Passing the Hot Potato: Let Others Solve Their Own Problems!

Playing footbal at the sunset on the beachDo you spend too much time on other people’s problems?

You lead a busy lifestyle and you have plenty of problems of your own to solve. But have you ever noticed how much time you spend solving other people’s problems? Perhaps while you’re trying to reply to a few emails, your coworker stops by to complain about his neighbor—again. Or maybe your roommate is always telling you about her various dating escapades without noticing that you’re in the middle of something.

In therapy sessions, one of the first things I find myself doing is helping people focus on their own lives and stop trying to solve other people’s problems. I sometimes call others’ problems “hot potatoes” because they often feel urgent, which reminds me of the game we play with kids—passing the potato around until the music stops. Nobody wants to be left holding the hot potato, especially if it doesn’t belong to you.

If you are a parent, friend, coworker, or roommate, you hear your share of other people’s problems. It takes practice to learn to deflect the hot potato. We all know what it looks like: someone dumps a problem on your lap and looks at you with hopeful eyes. It’s my job, in part, to help people through these problems and feel better. I am happy to listen to hot potatoes and am trained to help address them, relying on my professional experience and skill set.

But for people who don’t do what I do, it can be tiring being the one friends and family go to for relief of daily dramas. Rest assured you can still be a loyal parent, partner, and friend without fixating on someone else’s life. Here are two ideas for passing a problem back to its owner:

  1. When someone shares problems with you, remember that it is not always an invitation to help the person problem-solve. Are you being paid to solve this problem? Often, the other person just wants to vent and you need do nothing more than nod and attempt to show genuine empathy and understanding. Some good responses are, “That sounds difficult,” “How frustrating,” or, “That would upset me, too.” These validating responses are usually much appreciated when accompanied by active listening, with no further action typically necessary.
  2. When you attempt to solve someone else’s problem by giving advice or offering action, remember that you don’t want to rob the other person of the opportunity to use their own skills. This is especially important for parents to understand. When your child comes to you with a problem about school, a friend, or anything else, your first response after listening carefully and empathizing should be something along the lines of, “What do you think you’re going to do?” (This is, of course, if venting alone does not solve the problem, which it often does.) Give your child a chance to solve the problem. You’ll be surprised at how often kids come up with satisfactory answers. Since the world is not engineered to be problem-free for anyone, it is a wonderful thing when kids learn that they have good ideas and can take initiative, with parental support, in problem solving.

It can be tiring being the one friends and family go to for relief of daily dramas. Rest assured you can still be a loyal parent, partner, and friend without fixating on someone else’s life.

“What do you think you’re going to do?” works well with roommates and friends, too. Instead of putting your own spin on someone else’s problem, let the person be the one to throw out ideas while you relax and listen. It takes practice, but it will bring you appreciation of others’ thought processes as well as free you from the frustration of being asked for advice that ultimately isn’t taken.

Letting others solve their problems gives you a chance to work on your listening and empathizing skills. You don’t have to be attached to outcomes of others’ situations, since you didn’t provide any hopes, promises, or directions. And think about how gratifying it is to help bring out others’ strengths just by allowing them the opportunity to identify and draw on them. Solution-focused therapy uses these methods as part of its core philosophy. I can’t take away someone’s problems, but I am confident that I can help most people identify and build the skills they need using their own strengths.

When you free yourself from stressing over other people’s problems and hand them back their own hot potatoes, you will find yourself with more time, energy, and emotional resources to take care of yourself. If you need help figuring out which hot potatoes are worth tossing back and which are yours to handle, seek the help of a qualified therapist.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lindsey Antin, MA, MFT, therapist in Berkeley, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 9 comments
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  • Sadie

    Sadie

    April 28th, 2015 at 9:30 AM

    I am very guilty of trying to lend a hand when clearly I am not needed other than to listen.
    There is something that makes me want to take control when it is not my issue or problem.

  • jameson

    jameson

    April 28th, 2015 at 11:29 AM

    There have been those times when I have let myself get so caught up in the problems of others that I have neglected to take care of myself and my own. I try to really have a good handle on that because I have learned that I am the only person who can look out for me and they for them selves.

  • Tolly

    Tolly

    April 29th, 2015 at 8:46 AM

    I think that there is something very reassuring to us to try to fix everyone else, when clearly we are the ones who need some help.

    Seems like it is easier to look at their issues instead of our own.

    Diversionary tactics I guess

  • Nicole G

    Nicole G

    April 29th, 2015 at 9:04 PM

    My question is what do you do when you are a therapist as a job but yet your friends and family want you to be therapist to them in your off time? That’s what I struggle with. I work at a psych hospital and all I want to do when I first wake up and/or when I first get home is to not be bothered by the drama of others but yet it seems never ending that everyone wants to tell me their damn problems smh

  • Tammy Fletcher, MFT

    Tammy Fletcher, MFT

    May 1st, 2015 at 1:53 PM

    Nicole G, I agree completely. My friends/family are not my clients. It’s a one-way ticket to burnout to take that on. But you are right – we get the “I have a therapist, but let me just ask you this…” followed by a complex, therapy-worthy dilemma. 24/7. It’s been a good lesson in saying “No” and setting healthy boundaries for myself. If we don’t, no one else will.

  • Katherine Fabrizio

    Katherine Fabrizio

    April 30th, 2015 at 9:08 AM

    This is such good advice Lindsey. I know for me – the more I want to put my two cents in that is a clear signal I should keep my mouth shut and ask if the other person wants input from me. LOL

  • Jonathan

    Jonathan

    April 30th, 2015 at 12:47 PM

    I know that others want to share with you what they are feeling and going through but I think that the only way for most of us to learn from the problem is to come up with a way to solve it for ourselves. It can be great to have friends with whom you can talk about your issues and your idea, but in the long run you are going to benefit more when you tackle this problems yourself and come up with a solution that is yours and it is unique to your situation.

  • evelyn

    evelyn

    May 2nd, 2015 at 6:03 AM

    There really are people who thrive on being in the business of other people and they make it their life goal to always have a way to stick their nose in other people’s business!

  • Natasha

    Natasha

    May 8th, 2015 at 3:01 AM

    I’m currently studying to become a counsellor I work in hospitality currently know there is boundaries with customers as there would be with clients as well. I know I would be professional about confidently with clients. I would let family and friends know straight away I wouldn’t be there counsellor refer them on to someone.
    I believe you need to keep work and private life separately

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