Weekly Words of Wellness
May 20, 2016 | The Rev. Dr. Scott Stoner
"When Trying to Fix the Problem, Becomes the Problem"
I cringed this week when I heard and read the story of some tourists in Yellowstone National Park who recently tried to help a baby bison. I cringed because the person on the radio who was telling the story had an ominous tone to his voice and so I was pretty sure I knew how the story was going to end. I also cringed because I saw a younger version of myself in what the tourists were trying to do.
You see, I am a recovering fixer. I have been in recovery from trying to fix others, with varying degrees of success, for over twenty years. It has not been easy, but my life is much better as a result. And I can say with certainly that the lives of the people around me are also much better off since I gave up trying to fix them.
I became a therapist and a minister in my mid-twenties, an age characterized by strong idealism. I definitely had the idea back then that if I worked hard enough and if I simply gave the right advice, I could solve others' problems for them. The desire to fix others is, I imagine, a common desire in people who go into helping professions. Only as I became a little more mature and experienced did I realize the arrogance of such a mindset. Luckily, I also had a very wise supervisor who said to me just at the time when I was able to hear it, "I'm not sure that your attempts to inflict help on others is what they are wanting from you." This made me stop and reconsider how my attempts to be helpful were actually being experienced by those I was trying to help.
My wife was the other person who helped me long ago to see that my need to fix others could be seen as inflicting help. It turned out that what my wife, along with most everyone else I was trying to help, truly needed when facing a difficult situation was simply a supportive and listening presence. When we a listening, supportive approach, it supports the other person in discovering their own solutions to their problems, their own path forward.
Back to the story of the tourists who thought they were being helpful to the baby bison in Yellowstone. The tourists, thinking the animal needed help, decided they knew best how to fix the problem. They picked the baby bison up, put it in the back of their SUV and drove it to a nearby ranger station. Rather than being greeted with gratitude by the ranger, they were promptly greeted with a ticket for interfering with wildlife in the park, and were warned that the baby bison would probably now be rejected by its mother and its herd because it been handled by humans. Sadly, that is in fact what turned out to be true. When the rangers tried to reintroduce the bison into its natural habitat the mother and herd rejected it. Then, sadly, the bison began approaching other people in cars to try to get help. This created a danger and eventually it was decided that the baby bison needed to be euthanized--a sad ending to what was initially a well-intended gesture by some people who were trying to help.
I am sure the two tourists in Yellowstone had the best of motives and I am sure they are heartbroken over what happened. Who knows, I might have done something similar to what they did if I had been there. Yet this story is a reminder to me that while my failed attempts to fix people in the past never had such a heartbreaking ending, I need to always remember to refrain from attempts to fix others, no matter how noble my intentions may seem to be to me.
Does someone you care about have a problem that you think needs fixing? My advice is instead of trying to fix their problem, be someone who cares enough to emphatically listen and provide emotional support. Be patient and trust that eventually they will figure out their own solution, one that is sure to be more helpful to them in the long run than anything you might have come up with if you had thought it was your role to try and fix their problem.