The Winding Path

Counselling Services provided by Barb Zacharias

January 2011: Closets

Posted on Jan 14, 2011

There are times in our lives when we allow things to get more complicated than they need to be. I speak from experience. Not only am I pack rat (“but I may need that some day!”), I have this knack for taking on other people’s problems as my responsibility. Maybe you can relate.

I call this ‘learning to separate my stuff from other people’s stuff.’ To help with this separation of stuff, it is important to start sorting—much like cleaning out the closets. What needs fixing? What needs storing for future use or kept for posterity? What needs to be let go of? What needs to be left in someone else’s box? Whose box am I sorting through anyway? Having this in mind will help when someone is looking to hand out ‘their stuff.’

Using the closet comparison, here are some options: 1) Share their burden (hold it/store it); 2) Take it on as something that I need to take care of (try to fix it); 3) Distance myself, either physically or mentally (leave it alone). Or maybe I try to do it all. Sometimes it’s hard to find that fine line between being supportive and getting involved. To find that boundary, it is sometimes helpful to acknowledge what the other person is going through at the same time as noting to self ‘this is not mine to fix.’

Often in our attempts to comfort another, we take on our friend’s (or partner’s, or roommate’s) stuff as our own. We mull over it—consider what can be done about it, what should be done, etc—only to find out our friend or companion has no interest in making any changes. We have now wasted precious time and energy on someone else’s stuff. The challenge: to help them out as best we can, then let go of it. Ultimately, it’s their stuff to deal with. And sometimes we do need to let our friends and companions know when we have reached our holding capacity; and they need to find another container for their stuff—your closet is full.

Help, hold, or hunker down—then let it go. Are there boxes of stuff in your internal closet that have someone else’s name on them? Time to do some sorting. If it’s not yours to attend to, throw it out! You are not throwing out the person with the box—just the stuff that you have taken on as your own. You can still be a friend, companion, partner without absorbing their problems as yours to deal with.

If the shoe were on the other foot, it might be nice for someone to take on my stuff as their own; but in reality, the problem still exists even if I let someone else pack it in their closet. Or if I am constantly being rescued by someone else, it hardly helps me to learn to stand on my own two feet, face the music, learn to fly, and all those other idioms for taking ownership of one’s life and making something of it.

Do we need help every now and then? Absolutely. Is it important to help and support other people? Again, absolutely. But when is it too much? One can have too much of a good thing, after all. Stories abound of eating too much good food at times of celebration. In the moment, it’s great; but later we pay for it with digestive discomfort. Helping in the right doses keeps us in healthy relationships. Too little help, and we isolate ourselves; too much help, and we grow anemic—unable to care for ourselves or others.

Part of finding that healthy helping role is figuring out what you are responsible for, what’s realistic given everyone’s capabilities, and if you are rescuing somebody from taking care of their own business. We take on other people’s stuff for a variety of reasons: false sense of guilt, blurry boundaries of who is responsible for what, unrealistic expectations, unreasonable demands, beliefs about who we are and what we are meant to do in life, rescuing tendencies, etc. We give other people our stuff for much the same reasons.

So what’s in your closet? Any bones—or boxes—need shaking up?

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