I come from a family of problem solvers and fixers. Growing up, I always thought my family was close, and perhaps unusually close at times. We would often spend an entire Saturday afternoon sitting around in our pajamas, just talking. This continued throughout high school and even into my college years, since we all lived at home into our twenties.
As I transitioned into adulthood, my family continued to be deeply involved in each other’s lives. If you had a problem, everyone had an opinion on what you should do about it. And sometimes, when others’ opinions were strong, they could even overshadow my own instincts and push me in a direction that wasn’t exactly where I wanted to go.
Of course, I loved my family and I wanted to make them proud. I wanted to be a good daughter and sister, and eventually a good aunt to my nieces and nephews. I wanted everyone to be happy, and I somehow got the idea that it was my responsibility to make them happy.
As everyone grew up, got married, and had kids, I was often the “gap filler” for my family. I would jump in with offers to babysit or help family members with projects around the house. Over the years, I found myself constantly checking around to see if anyone else needed anything. And if not, then I could settle in at home for some “me” time.
It didn’t occur to me that as a single woman in my thirties, with no husband or kids and a great paying job, that the majority of my time should have been “me” time!
My helping and fixing tendencies were not limited to my family. This behavior also spilled over into the workplace. I always took on more than my share of the workload and ended up working nights and weekends to get the job done.
I remember sitting in a meeting once and trying to explain my job to a new person on our team. My title at the time was Director of Special Projects, or something like that. I actually said to the person that my job was to fill in the gaps and pick up all of the things that weren’t anyone else’s job. Talk about scope creep!
As I got into my early forties, I started to feel the effects of my behavior. Problems in my family multiplied and needed more of my attention. And my projects at work expanded and required more of my effort. Instead of filling in the gaps, it started to feel more like I was plugging holes in the Hoover Dam with my fingers.
Eventually, my health started to suffer, and I needed to step back. Around that time, I also discovered a book by Melody Beattie called Codependent No More. I had always assumed codependency was related to dealing with substance abuse, but I soon learned that codependence can occur for many reasons in many families. I learned that I was a codependent person, as were many of my family members.
At first, I felt liberated. As if a weight was lifted from my shoulders. I thought, “So, you mean that I am not responsible for everyone else’s happiness? Ok, cool. What do I want to do with the rest of my life?” But of course, the detangling process was not as simple as I might have hoped.
Even though I was acutely aware of my behavior, when faced with a problem to be fixed or a person I cared about who was struggling, it was hard to just step back and focus on my own life instead. But eventually, that is what I learned to do.
As I moved along on my journey, whether in my work life or my personal life, I found that one simple phrase helped me bring things back into focus whenever I had gotten off track. If I caught myself ruminating on a particular problem, or feeling compelled to step in and volunteer, I would ask myself this question: Is this my problem to solve?
Just taking that one moment to pause and evaluate the situation objectively, instead of emotionally, really helped me to keep my focus on my own life and priorities. It’s like the advice the flight attendant gives you every time you get on a plane. Put on your own life jacket before assisting others.
In the past few years, I’ve learned that there is a fine line between caring for the people I love and being codependent. And no one can define exactly where the line is, except me. The main way I know that I have crossed the line is that I start to feel depleted, rather than energized, by spending time with my family and helping them.
I’ve also learned that helping people isn’t always helpful. Sometimes it is better to give people space to learn and grow, and try to figure things out for themselves.
It has been a long process to let go of this habit of problem solving and fixing. It has also been an adjustment for my family members, who now understand that even though I care about them, I also care about myself.
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