Can We Fix It? No We Can’t!: 5 Good Questions for the “Fixer” to Ask.

I have a confession to make: I’m a Fixer.

On the surface, this sounds good.

It’s great to want to fix things, right? It’s good to want to help people!

Look at Bob the Builder. He’s always fixing stuff. He seems cool, right?

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Well, there’s an important difference between me and Bob here. He can fix whatever comes his way. I can’t. Because a) I am not a construction worker, and b) this is reality.

The truth is, the things I usually try to fix are precisely the same things I don’t have any control over, or any business trying to fix, solve or change, mainly:

  • Others’ Emotions: Instead of just feeling things with people and entering into someone’s challenge, hurt or discomfort, my knee-jerk reaction is to make those negative feelings stop by “making them feel better”. This inhibits my ability to empathize appropriately and may keep them from exploring and learning from what they are feeling at their own pace.
  • Others’ Circumstances or Situations: Again, this comes from what is probably a very normal feeling: not wanting others to experience pain or difficulty, wanting to protect people I care about, etc. But I too often get it twisted and jump in with unsolicited advice or plans that may not be what that person wants or needs.

Both of these can- and usually do- create an unhealthy dynamic of codependency.

I have been a “Recovering Fixer” for years, and it is a tendency I still have to do battle with daily. When it is at its worst, this compulsion to “help and fix and make better” leaves me feeling confused, and under an immense amount of pressure.

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Thankfully, my former therapist gave me some great advice, which I try to use anytime  someone I care about comes to me with a problem, a difficult emotion, or a need for input. She said, instead of giving advice right away, ask questions. This will help the other person take the lead without you making their choices for them, but it still puts you in a position to help in an appropriate way.

The questions she suggested are written on an index card, which I carry in my wallet to use as a reference. This way I don’t have to rely on my memory in the heat of the moment.

They are:

  1. What are your options?
  2. Which option seems best to you?
  3. Can I help you?
  4. What Do you need from me?
  5. How can we get through this together?

I have found these questions- and similar ones that flow naturally from the answers to these questions- to be an immense help. They put my loved one in the driver’s seat, keep the friendship healthy and not too one-sided, and still allow me to help in almost every case.

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I have by no means “arrived” when it comes to this struggle. I still find my well-intentioned yet bumbling, knee-jerk responses to the difficulties of others trying to take over almost daily. But I am committed to practicing ask first, advise later (if needed), and so far it has made a big difference.

I would love to hear from you.

Are you a Fixer, too? If so, what strategies help you?

I’m Not Dead! and Other Small Victories in Managing Mental Illness

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Hey, guys and dolls. I’ve been gone a while. I’m sorry. It’s been rough in patches, but I’m ready to talk about it. I think it’ll help me to do so, and maybe it’ll help somebody else.

Many of you know that writing regular blogs is not my strong suit. I cringe every time my news feed refreshes and I see that people with far busier schedules and far more demanding routines than mine are cultivating a thriving blog and stirring the social media pot with a deft hand. @#$%, I think. I can’t even remember to eat lunch every day.

Don’t worry, I’m not anti-lunch. It’s just part of how my depression and anxiety manifest themselves. Other parts of it include exhaustion or being quick to fatigue, sleeplessness, hypersensitivity and propensity to sadness, fear, or dread, and over-personalizing/taking on responsibility for problems that are beyond my reach and control. Because the depression and anxiety are clinical, it is an ongoing physical and emotional reality. But it ebbs and flows, and in an environment where anyone would be anxious, afraid or depressed, it gets turned up to eleven.

The long and short of it is that I don’t blog when I’m in a depressive low, or when I have been having a lot of panic attacks, and both of those things have been happening on what feels like a continuous loop for the past several months. Here’s part of the reason why.

When the hours at my previous  job started to decline near the beginning of this year, I began searching for something else. But being faced with  ongoing rejection and uncertainty, coupled with the stubborn reality that the hours I did have were not enough to fulfill or sustain me, the job-hunting-while-working was really taking a toll on my physical and mental well-being.

For reasons that are unclear to me, my mental health issues manifest themselves strongest after dark. So, night after night I would feel like the walls were closing in on me. I would get short of breath. I would be nauseated and curl up into the fetal position, weeping and hyperventilating and asking the Virgin Mary to comfort me. I would rage at myself, filled with hateful thoughts about how weak I was, how I was a fraud: I was not the strong, confident, happy self-advocate that so many of my friends and family were proud of. Everything seemed impossible as I lay there in the dark. I would think of job descriptions my friends and coworkers sent me, and I would feel my stomach drop and then say to myself, “I can’t do that job. I’ve forgotten what I’ve learned. The stress would be too much,” and on and on.

So, when I was finally offered something new, at a time when we were really struggling financially- I accepted, thinking I could adapt and thrive in the new environment. What I got instead was a constant spike in anxiety and panic attacks that was so debilitating I couldn’t eat or sleep, and would have to take frequent breaks from my work to avoid coming apart emotionally. So I had gone from having a job, to being under-employed, to resigning to accept a job, to quitting a job, in a relatively short time. Ever since then, it has been a constant- and I do mean constant- battle to remind myself that there is something better out there. I have been rebuilding my confidence, and taking care to measure progress in whatever metric I can.

You’re probably wondering when I’m gonna get to the progress part, because, let’s face it, I am kind of bumming you out and stuff. Don’t worry. Here it comes.

If you have never done so, please read Hyperbole and a Half (at hyperboleandahalf.com). Always hilarious, she does an amazing series of webcomics on what her depression is like and how she copes with it.

First, I had to take responsibility for where I was and who I was. I had to acknowledge that- while I can’t cure my mental illness, and while not every negative thing in the universe is my doing or my responsibility, there are things about my life that I can change, and things about my mental illness that I exacerbate when I don’t take action. There are things that I do and say- and that I neglect to do and say- when I am wallowing in my depression and anxiety, that I can easily change by acknowledging that these out of control emotions aren’t who I am, and that they don’t define me. Yes, they help explain things about me. No, they are not the sum total of all things about me.

Another major step in the right direction was the decision to go back to counseling. I have always been a big believer in getting help when you need it. I just seem to forget I need it every now and then. I was doing “okay” for quite a while there. But when it got to the point where my life was being halted and my relationships affected, I had to do something. I am still early on in my relationship with this therapist, but she has an expectation of change and growth, so I am holding myself to that standard, and have been thankful for the results so far.

I had to get spiritual direction. Therapy is great. But when religion, faith and spirituality are a part of your worldview, a qualified spiritual guide such as a priest, rabbi, etc. can give teachings and coping strategies that can bring a whole new level of peace and clarity, and my conversation with my priest was no exception.

He helped me to understand that  I had to make priorities and set boundaries regarding what I exposed myself to mentally/emotionally, and what parts of my thoughts and emotions I exposed. This meant stepping back when I really wanted to bare all on an issue or event on this site or via social media. I plan to go into greater detail on this in a future post, but the crux was that the things we feel strongly about are often things that make us feel vulnerable to share, and doing so on a public forum rarely if ever guarantees a kind response.

So all that work means I’ve been away for a while. And the fact that the work is constant, and the foe unpredictable,  means I have no idea how things will be a month or two or three or six from now, but I’m still here. And so are you. You’re worth fighting for, and I’m in your corner.

Til next time. Which will hopefully be soon.

Edit: The steps discussed are intended to provide ideas and strategies only. They are not meant to replace or usurp any treatment that has been recommended by your doctor, psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist. Please keep all helping professionals in the loop of any changes to your routine.

Also, it is possible that they may be helpful guidelines for people who are experiencing short-term sadness, stress or melancholy, and I hope that’s true. Sharing my experiences is not meant to serve as any kind of diagnosis or comprehensive list of symptoms. Mental illness, stress, depression and anxiety are different for everyone, though there is some common ground. If your systems or struggles are consistent, chronic, and long term [beyond a difficult or stressful circumstance], please seek the opinion of a qualified professional to figure out what’s best for you.

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P.S. For those reading this post who face mental illness, I encourage you to read/bookmark a Self-Care Checklist such as the one linked here [if you want a more language-neutral one, there are plenty out there, but this one is simple and straightforward]. It might also help to show it to a friend who can hold you accountable and make sure you’re okay.