Letting Others Have Their Troubles
Maria came into my office the other afternoon, she was angry and frustrated, she said she had been cursing her sewing machine, a machine she loves very much. It was not working probably, something about the threads.
I started to get concerned about it, I know how much that machine means to here.
Maybe we can take it to Saratoga, I suggested. Surely they can fix it in Albany or Glens Falls. Did she want me to drive her? She didn't seem to focus on those ideas.
I get upset when Maria is upset, especially when it affects her work, just as I get upset when my computer goes down.
But what she wanted was understanding, not solutions. All she wanted was a sympathetic ear. She wasn't giving me her problem.
As she left the room, I began to yell out some more suggestions and then I caught myself and stopped. I recognized a former deep habit – taking over the problems of other people.
Let her have her trouble, I thought, I don't need to tell her what to do. She knows how to get a sewing machine fixed or repaired much better than me.
I am sorry she is having trouble, but it isn't my trouble, and she isn't giving it to me. I have my own troubles, and I don't want her to take them on either.
I am fiercely committed to taking responsibility for my own life.
This is one of the most important lessons for living that I have learned in recent years.
To stop stealing other people's troubles and taking them in. For one thing, it's not healthy, it's a boundary crossing that promotes co-dependence and often makes us emotional trash receptacles – I call it a toilet bowl – for other people's troubles.
I know many people who are addicted to other people's troubles, and are almost always frantic, drained or in drama.
This morning I wrote on my blog that I was having trouble staying inside when the thermometer plunges too low, it is hard for me to see Maria out there shoveling while I'm inside. But with my heart disease, it can be dangerous in extreme weather for me to be outside too long shoveling and scraping.
As I expected, I was flooded with suggestions. Why not buy a snowblower? Why not hire a kid to shovel the walk? Why not agree to shop and clean in exchange for her doing the shoveling? I wasn't interested in any of these "solutions", none of them would work for us.
Online, it is commonplace, almost universal, for people to take on the troubles and problems of others, to assume people can't resolve them by themselves, or just let them work things out. E-mail and texting is not therapy and sympathy and pity is not real help, as soothing as it might be.
Facebook sometimes seems to me to be a vast trouble-sharing exchange, a kind of open market for picking up troubles and offering your own. For me, it doesn't work.
A good therapist once told me to take other people's troubles and just put them in an imaginary cup. Don't take them in. It was wonderful advice and sparked me to see this issue more clearly.
People have to solve their own problems. We help when we can, and stop when we can't, and understanding the difference is, to me, essential to becoming a fully developed and responsible human being. When I need help, I get it from the right place – trained professionals. We cannot save other people, only ourselves.
Maria and i worked out our frustrations quite easily – she was upset that I kept saying I would stay inside in the bitter cold, and then, invariably come outside with a shovel. I explained that this was a painful thing for me, to do, and she needed to trust me to be careful and work it out. She said she would, of course.
That problem is gone. We each do what we want to do and can do.
The thing is, we don't want or need a snowblower. The space is not large and Maria can easily do it by herself or with a bit of help from me. We don't need another $1,000 machine in the barn, or more gasoline or oil, or more maintenance and repairs, or another loud engine in a peaceful place. People who know us would be shocked if we bought a snowblower.
People who do not know us think it's a good idea. There are lessons in that. Don't tell other people what to do, in recent years a sacred mantra in my life and my writing.
it is hard for me to understand why people would think we wouldn't know about snowblowers or how to get them. Is that really good advice or is it a need in others to want to be helpful, who take in problems.
If we wanted a snowblower, we would, of course, get one. If we wanted to hire a kid, which we don't need either, we would have. We don't need anyone to take over our troubles. We need to work them out with one another and with ourselves.
I have no right to tell strangers what to do, it is, to me, irresponsible and counter-productive, however well meaning.
I feel so much lighter since I began training myself to stop taking in the problems of other people. Many times a week, and especially on Facebook Messenger, I get very lengthy letters from people who have lost dogs or cats or pets.
The messages are not joyous or meaningful reflections, they are mostly tales of suffering and guilt and mourning. They want me to be sorry for their loss, and this is not something I can do for everyone who seeks it. I do not do prolonged mourning for animas, that is the nature of animals, they get sick and die. It's the deal.
I do not read these messages or take them in, not only because I'm strange but because I can't take in the problems of strangers and other people that are not my problems. It is not healthy.
My dogs get sick and die too, and I share those stories because it is my work, but I do not want or expect anyone to internalize my troubles, to cry for me or pray for me, or to mourn for me or my animals. That is my job, my responsibility.
We ail face the loss of loved ones or animals, it is a profound and universal element of life. For me, it is not a tragedy, but central to the lives and souls of human beings. It is no surprise or drama for me, as sad as it sometimes is.
So is solving problems, the hallmark of the independent person.
Gus is sick, and it is important for me to share the experience. But not to give it away, I make my own decisions, talking primarily to Maria and our vet. I need to know the decision is sound and loving, and that's why I need to take responsibility for it myself, solutions and decisions are not something that be shared.
And Gus's illness is not for other people to solve. It is for me and Maria and our vet to solve, if it can be solved at all.
This has been a healthy lesson for me. I am better able to emotionally focus on people I can help – like the refugees or Mansion residents. My sympathy and empathy goes to them, my wife, my daughter and friends.
Like many people, I take fear and grief inside of me, as if it were coming in an IV attached to my arm. My work requires a clear and focused head, and I must be careful about what I let in and from who. I've suffered from mental illness myself and I have learned to protect my mental health.
I see more clearly all the time what the boundaries are, and how valuable they are.
Listening is an act of friendship, empathizing an act of love, compassion and generosity are acts of decency. But I don't give my problems to anyone else, and presume to offer solutions to others, and I don't take in the problems of others and presume to be able to solve them.
This has made me stronger and clearer about my life and my work, and I have been wanting to share it for some time. I am finally becoming a good listener.
Listening is in itself a boundary, and it has become my practice. it is a valuable boundary because most often, it is in itself a brake, I don't need to go any further.
My hospice and therapy work has honed this value for me, because there, we are trained to listen, not to soothe, promise, or even offer hope. We either learn boundaries or fail. We don't ever say everything will be all right, because it would be false to say that, and how could we possibly know?
As Maria left my office the day of sewing machine breakdown, I said I was sorry she was having trouble with her sewing machine, I was sure she could handle it, and she thanked me and went to solve the problems. And why on earth would I think she needed me to drive her? She had her own car and can drive myself. And I had work to do of my own.
I was happy with myself, it took me a long time to get there. But it has been internalized, it is a part of me now.
Maria solved it herself, of course, as she is well equipped to do. Taking other people's trouble is a kind of arrogance and hubris, I think, it always presumes we know more than they know.
I don't know more than other people know about their problems, and that it a very liberating thing to grasp.