When a Loved One Has Problems: Are You Helping or Hurting?

It can be incredibly painful to watch someone we love doing destructive things that damage themselves or others. And part of the pain we feel is often our sense of helplessness. Why can’t we figure out how to help the person we love stop drinking, or gaming, get a job, get out of bed, pay their bills on time, leave a terrible relationship? If we think of ourselves as smart, capable people it may make sense that we want to help our friend, grown child or partner. But doing so can have negative consequence both for ourselves and the ones we love.

Those of us who help and help again, who rescue and forgive over and over, often work much harder to solve our loved-one’s problems than they do. We may help without being asked and believe we know what is best. Melody Beattie wrote about this phenomenon in her groundbreaking book Codependent No More. She identified questions that can help us figure out if we are behaving in a codependent and therefore unhealthy and unproductive way. Take the quiz and then read on for ideas about the downside of helping too much.

• Do you feel responsible for other people’s thoughts, actions and feelings?

• When someone tells you about a problem she has, do you feel it is your duty to solve it?

• Do you swallow your anger in order to avoid conflict?

• Do you find getting more difficult than giving?

• Do you somehow seem to enjoy life more during interpersonal crisis? Have you avoided choosing partners whose lives seem to go too smoothly because you become bored?

• Do people tell you that you are a saint for putting up with something or someone? Does part of you enjoy this?

• Is it more tempting to concentrate on the problems of others than to solve difficulties in your own life?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you may be stuck in a pattern of rescuing and resentment with someone you care about. You rescue, they resent it. You rescue again, you resent it, and round and round it goes. This dynamic can go on for years and be detrimental to all concerned. If you think you are caught up in this behavior, understanding why it isn’t a good idea can be a first step towards change. Here is a list of some of the primary reasons why solving other people’s problems isn’t effective:

1. We don’t really know what is best for someone else. Often a person’s greatest growth comes from struggle and pain. If we always fix things for those we love, we rob them of the opportunity to meet life’s difficulties and learn from them.

2. We don’t have control. Trying to fix other’s problems means we focus our energies on people and situations that we have little, if any, control over. Ultimately we really only have control over our own choices and reactions.

3. They will become dependent. If we are successful in solving our loved one’s problems, we teach them to count on us, instead of themselves. We cripple them with the belief that they can’t do it on their own. They may come back again and again asking for, and then even demanding help.

4. They will resent us. Most adults resent being told how to live their lives. They may rebel, or become passive aggressive to avoid our suggestions, prodding, hints or overt demands.

5. It’s exhausting. Trying to run someone else’s life drains the energy we need to live our own life to the fullest. If we are always scheming and planning and manipulating to get people to do things the way we see fit, there is very little juice left for our own hopes, dreams and ambitions.

6. It makes us mean. The strain of trying to keep everything together for everyone eventually leaks out of us as anger and resentment. We may become reactive and say and do unreasonable things.

7. It takes a toll on our health. Trying to control others is extremely stressful and too much stress negatively affects many aspects of health and well-being.

8. Insomnia. Poor sleep is a common symptom of over-involvement in the lives of others.

9. We attract “users”. Those of us who come to care-taking and controlling naturally often attract people who can spot our soft hearts and ability to solve problems. These folks take advantage of us through manipulation, malingering and feigned helplessness.

10. It undermines equality in relationships. The person in control and the person they are trying to help are not on equal footing in the relationship. This is often a barrier to true intimacy.

Join me next week when we explore how to disentangle yourself from the codependency trap and begin creating a life worth living for yourself while giving your loved-one the dignity to make their own decisions and live the life they choose, even if it is one we would not choose for them.

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  • About The Author

    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
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