I can’t really remember how young I was when I learned how to be the fixer in my family. I would imagine it happened around the time my brother was born. My mother had emergency gallbladder surgery not long after his birth. My family has always reminisced about what a good big sister I was, because I helped with whatever my mom needed. She wasn’t supposed to lift much, but I would hold him up to her for nursing or changing, since she couldn’t lean down easily. I was three years old.
I felt great pride hearing that story growing up. I was helpful. I was valuable. However, now I see that story through a different lens. I shouldn’t have had that kind of responsibility at three years old. I wonder if I was born with that feeling of responsibility or if it was something I learned. Regardless, I knew at such an early age that it was my job to make the people around me happy. I should lessen their frustration and pain. I knew in my bones that I was the glue. I protected my brother, I mediated fights or put myself in the firing range. I thought about moving away after college, but didn’t feel like I could leave them behind.
The Fixer Mentality
A fixer thinks or feels that they can prevent other people from experiencing pain or discomfort. They feel they can change things or people for the better. Often, a fixer is a kind, compassionate soul who wants to help. It starts with the best of intentions, but the fixer mentality can veer into muddy water quickly. Fixing becomes dangerous when it is tied to value and lovability. Usually the fixer cannot do anything to change the situation or the person in question and they end up harming themselves or the relationship in the process.
Fixing didn’t just extend to my family. I was a fixer for some of my friends, coworkers and bosses – really anyone in my life. I tried to fix things because I knew deep down I wasn’t worthy of love (or so I thought at the time). Being the glue gave people a reason to love me and keep me around. It also gave me something to focus on, and distract myself from my own pain. Sometimes people asked me to fix things, but often I took it upon myself to step in. In hindsight, being a fixer offered me a sense of control that I didn’t have otherwise. It was an illusion, but it brought me a sense of purpose.
The Fate of the Fixer
One of the main pitfalls of being a fixer, is that you have no time or energy to do what is best for you. As a fixer, it is also difficult to say no or even recognize your own needs. The fixer ends up emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted trying to save the world. I had major health issues for over fifteen years, the inevitable result of a depleted body that had been ignored for a far too long. I experienced insomnia, anxiety, illness and multiple surgeries.
Did the people around me have perfect lives? Definitely not. In the end, all my efforts didn’t change anything. Did I help them feel better or less stressed? Probably to some extent, but the reality is that life is hard for everyone and there is always another hurdle around the next corner. The fixer cannot keep up and the job will never be complete.
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I have learned that I cannot change other people or their lives, even if I want to. I cannot be all the things, to all the people, and survive. I am also doing the people in my life a great disservice by asserting myself into their affairs. It denies them the opportunity to learn and grow. Toni Bernhard points out in Psychology Today that, “not only is no one happy all the time, but people, including our loved ones, need to learn on their own to develop skills for coping well with life’s inevitable ups and downs.”
I had to learn how to put boundaries in place and keep them there, regardless of the guilt I experienced from abandoning my job as a fixer. I continued to want the best for the people I love, but I had to constantly remind myself that I couldn’t do their work for them anymore. Fixers need to learn that you can love and be happy for others without being enmeshed in all the details of their lives. There is freedom in acknowledging that you can’t fix anything anyway.
You can still be helpful and supportive. You can be compassionate, kind and empathetic. Pema Chodron explains, “compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals.”
It is hard to say, “I love you and I want the best for you, but I can’t do your work.” It feels terrible and you want to immediately take it back and fix again. But it gets easier with practice. Boundaries can feel distressing as a fixer, but they exemplify the self-care required to recover. Healthy caregivers take care of themselves first, so they have the energy to be there for others. Self-care looks different for everyone, but it is worth it to find out what works for you.
There is hope for the fixer, but it is a challenging adjustment. It is difficult to undo patterns and dynamics in relationships. It is hard work to step out of a role you have played your entire life. When you change, people will either rise to meet you in a new healthy place or they will stay put. You can’t control what happens. You can only meet and love people where they are.
[Black and white image of a person with long hair sitting outdoors on a street aligned with cars. Pexels.com]