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You Can't Fix Everything

You cannot fix everything in life—not for others and not for yourself.

Photo by vinya on Wikimedia Commons
Source: Photo by vinya on Wikimedia Commons

In the movie Michael Clayton, George Clooney is employed by a law firm, but not as an attorney. He’s a fixer. When the law firm makes a mess of something, his sole job is to make the problem go away—by whatever means necessary.

As I watched the movie several years ago, I thought: “Oh no. That’s me—always trying to fix people’s lives to be conflict-free and disappointment-free.” I think many of you will recognize yourselves as you read this piece.

Fixing Others

I used to try and fix people in every setting in my life. When I was the Dean of Students at U.C. Davis’ law school, I put my fixer skills to work on trying to make sure that students were always happy, both in and out of the classroom. To the Dean’s friendly dismay, I’d try to make all their problems go away.

One year, I spent an inordinate amount of time fixing a dispute between two law students who were roommates. In separate appointments with me, each one insisted that the other one was conspiring (yes, conspiring) to get him to move out by changing the air conditioning setting on the thermostat when he wasn’t looking.

When my attempts to get them to talk it out together failed, I ramped up my fixer intervention. I drafted an agreement that set out in detail how each one would set the thermostat in the apartment. I included lots of variables: daytime, nighttime, one of them home, both of them home.

Then I had them come to my office and sign the agreement in front of me as a witness. To my surprise, it worked. I’d fixed them, although this was definitely not in my Dean of Students job description! In retrospect, I see how the hours I spent on this dispute added unnecessarily to my already heavy workload. But fixing was my habit.

I was already well-practiced at it from having raised two children. Whenever something was wrong, I’d intervene to try and prevent them from being unhappy and experiencing disappointment. I’d call their teacher at school and the parents of any kid whom I perceived to be a problem.

(Note: This type of fixing is to be distinguished from intervening to prevent real harm, such as when a child is being bullied.) Even after they were grown and had families of their own, I continued to try and fix their lives.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that this attempt to protect my children from experiencing life’s disappointments and sorrows had its roots in an unfulfillable desire on my part—unfulfillable because no one’s life is without difficulties and no one is happy all the time. In fact, this intense desire on my part for them to always be happy was a source of unhappiness in my own life.

Not only is no one happy all the time, but people, including our loved ones, need to learn on their own to develop skills for coping well with life’s inevitable ups and downs. And so, my fixer actions may have done my children a disservice.

I also realized how exhausting being a fixer is. It takes a lot of energy to always be worried and anxious about how others are faring in life, especially because there’s always something that could use fixing!

I’m learning to let go of my fixer role. I’m much less likely to jump in and try to protect others from experiencing life’s ups and downs and its successes and disappointments.

Today, this issue often arises with people I don’t know personally. After reading one of my books, they write to me and tell me about the troubles they’re facing. Their stories are often heartbreaking. I used to spend hours trying to figure out how to fix their problems and then writing them back in detail. Now I realize that I can’t make everything OK for everybody, and so I respond by trying the best I can to be helpful and supportive, but I don’t take it upon myself to fix their lives.

To help me with this change in perspective, I’ve devised a set of phrases to repeat to myself as reminders that I can care about other people (as I did with the students and as I do with everyone who writes to me), and I can love them with all my heart (as I do with my children).

However, I can’t make their lives conflict and suffering-free. I think of these as equanimity phrases because they help me keep a balanced view of life. Here are a few of my phrases:

  • I care about you, but I cannot keep you from experiencing tough times.
  • Your happiness and unhappiness depend on your own actions, not on my wishes for you.
  • May you accept with grace both your successes and your disappointments.

Fixing Myself

Recently, I realized that these phrases were helping me in an unexpected way. Reciting them made me aware that I was also a self-fixer, meaning that I had a tendency to think that if only I could fix this about my life or fix that about my life, everything would be pleasant for me from then on.

But trying to fix my own life so that all of my experiences will be pleasant is as fruitless as trying to fix others’ lives to be that way. None of us can always get what we want, and no one’s life is smooth sailing all the time.

If you recognize yourself as a fixer—whether it be with family, friends, people at work, or even yourself—you might craft some equanimity phrases of your own to speak silently to yourself. Try using words that speak directly to the person you’re thinking of: “I love you and we can chat whenever you want, but I cannot fix your relationship with your girlfriend.” Or: “I love you, but I cannot solve your problems at work.”

I’m much more at peace since I stopped trying to fix everyone’s life, including my own. It’s making it easier to take those unfixable moments in stride and to appreciate happiness and joy when they happen to come my way.

© 2015 Toni Bernhard.

Thank you for reading my work. My latest book is How to Be Sick: Your Pocket Companion (for those who've read How to Be Sick and for those who haven't). May 2020

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