You Can't Solve Other People's Problems: How to Stop Trying to Change Others - Sharon Martin, LCSW Counseling San Jose and Campbell, CA (2023)

You Can't Solve Other People's Problems: How to Stop Trying to Change Others - Sharon Martin, LCSW Counseling San Jose and Campbell, CA (1)

Are you a helper, fixer, or rescuer?

It’s hard to watch a friend or family member struggling with a problem or making “bad” decisions. You naturally want to help. You want to make your friends’ and family members’ lives easier and more joyful. You want to fix their problems and relieve their suffering.

Trying to keep a loved one out of harm’s way seems like a good idea, except that it doesn’t work when they don’t want your help. Not everyone wants to change (or not in the way you think they should) and that’s their prerogative. Despite your desire to help, you can’t make people change and you can’t fix their problems (even when you have great ideas and their best interest at heart!). You simply can’t fix or solve other people’s problems and trying to do so often just makes things worse.

Whose problem is it?

Most people accept the notion that they can’t control other people or solve their problems. But we get sucked into trying to change and fix because we’re confused about whose problem it is. Sometimes our desire to help, protect, and be the hero clouds our judgment. And sometimes we think we know what’s best and foist our ideas upon others regardless of what they want.

We tend to think that problems that affect us are ours to solve. This false belief leads us down a futile path of trying to control things that aren’t in our control. For example, just because you’re affected by your spouse’s unemployment or your teenager’s smoking, doesn’t mean these are problems you can solve. You can’t get a job for your spouse nor can you make your child quit smoking. However, if your spouse’s unemployment has left you in debt and feeling anxious, stressed out, or angry, those are problems you can do something about.

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And yet, some of us persist in trying to fix or change other people and their problems. This is classic codependent behavior. We abhor having things out of our control. It reminds us of bad things that have happened in the past. And we get anxious and afraid of the catastrophic things we anticipate happening if we don’t step in and try to change things.

Accepting what’s out of our control and that we can’t solve other people’s problems doesn’t mean we’re powerless. Quite the contrary; it allows us to put our energy into solving our own problems and to change the things we can.

Trying to solve other people’s problems often makes things worse, not better

Not only is it impossible for us to solve other people’s problems, we can inadvertently cause a host of other problems in the process.

To be honest, I often wish that I could solve other people’s problems. But it always ends badly when I try. I get bossy, give unwanted advice, and act like I have all the answers. It’s definitely not something I’m proud of and I imagine at least some of you can relate.

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Sometimes, it’s downright presumptuous for us to assume that we know what someone else needs or wants. Our efforts to help may actually be conveying this harmful message: “I know how to solve your problems better than you do. I don’t trust your judgment or abilities. You’re incompetent or unmotivated.”

It’s not helpful to try to solve other people’s problems because:

  • Nagging and giving unwanted advice leads to more stress, conflict, and negatively impacts relationships.
  • When we try to fix, change, or rescue, we assume that we know what’s best. We take on an air of superiority and can act condescending.
  • Making decisions for others takes away their autonomy and their opportunity to learn and grow.
  • We become frustrated and resentful that our efforts to solve other people’s problems don’t work and that they aren’t appreciated.
  • We get distracted from solving our own problems. For some reason, fixing other people always seems easier than fixing ourselves!

Instead of doing things for other people, we need to allow them to live their own lives, make their own decisions and mistakes, and deal with the consequences of their choices. Not only does this free us up to focus on what we can control, it respects other people’s autonomy.

Sometimes you can help

Of course, sometimes we can and should help others. But it’s important to distinguish help from enabling or doing things for people that they can reasonably do for themselves. The most important question to ask before trying to help someone with their problems is: “Does this person want my help?” If you’re not sure, ask them.

In addition, be sure that the kind of help you’re giving is the kind that’s wanted. For example, your wife might like some help with her efforts to lose weight. However, she’s not going to appreciate your help if she’d like you to cook healthy meals several times per week, but your version of help is to remind her of the calorie count of everything she eats.

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When someone doesn’t want your help or advice, it’s best to keep your mouth shut. Otherwise, the unsolicited advice is probably to quiet your own anxiety or a bad habit, not really to be helpful. If you’re available and approachable, your friends and family know they can ask for your help if they want it.

Control vs. influence

Another common pitfall is that we confuse control with influence. Often we can influence our loved ones, but we can rarely control them. Meaning we may be able to shape or guide their decisions. We can counsel them or provide them with information, if they are receptive, but we can’t force our own agenda.

How to stop trying to change, fix, or solve other people’s problems

Before launching into “fix-it” mode, try asking yourself these questions:

  • Is this my problem or is it someone else’s problem that’s affecting me?
  • Is this a problem I can fix or change?
  • Is changing this person or situation in my control?
  • How can I redefine the problem so that I’m focusing on what’s in my control?
  • Do I have any influence?
  • Did they ask for my help or ideas?
  • Am I forcing my solutions and ideas onto someone?
  • Am I helping or enabling? What’s the difference?
  • Why am I trying to solve this problem?
  • Is this actually an attempt to manage my own fears and anxiety about what may happen? And if so, how else can I deal with uncertainty and feeling out of control?

If you’ve been trying to fix or change people for years, it will take time and effort to change these patterns. In addition to being patient and compassionate with yourself along the way, try to focus on what’s in your control and the problems that you can solve. And remember that if you’re feeling particularly frustrated with your inability to change or solve a problem, you may be trying to solve someone else’s problem.

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If you live locally, I’d be happy to support you with counseling and therapy in my Campbell office (easily accessible from San Jose, Santa Clara, and Los Gatos). You can find out more about counselinghere.

You Can't Solve Other People's Problems: How to Stop Trying to Change Others - Sharon Martin, LCSW Counseling San Jose and Campbell, CA (2)

©2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.

Dr. Sharon Martin, LCSW

You Can't Solve Other People's Problems: How to Stop Trying to Change Others - Sharon Martin, LCSW Counseling San Jose and Campbell, CA (3)

Sharon Martin, a licensed counselor and psychotherapist in Northern California, specializes in helping adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and self-criticism. She has a private psychotherapy practice in CA where she is available for online counseling. Sharon is also the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and write the blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today.



Why do I keep trying to fix other people's problems? ›

Many will see themselves as flawed, therefore, in need of repair. He or she will unconsciously attempt to fix others, thereby fixing themselves. As humans we have a tendency to gravitate toward the familiar, we gravitate towards damaged people because we ourselves may be damaged.

Why do other people's problems affect me? ›

How Secondhand Anxiety Works. Mirror neurons in the brain give us the capacity to understand others. (It's how we develop empathy.) But it also means we're wired to absorb other people's negativity or frustration.

How do you deal with your own problems? ›

8 steps to problem solving
  1. Define the problem. What exactly is going on? ...
  2. Set some goals. ...
  3. Brainstorm possible solutions. ...
  4. Rule out any obvious poor options. ...
  5. Examine the consequences. ...
  6. Identify the best solutions. ...
  7. Put your solutions into practice. ...
  8. How did it go?

How do you fix a fixer personality? ›

How to stop being a fixer
  1. Assess the situation. Before you jump in to help or even fall into great distress over a loved one's situation, stop and assess the situation. ...
  2. Know your own motives. ...
  3. Choose to empower. ...
  4. Invest in your own relational toolkit. ...
  5. Fix yourself.
Dec 18, 2019

How do you not let other people's problems affect you? ›

How to avoid absorbing other people's emotions
  • Create boundaries. You may find it helpful to set appropriate boundaries with others, says Turecek. ...
  • Establish your baseline. ...
  • Determine what's yours. ...
  • Practice grounding activities. ...
  • Ritualize separation. ...
  • Spend time in nature. ...
  • Make time for self-care. ...
  • Process it with someone.
Aug 20, 2021

What causes a fixer personality? ›

Their need to step in and help often originates from their own experiences of needing help. Although fixers are truly kind and compassionate, they also need to feel needed and, in a sense, they're fulfilling a selfish need while helping others.

Why am I always trying to fix people? ›

However, people who are fixers tend to try fixing other people's problems out of the need to have an imagined security net underneath them. Fixers often believe that the more people they help, the more people will be available to help them when they need something.

How do I stop managing other people's emotions? ›

Here are 5 steps to stop feeling responsible for others' emotions.
  1. Stop seeking self-worth from people.
  2. Learn to recognize toxic behavior.
  3. Put a healthy boundary in place.
  4. Stop trying to help them.
  5. Remember your emotional health matters, too.
Mar 8, 2017

Why do I absorb other people's energy? ›

Some people, known as empaths, have such high empathy that they seem to take on the feelings of others. If you're an empath, you might find yourself absorbing the emotions of those around you. When they experience joy, you get caught up in their happiness.

Why do other people's actions bother me so much? ›

Because we see everything through the “me” lens — a lens that's not that useful or reflective of the larger reality — then we react to everyone else's actions and words as if they are a personal judgment of us or offense to us. So someone else's anger makes us angry or hurt.

How do you tell someone to stop emotional dumping on you? ›

Be Direct & Express How You Feel

Explain to the person how you're being affected by what they're saying or let them know you're also feeling stressed. While this might be uncomfortable, it reminds the other person that you have feelings, too, which can sometimes keep them from making the conversation all about them.

What are the 5 ways of solving social problems? ›

Ways of Solving Social Problems in the Society
  • Guidance and Counseling: ...
  • Good Governance: ...
  • Creation of jobs and other Social Infrastructure: ...
  • Enforcement of Film Censorship and National Agency for Food and Drug Administration Control (NAFDAC) Rules: ...
  • Adequate Punishment for Defaulters:

What are the five problem-solving skills? ›

Problem-solving is a complex skill. It involves critical thinking, decision-making, creativity, and information processing. Effective problem-solvers use a systematic approach that allows them to break down difficult problems into smaller, more manageable parts.

What do you call someone who tries to solve problems? ›

so·​lu·​tion·​ist. -sh(ə)nə̇st. plural -s. : a solver of problems. especially : one who makes a practice or occupation of solving puzzles.

What is a fixer personality? ›

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.

Why do codependents want to fix people? ›

A Need to “Save” Others: Codependent people may feel it is their duty to protect their loved ones from all harm. If a loved one does something wrong, they will likely try to fix the situation on loved one's behalf. Such behavior can prevent others from becoming independent or learning from their mistakes.

What is it called when someone creates a problem so they can solve it? ›

Hegelian dialectic is the phrase to create a problem so you / someone can solve it. The Hegelian dialectic reduced to its simplest form could be summed up as problem, reaction, solution.


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