is unhealthy for many reasons:

  • I can’t allow myself to be wrapped up in other people’s successes and failures. Like it or not I am responsible for myself and only myself.
  • Likewise, suggesting advice to others is like telling them that I know what they should do better than they do. It can offer a scapegoat for when things don’t work out. It can also be a crutch for them to rely on if they don’t continue to come up with their own solutions. Each person deserves credit and blame according to their choices and freedom to make those choices for themselves.
  • It isn’t really my business what other people do, even if their decisions directly affect me. If asked, I should be able to contribute my opinion without forcing the issue and while respecting the autonomy of each individual to reject that advice.

I shouldn’t view others challenges as a place for me to take over. When someone trusts me enough to tell me about their problems I need to show them respect and just listen. Sometimes a listening ear is all a person really needs, not someone to fix their problems, just someone to acknowledge that their problems matter. I want people to feel like they can talk to me without jeopardizing either of our emotional or mental states.

Choosing to use myself as the solution for everyone’s problems is a surefire way to wear myself out. It’s like using the same piece of duct tape over and over to fix everything. Even if I want to be the one to fix everything, I won’t have enough left to solve my own problems if I spend all my energy attacking problems I’m not responsible for solving.

If I want to keep myself sane, I need to learn how to balance the analytical drive I have to do good and to make a difference with respect and tact. I need to remember who I am responsible for and that what I can do to help others starts with the choices I make for myself, the way I approach my own problems. Instead of becoming wrapped up in someone else’s issues and triumphs, I should take what I observed in their situation and examine it for what I can apply to myself.

I don’t think I can really take this to heart without applying the command in the title directly to myself. This post is for me. I need to stop solving other people’s problems. I can’t really offer this advice without it becoming hypocritical. This is my problem and this is what I have decided I need to do to solve it. I hope that in challenging my predisposition to take other’s problems personally I can find more fulfillment and happiness, while remaining the critical, creative thinker I know myself to be.

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