In the 60s, Mary Ainsworth created the “Strange situation” experiment where babies’ behavior was observed in a variety of – strange situations:
- Infant and mother/caregiver
- Infant alone
- Infant with stranger and mother/caregiver
- Infant with stranger
She noted that three distinct patterns of behaviour emerged which she categorized:
“Secure” – the infant would play near to the mother/caregiver, but would show distress without her, and would be best comforted by the mother over the stranger.
“Anxious avoidant” – the infant often ignored the mother/caregiver, showed no distress when they were not present, but on return would approach and then turn away, or seemingly deliberately avoid.
“Anxious resistant” – the infant would be ambivalent to both mother/caregiver and stranger but would show some distress in the absence of the former.
Over the years this categorization developed to explain styles of adult attachment within relationships, and was extended to look at something called the “corrective experience” which some adults sought.
The “corrective experience”
Because of the dynamic nature of behavior whereby having an “insecure” (anxious) relationship in childhood was not indicative of a similar one in adulthood, it was noted that if, for example, someone who was classified “anxious avoidant” as a child built a relationship with someone who was “secure” – the anxious avoidant classification would most likely become secure over time. This became known as having had a “corrective experience”.
However, the term “corrective experience” went from describing an outcome to being a term that described active behavior.
A person who had an anxious avoidant or anxious resistant childhood might actively seek a “corrective experience” ie. a “secure” relationship which they believe would “fix” their unmet needs. This became evident in many who entered caregiver professions such as teaching and found themselves drawn to form close connections with some of their charges – often the ones they perceived as having a similar “loneliness”. (Note that this wouldn’t mean intimate or inappropriate connections, but rather a desire to “parent” or to “save”) (Riley, 2009). Similar behaviours were noted in other places of work such as nursing and even in the behaviours of those in management to their teams (Tang, 2013).
Unfortunately, actively seeking such an experience does not always work out in the way we may hope, when our (albeit unconscious) focus is on trying to fix ourselves through “fixing” what we perceive to be broken in someone else. We may overstep boundaries, we may misdirect our energy, and at best the recipient (who does not know they are actually the one whom we have sought to fix us) may simply say “thanks” and head off into their own happy relationships (if we haven’t negatively affected them) – leaving us feeling rejected, or their own issues mix with ours creating an emotional mess that is helpful to no-one.
If you are a “fixer”* ask yourself
- What am I hoping to achieve in this relationship with this person I am “saving”?
- What need in me is being met through this relationship (often it may be feeling wanted/ needed/loved/capable/included)?
- What do I need to hear/feel (and is there another means of achieving that – which does not involve fixing someone else).
*”Fixers” are often self-professed “collectors of strays” – or told that by their friends.
If you are a “fixer” - in non-romantic relationships you need to exercise caution because your attentions can be misconstrued, and in romantic relationships, it is as important to be wary, “saving” can get mixed up with “I just love them and I want them to be happy”. I remind people – you cannot save people from themselves.
Helping and compassion are wonderful things, but if you love people, you need to empower them not “make it all better”…sometimes this is through letting them make their own mistakes, often it is through respecting that they make their own choices, and we may not be part of that process.
…and it’s all the more difficult to let people be if we have invested a lot of time and energy.
Recognise that this is a potential psychodrama that you may well start drawing others in to play out - and focus instead on being rather than correcting.
Try to see yourself as scarred perhaps, but strong and capable and work instead on doing the following:
Identify and live your “VITALS”
Psychology Today defined the “vitals” as important to us as air in our lungs – recognize yours and start living them, especially your VALUES:
Values: Write down three behaviours your value most of all…work to demonstrate them in all your choose to do. This is the most important part of this exericse. So often we may feel at a loss simply because we do not know our values. That 10 minutes you spend now identifying them, can change your entire outlook - and success.
Interests: Engage in what interests you – perhaps it’s a childhood hobby? But remember it’s about engaging in it, not necessarily making an achievement out of it. I enjoy dancing, but I go to a c45 minute class once a week, I’m not trying to perform a recital.
Temperament: Recognise the environments you thrive in – perhaps as a parent you have to be very patient, but you actually are an adrenaline seeker – try and do something that suits that side of you (without your family in tow if they do not feel the same).
Around the Clock: Try to plan your day, when you can, in a way that suits you. If you are a morning person, get up earlier; if an evening one, sleep later – but if you are trying to connect with someone who is the opposite – don’t try and drag them onto your time (nor you match theirs all the time) – meet in the middle…have the serious chats at lunch perhaps?
Life goals: Identify who or what is meaningful to you and spend time with them/in that situation if you can. Purpose is a great motivator. Don’t worry if others won’t do it with you, you’re likely to meet like minded people when you take that first step.
Strengths: Remember what your strengths are and be proud of them. Yes, you may have had it tough but you’re here and you’re surviving…that’s already a win.
If you focus on you, not only will you find that your relationships are most likely going to becomes ones which energise rather than drain you (as you are not drawing in “strays” who may begin to feast on your time), but because your kindness and compassion is still a wonderful part of you – when you do help, you are more effective.
Inspire rather than fix.
Motivate rather than save.
Be, rather than correct.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. 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 quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt