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Quit Making People Projects


Do you make fixing others your life’s work? Do you find folks with problems—the more the merrier—and feel such immense pressure to make things better for them that they become your “pet project”? While people are teaching English as a second language, refinishing a table or learning to meditate, are you spending your time fixing others?

This behavior stems from co-dependence, your need for others to be okay for you to be okay. Learned in childhood, this dysfunctional dynamic makes you ignore your needs and problems and focus instead on fixing troubled and troubling people.

Take Sarah-Jean who almost lost her rental apartment because she was treating it like an Air B&B. She was a magnet for people who’d been evicted or kicked out of their living quarters and swore they only needed a bed for a night or two. Never mind that they ran the gamut from substance abusers to criminals on probation. She just couldn’t say no without feeling terrible guilt and shame. 

Then there’s Arun who had a history of finding women who couldn’t take care of themselves. His first wife had unexplained health problems and therefore insisted she was unable to work. His second wife owned a company until she went bankrupt due to a severe gambling problem. Arun felt compelled to help his first wife regain good health (which she never did and finally moved back in with her parents) and over-focused on his second one to end her gambling addiction which also never happened.

Last is Michaela whose mother had a traumatic childhood which she’d never gotten over. Mom always acted like a victim and trusted no one except Michaela. She insisted she couldn’t depend on any one else and refused to see a therapist or even join a women’s group at church. Michaela had practically no social life because she felt obligated to spend most of her time with her mother to hopefully heal her suffering. 

Sarah-Jean had multiple “projects” at once. She was very uncomfortable when she was without one or when I encouraged her to attend to herself or go out and have fun. Arun choose to work on one project at a time. We ended therapy as he was starting his third marriage to another fixer-upper. He said he felt selfish if he wasn’t helping other people. Michaela never allowed herself to have a life of her own, certain that by sacrificing herself she could one day cure her mother’s unhappiness.

If you must have a project, make it yourself, not people who choose to be unhappy. Or, better yet, become a psychotherapist and get paid for helping people get well.