Do 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:
- 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.
- 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.
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