Stop eating your friends' problems | Diversify Your Self Esteem

Diversify Your Self Esteem

Synthesizing ideas from crazy adventures into philosophy, finance, engineering and psychology…

Stop eating your friends’ problems

Learning it the hard way.

If the thing is worth learning it will always be hard. The feeling of the friction of change will make the more important things harder to accept.

If you are a highly agreeable person you will often find yourself being taken advantage of.

You feel an intrinsic drive to help those in need, to make everyone around you happy.

When you help a person it takes energy to commit the mental focus, the imagination to think up solution and the patience for the empathy required. 

Then we can accept that it comes at a small cost.

This is most times an acceptable cost, if the other person gains more than it has cost you then logically it makes sense to do it right? At least from an ethical Utilitarian perspective (optimising for the net wellbeing of all of society).

When you measure yourself by how many burdens you can shoulder, you best be ready to lift some weight. Instead, consider diversifying your self esteem.

How it starts going wrong

There are two main pitfalls into which highly agreeable people will fall:

  1. The Unit Economics (the difference between the cost you incur and the benefit yielded to the recipient) don’t make sense. They unfairly ask too much of you.
  2. You use up all your energy on hundreds of these micro-transactions. 

Helping others can really be draining, and that is mostly fine. But you cannot give from an empty plate. Allowing yourself to be drained by those around you, constantly exporting your emotional energy to others, is unsustainable. 

This unsustainability will manifest as resentment. Creating fractures in your relationships. It is a pretty poor medium-to-long-term strategy, isn’t it?

This resentment will settle into a jadedness that is hard to shake, hardening your resolve that the world is a terrible and hurtful place. 

Your ‘World’ is decided to a non-trivial degree by the interactions you have on a daily basis. Which stems from who you are surrounded by, with whom you have relationships.

How do we then decide to cut our losses? 

We don’t want to abandon those around us whenever they have problems… and that’s not at all what I am suggesting here. 

If someone you care about has a real problem, you will wish to help them. That’s how our society works. It is only reasonable to expect you will suffer by proxy: because you care about them.

Sometimes these people don’t actually want to solve their problem, they enjoy the sympathy and attention it brings them.

Enabling them isn’t helping them.

When you sit for the 34th time and oblige their self-flagellation you are validating their stagnancy to them.

Think about whether this dynamic is healthy for you.

So you begin the dance again, circling the whirlpool as they attempt to drown you too.

When someone comes to you with a problem, they want to explore it. Either deeply or broadly.

There is a huge difference between the needs of these approaches. If they are looking to explore it more deeply, then they will be more receptive to ideas.

If you throw out a suggestion and they get on the defensive, that’s a clear signal that this is not a deep exploration.

If they are willing to talk about solutions then this is someone who has already come to terms with and accepted their situation.

Otherwise, it can only be broadly; then they want to talk through all the aspects of the problem. To clear up the fog that has enveloped their mind.

To skate on the frozen lake.

They aren’t looking for solutions. It’s too early in their journey for that.

You aren’t there to tell them the ‘answer’, that’s fine, if you can accept that. Otherwise, sometimes they need some tough love.

Endure the immediately uncomfortable conversation because you love them and want what is best for them in the long run.

If their solution is the end of the road, they just aren’t there yet.

Trying to give them the solution right away will seem to trivialise their struggle.

I’ve spent two weeks agonising over this and they hear about it for five minutes and tell me what to do? Bah. What an idiot…

You are robbing them of the journey they must endure to grow from this experience. They won’t have bought into the solution and so will not commit the energy, and often sacrifice, required to execute it.

If you give a man a fish he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for life. 

The difference between a good and a bad therapist is that the effective ones do not steal their clients’ problems. We’ll call these types of people that do eat up other people’s problems “Problem Goblins” because they’re constantly “gobblin’ up problems”.

Don’t be a goblin

Not quite a goblin, but you get the point

It’s a collaborative journey and if they want to broadly explore it then you should attempt to facilitate it at first. This is more passive, ask more questions, make less suggestions.

This will hopefully lower the cost to you. But your time is valuable too, remember that.

The risk is that you will never move forward. Eventually, you should be coming to conclusions or actions to help them recover or stop it from happening again in the future.

If you’re routinely hearing the same complaint, the same situation, the same issue from the person. You’ve already patiently explored it to completion with them. Given them the time to realise the issue and act out a solution.

Then there comes the time to put your foot down.

This is a common experience.

This can and will probably be a little scary for you. But it matters more than almost anything else. Take care of yourself.

The path of least resistance

By complaining the person has taken the path of least resistance.

You feel like you’re making progress. The same as when you decide to pursue some kind of hobby and you go out and buy all the equipment just for it to sit in your closet. Or you tell people about the book you’re writing but never put down a word.

It feels like you’re making progress. Your brain rewards you for the ideas, the initiative to even plan to do it.

This is the biological trap that the helpee is falling into, by staying superficial in their exploration of their problem. The trap for you, is to continue to enable them.

If you are allowing them to keep complaining aimlessly about the same issues, and you are listening, you are complicit in their delusion of progress.

This will drain you. Frustrate you. Stop them from taking action. Eventually, cause you to resent them. If you don’t want that then a strategy is to say:

“I care about you, so much, and we’ve had this conversation 8 times now. I’ve suggested a number of strategies (such as……..) that I think would help. It doesn’t look like you’ve tried them, so how about you stop telling me about this problem and I will stop telling you what to do?”.

Remember, this is only when it is costing you too much to keep going. That you are being drained and they are dragging you down with them into the depths. When there is a life-raft right next to them. 

You are important and worthwhile. Treat yourself like you are. 

This paragraph may appear harsh to some. But take note of the use of “and” instead of “but”. You are not invalidating your care for them. If you said “I care about you but you complain too much”, you’re negating the first half of the sentence to execute the second – implying “I don’t care about you when you complain”.

A simple switch to “and” acknowledges their struggles and says that the pain of them complaining is in alignment with your care for them, not against it.

Lastly, if you pull this off, the most likely outcome is they are taken aback at first… they go away and think “Wow, they love me, and they won’t listen to my complaining anymore – perhaps I should try and do something about it”.

If this all doesn’t resonate with you – then great you’re not someone who allows themselves to be taken advantage of by the needs of others.

But if you are deeply empathic and sensitive to the pain of others (to the point of it being a problem) you need to be looking out for yourself.

Life is a series of ups-and-downs and if we allow ourselves to be fixated on the downs of others more than the ups of our own life we are doomed to constantly live in a down cycle.

Not only processing our own pain but the pain of all those around us.

You are important and worthwhile. Treat yourself like you are.

You are important and worthwhile. Treat yourself like you are.

You are important and worthwhile. Treat yourself like you are.

Just imagine this is you, hugging yourself, or someone you care about hugging you.

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