How to Let Go of the Need to Fix Everything
Start by accepting that there are things that cannot be fixed.
Posted February 26, 2023 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
- We must recognize what we cannot do in order to free ourselves to do what we can.
- To be helpful we need to embrace unrest, accept we are helpless over the outcome, and harness vulnerability to come to terms with reality.
- The most we can do is often to simply show up as loving, grounded people with good boundaries.
"Helplessness makes me feel anxious," Charlene said as she twisted the Kleenex between her fingers. "I just need to be able to fix this." By "this," Charlene meant her boyfriend's problem drinking that had worsened over the past year and his denial of the problem.
"I totally understand," I said. "It's just that unfortunately there is nothing for you to fix."
"But if only he'd see what he's doing to himself, and to me, to us!" she exclaimed. "If only he would stop drinking and face his feelings, then we could have a great life together."
I know exactly what Charlene meant about the drive to get in there and try to solve things that don't feel good. I am a world-class fixer, or at least I used to be. Many years ago I was a compulsive helper. There was no pain in the lives of people I loved that I wouldn't try to ease.
Trying to Fix Them So That I Could Feel Better
My impulse came (I thought) from a kind and loving place inside of me, where I would put my needs aside and focus my energy on getting the other person to do what they needed to do to have a better life. Only after time, reflection, and some pretty spectacular fixing failures where my efforts to help others put my well-being on the skids, did I come to see how my helpfulness arose out of intolerance of my own vulnerability.
I was trying to fix them so I could feel better.
And sometimes I did actually manage to make a difference in someone's life, but never without significant cost to myself. I would be drained, distracted, and delayed on my own life path. And much of the time I wasn't able to fix anything at all.
The key for me was seeing how a small signal in my own body was the true driver of my urge to jump in with a machete to cut down the underbrush, build a road, and drive a big truck toward some goal that was never a hundred percent in my control. Unrest was calling me to recognize my human limits. Muscle tension and agitation were trying to help me see how what I longed for—my friend to stand up for herself, my sister to stop drinking, my (now ex) husband to care about me, or any number of other things I tried to fix—was not entirely in my control.
Almost everything that happens in life is a function of multiple forces. One's effort and will and intention all play a role, but so do myriad other factors: time, gravity, our DNA, the economy, physics, physical limits in our bodies, the weather, the free will of others... the list is endless. The most human truth is that we are vulnerable. We are affected by more things than often we realize.
When we are confronted with our limited control over things that matter to us, unrest stirs. A jolt of adrenalin sparks our nervous system. This feeling of vulnerability is indistinguishable from fear, and we are wired to try to avoid it. Unrest is actually just trying to help us recognize the brick wall for what it is, but if we don't see it we find ourselves banging our heads and all we get is a really bad headache. We get caught up in the fixing fixation because it removes us from the helpless feeling of our limits. We can spend many busy hours convinced that the outcome is in our hands if we just try hard enough.
Fixing the Fixing Fixation
So how do we fix this fixing fixation? The paradox is that we must recognize what we cannot do in order to free ourselves to do what we can.
If we want to be truly helpful, we need to embrace our unrest, accept that we are helpless to control the outcome, and harness the emotional power of vulnerability to come to terms with reality. When we can feel how much we long for something, we care. When we feel our limits over single-handedly making that thing happen, we let go of our fantasy of control.
In accepting ourselves as helpless to control things, we can open to what we can do. We can care. We can show up as loving, grounded, powerful people with good boundaries. We can become safe people for others to reach out to. We model how to regulate our nervous system with warm interest toward the uncomfortable sensations of our vulnerability. We lean toward what doesn't feel good without urgency and with good impulse control.
For Charlene that meant being able to challenge and block the threatening messages she had been telling herself, such as "If he doesn't stop drinking I won't be able to cope," or "It is my job to fix this," or "If he loved me he would stop," or "If I love him I must be able to make him stop."
Charlene worked on regulating her own nervous system, tuning into the sensations of unrest and soothing the discomfort with warm interest and non-judgment until she could have a clear sense of her boundaries. She could hole the complex mixture of her attachment feelings toward her partner without losing her sense of herself. His problem was his problem, and her problem was finding her own path with him or without him. That was plenty for her to take on. Able to be present with herself in her helplessness, Charlene could be the most help to both her partner and herself.
And embracing your own helplessness is how you can be most helpful too.
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Parker, Sandra (2022). Embracing Unrest: Harness Vulnerability to Tame Anxiety and Spark Growth. Vancouver, BC. Page Two.