We say we don't want it, and yet we always seem to be "fire-fighting", not just in our lives, but on behalf of those around us.
"But I don't ask for it, it's just there"
"But I'm the only one who can solve it"
"It's like I solve one thing and then another thing appears"
...ALL this may be true, but I don't believe that ALL this is ALWAYS YOUR problem to have to solve (even though you may feel it is, and in some ways even want to.)
Lived experience shapes our lives
Before we learned that we had the power of choice, we watch adults around us as both role models and those who instructed and shaped our behaviour. Even if we didn't want to do something, we were very aware of what would "reward" and what would "punish" us.
A story commonly told is that of the baby elephant who was kept chained up, and as the elephant grew, although he would be able to easily break the chains, he didn't try because he didn't even consider it possible - so conditioned was he to his upbringing.
The same is true for us. We quickly learn what will get us praise and what will get us into trouble, and we may then formulate behaviours to achieve the former and avoid the latter eg: we excel at school work - and may even become fearful if we get anything less than top marks sometimes resulting in cheating or lying because in the short term, that may keep us from the potential shame of not being "brilliant"; or we may learn to adapt our choices to acquiesce to the more dominant personality - perhaps mum or sibling always "needs quiet" or maybe there are "family secrets" to be kept. We simply fall into line.
There are also what Brown in the 1950s called "Emotionally Expressive" families - these were not the type to express nor understand emotion in a healthy manner, but rather these families were used to shouting over each other; used to not listening or immediately reacting without processing what was being explained; or inconsistent behaviours leading to a difficulty in trusting one's word and a need to always have a plan B; and a constant fear that someone else would "kick off". If we are used to growing up in a chaotic household, this is a situation in which we become "comfortable" - we know our role, we may be the peace keeper, or the protector, and therefore in "chaos", there is a sense of familiarity.
What can we do about it
As I have said in a previous blog, it is important to recognise that the skills we have developed in becoming a "problem solver" or a "peace keeper" are hugely important and valuable, BUT they are not our only strength. We need to try and get in touch with our authentic selves, our personal desires and preferences and give ourselves permission to explore those...and make mistakes with them, as well as know that we can draw from our adaptive abilities when we need to.
Try and emotional body scan
Think about a time you felt:
...as you go through each experience, make the image clear and feel where in your body you are really experiencing that emotion, for example, for me I feel happiness as a "lightness" in my heart - some people feel it in their stomach, others in their head; I feel a sense of being unsure in my gut...again this may differ for others.
When you start to recognise where you feel certain emotions, although your thoughts about a situation may be giving you one narrative eg: Oh this is a problem, and I need to solve it - your body may be telling you something else - for example, if you recognise a feeling in the place you feel anger, it might be that although you can solve the issue you are angry about doing so for some reason - and that gives you a starting point to look further and ask yourself - why do I feel angry? Who am I angry at? Why?
Getting results from journaling
Do not expect immediate results when you start journaling. In the first instance it's just a good way to get your thoughts out of your head so that you don't have to force yourself to remember them, and in turn don't end up feeling overwhelmed that you do. However, when it comes to working with the questions that journaling may raise, it make take some time before the insights come because you simply need to get used to active reflection which challenges the narratives you currently tell yourself. It CAN help to go through this process with a coach or counsellor, but I am mindful that coaching is an additional cost, and counselling may take a long time to attain even if a referral comes quickly...however starting the process will also give you a written agenda to discuss when it comes to professional intervention which means you spend whatever time you have with support as effectively as possible.
Removing yourself from chaos
As you begin the process of unravelling your emotions, you might also wish to ask yourself, before jumping in to help in a situation:
- Am I the best person to help?
- What sort of help is most effective in this situation?
The second question is quite important because we may have grown up thinking we are the only person who can take action, BUT in the different situations that we face, we may just end up teaching others to be reliant on us, rather than empowering them to help themselves. A more effective approach might be to ask:
- How can I best help you right now?/What help do you think will be most useful from me?
(that way you can decide if you even ARE best placed to help)
- AND recognise that sometimes you AREN'T the best person to intervene, so rather than feeling like you are letting someone down, try instead to signpost them to someone else who can help, and remaining at their side as a supportive cheerleader.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt