Are you trying to be the hero of someone else’s life? It’s surprising how often we fall into this trap. We want to be seen as good and helpful people, and we see that someone we love seems to be struggling. So we jump in and “help” them “solve” their problem. Why doesn’t that make them happy?
“Rescuing” people can be problematic in a lot of ways. If someone is drowning in a river and you pull them out and save their life, they will probably be grateful. But if they are drowning in life, they may not be grateful for your efforts. Either they aren’t ready to make a change, or they don’t see your proposed solution as the best one, or they are satisfied to go on letting you, the “hero”, do all the work and bear all the burdens.
This last pattern is often called “codependency”. In close family relationships and partnerships, it is not uncommon to see one person covering for another, and shielding them from the consequences of their own behavior. In the case of alcohol or drug dependency, the one who wanted to be the “hero” often ends up as the “enabler” – allowing the behavior to continue instead of pushing the other towards healthier living.
“Codependency” has become a buzzword in a lot of non-professional literature, where it often seems to mean nothing more than caring or compassion. However, true codependency is not just helping people out. When your whole sense of purpose in life is tied up in making sacrifices for someone else, or your self-esteem is dependent on never refusing to try and meet endless needs, then you may need to consider learning how to step back. A common pattern is to pour yourself out in meeting someone else’s needs (whether they want it or not) and then to lash out in resentment if they don’t reciprocate in the way you expect.
So what is better than trying to be the hero?
- Nurture yourself and take care of your own needs. You aren’t helping anyone if you are too exhausted to take care of yourself, and you won’t be any good to the rest of the world if you burn yourself out. Pay attention to self-care and nurture.
- Never do anything for someone that they can do for themselves. Ever notice how frustrated an elderly person gets when they move slowly and other people jump in and say “here, let me take care of that”. Doing things for people who can do them themselves undermines and ultimately destroys their independence and strength. You don’t need people to depend on you.
- Only help those who help themselves. Related to the above, don’t allow people you are caring for to fall into a pattern of letting you take care of everything. We have seen families and partnerships develop into unhealthy patterns when one person doesn’t want to make any efforts, and the other one lets them get away with not growing or changing or maturing.
And if I may quote an anonymous meme from Facebook that seems to sum it up rather well: “Stop setting yourself on fire to keep other people warm!”