I see the advice everywhere. Accept people as they are. Be with them in their pain; it’s your presence they want, not your advice. Don’t try to help, just be.
But I can’t help myself.
Coldplay’s melodramatic, emo crooning of “I will try to fix you” hits the airwaves and it both resonates and annoys. It’s such a romantic notion. I can make you better. If only you heard me, if only you would let some of my sage counsel sink in, you’d be so much better off. “Just” becomes the most dangerous word. “Just” try this, “just” change this one behavior, this one attitude, this silly habit. I have the cure. If only, just.
I know I’m supposed to hear you, and let you know that you’ve been heard. I know I’m supposed to let you cry, to empathize. But like any good HGTV binge-watcher, I can’t resist a fixer-upper. Only my project is a full-grown, fully-fledged, legitimate human being, not a pre-war Colonial with “nice light” and a clawfoot tub.
At some point our friendship starts to feel a lot more like therapy – at a firing range. We have sessions. They’re clinical somehow, predictable. The hierarchy is clear. The scenario is presented: you bring the problem, I bring the solution. It’s the same solution I’ve offered before, this time with added details that I fire off like rounds of ammunition. Every progressive story or emotion shared confirms my worldview, and I re-load. Shot down, you desist; we hug, say goodbye. Nothing solved. See you next week.
Maybe it’s exhausting for you, too.
The problem is, I begin to resent you for being “unfixable.” Because it’s your fault, not mine, that you’re not taking any of my advice, right? I’m being a good friend. This is what you wanted, isn’t it?
And I want to be a good friend. More than that, though, maybe, I want to fix you. I tell myself it’s because I know that’s what you want for yourself – to be fixed.
But it seems all my fixing is about as useful to you as a Coldplay song. On the other hand, fixing you makes me feel useful. So who am I really trying to help? And then guilt settles in my gut.
You may need to be heard, but c’mon, you gotta understand, I need to be validated. My life is generally okay, devoid of drama, thin on “interesting problems.” Sometimes I compare our situations and wonder what would have happened if we were switched. Had I grown up in your circumstances, been through everything you have, would I have turned out any differently. Would I be seeking help from a friend who used to be just a friend until I opened up one day and the drama treatment began.
I fully get the irony of asking you to listen to me about this.
Here’s the deal.
You scare me. Not you, really, but the stuff you’re going through. Like I said, I’ve had it basically pretty easy. I haven’t had to deal with all that much trauma or disappointment or fear in my life. You have. And you come to me, and I have nothing to offer. I’m not used to having nothing to offer. I can’t relate. Honestly, I don’t want to be able to relate.
So I fix.
Miriam Brosseau is a songwriting vegetarian Trekkie mom working as a strategic communications consultant and Jewish communal nerd just outside of Chicago. She is awed by the creative power of speech, and fascinated by the way digital media allows (or forces) us to create, change, and challenge our identities, individually and collectively.