Like a Sponge
Soon after my oldest daughter started kindergarten we were sitting at the table having a snack, talking about her day, looking through the work she brought home, when I found a piece of paper where her teacher had written a note. The note simply said that Eloise had not finished her morning work and needed to finish it at home. Huh. Well, ok, that isn’t a big deal. I asked Eloise about it and she told me that she was having a hard time getting her morning work done before time was up.
At this point I felt something rise up inside of me that was like nothing I had experienced before. I mean, it couldn’t be my DAUGHTER’S fault that she isn’t finishing her work on time! Not as smart as she is. No, no, no, uh-huh…something must be wrong with the system. I was already writing a note to the teacher in my head when I stopped myself with a jerk.
Whoa. Good grief. THAT had been ugly. I am about to do EXACTLY what I knew NOT to do…what I talked to clients about almost every week. I was about to weave a web. I wish I could say that it would have been the first time for me to be on the verge of doing my own spinning, the first time I had been a web weaver. Unfortunately not. It takes one to know one.
There is an idea in family systems theory that is called “triangles”. When two people are in a relationship and there is conflict there is a tendency to pull someone else in to stabilize the system, to assuage the conflict, to help disperse the anxiety. Maybe you can picture it. Three people…three points in a triangle. Sometimes the person isn’t pulled in. Sometimes out of anxiety (or anger or fear or simply having a little bit of a savior complex), a person will choose to step in and be that third point in the triangle (ahem…that would be me in the above situation).
Being there for your friends is a nice thing to do, right? I mean, helping my daughter be successful in school, being her advocate with her teachers…that’s being a good parent, right? That all sounds fine and good except that when a third person gets involved so many not good things are simultaneously taking place. The primary relationship where there is conflict is not really getting a chance to grow and find its own strength.
Conflict can actually be a good thing for a relationship…if the relationship is given a chance to work it out. Like the resistance to muscles in weight lifting, the resistance of conflict can break down a relationship only to help it grow stronger…if the two people are committed to working through it.
When a third person steps in or is pulled in to the situation, an opportunity is stolen. The two people involved in the primary relationship are not given the chance to grow stronger, not given a chance to learn to tolerate anxiety and conflict, not given a chance to learn to communicate and relate in the midst of a tough time. They aren’t given the chance to grow…as individuals and in their relationship. The third person actually steals this opportunity when they try to “help”.
And, it just gets messy. Very, very messy.
Think about triangles being formed across a community. What would a string of triangles looks like? Yeah, a spider web. And, everyone gets caught in it. No one comes out completely clean.
You’ve experienced them before. Let’s see if any of these situations sound familiar.
Your son doesn’t get his homework done on time. It is the night before the big project is due. He hasn’t even started it. Instead of asking him how he wants to deal with it, you take over and do it for him or write a note to the teacher asking if he can have an extension. Because, you know, he hasn’t been feeling very good…that’s why he needs the extension. Right.
Your two friends are in an argument. One of them comes to talk to you about it. It is so hard to watch your friends struggle that maybe you step in and talk for your friend A to the other friend B. Or, maybe you don’t do that, but you join in with your friend A and either directly or indirectly put down friend B. You just joined a triangle.
You are frustrated about a colleague at work. Instead of going to talk to him or her about the frustrations, you go and vent to your boss. Rather than handling it right there, your boss talks to another worker, who then talks to another worker… and we wonder why there is tension at work places.
Or, perhaps your boss actually talks to YOU about frustrations with another one of your colleagues…and you go and talk to another colleague who talks to another colleague. So many triangles…one big web.
Triangles are the result of anxiety. We watch someone else struggling, which makes us anxious and so we step in. Or, we are in a conflict and we are anxious about it, afraid or overwhelmed at the idea of dealing directly with the source of the conflict, so we pull someone else in.
If we aren’t careful, we soak up anxiety from others like a sponge and we do really stupid things…things we are ashamed of later. We talk down about people we care about, get into other people’s business, overreact, become rigid in demands…and cause all kinds of drama…all in response to the anxiety and insecurity in ourselves that is triggered when we sense anxiety in others around us.
I stopped myself with a jerk at the table that day with Eloise. I took a deep breath and I said: “Well, Eloise, what do you think you need to do about this issue?” And, without any cajoling on my part I listened as my kindergarten daughter responded in a second with more maturity and confidence than the web of anxiety her mother’s mind had been spinning just moments before. Well, she said, I probably need to get to school a few minutes earlier. I also need to stop taking so long to write everything out. Ok, those sound like good ideas, I said. Do you think that will be enough to help you get finished on time? Yeah, she replied. No problem.
I never got another note about Eloise not finishing her work on time in the morning.
Wow, that was a close one. I had been anxious about my daughter not finishing her work on time. If, out of my own anxiety, I had stepped in and written a note to her teacher I would have stolen an incredible opportunity for Eloise to think, to brainstorm, to grow. And, I would have caused an icky feeling between her teacher and me. It would have been messy. I shudder to think about it. I shudder to think about the times in the past when I didn’t stop with a jerk…when I soaked up the anxiety like a sponge, when I formed a triangle, and became a web weaver.
And, you know what else? Without actually saying the words, I would have been communicating to Eloise that I didn’t think she was strong enough to handle it. By stepping in, I would have been saying: “You know what? You can’t do this on your own. I better do this for you” and just like that I would have injected a dose of insecurity in my daughter…a lack of confidence that she could think and brainstorm, and figure out on her own what she needs to do.
It is hard but I try to do this with friends and even family. If they are upset about something I can listen without taking it on. I can be there for them without intervening and creating more drama. Wow, I can say, that sounds really hard. Comments like that are not joining in the drama. You can be there for someone without taking on their stuff or even agreeing with them! I’m just being there. In fact, by not taking it on, I can be there for them MORE. I don’t get overwhelmed by it…by their stuff, by their pain. I can stay there and really be there with them through this hard time
And that is really what we all need…someone to be there with us in hard times. I don’t need my friends to fix my stuff. I don’t even need them to be angry at people I am angry at even though I might feel like it at times.
Somewhere along the way we will do good to learn that we are called to help bear one another’s burdens…not fix them.
We are not called to be fixers. We aren’t called to be saviors, healers, slanderers, busy bodies, or gossips…all things we tend to do when we are faced with anxiety and insecurities in our selves or others.
We are called to be burden bearers.
Therapists and counselors start learning this lesson early. Not too long ago I heard a person telling a group that his daughter was planning on becoming a counselor: “I said, that’s a good thing, too, because she’s been telling people what to do since she was two years old!” Everyone in the group laughed. The irony is that very early in training therapists learn that giving direct advice is one of the last things you do. Part of the point is for the other person to learn how to do their own problem solving…almost how to become their own therapist eventually. Therapists are trained to ask good questions and there is certainly some direction and advice giving in there, but if I always supply clients with answers I set myself up as the authority in their life. Not only is that an unethical use of power, it also is not very good clinical work. Without actually saying the words, I communicate to my clients that I don’t think they are strong enough to handle it. By stepping in, by giving all the “answers”, I tell them: “You know what? You’re right. You can’t do this. I better do this for you” and just like that I inject a dose of insecurity into the people I work with…a lack of confidence in their ability to think and brainstorm and figure out what they need to do with their lives.
And, if as a therapist I always take on the other person’s stuff, giving them all the answers, becoming that third point in the triangle…the fixer, the healer, the savior…wow, that is too much for any human being. That spells “burn out” fast. My clients need a therapist who can stick around for them…not someone who becomes so overwhelmed by taking on things that aren’t mine to take on…abandoning them and checking out.
We can do that in friendships and family relationships, too. We can take on so much because that feels so good…so good being the savior, the fixer, the healer. And, because we aren’t created to be those things for people, we burn out. Then we check out. Friends and family need a person who can stick around for them… not becoming so overwhelmed by taking on things that aren’t ours to take on…and then abandoning them, checking out.
Healer, Savior, Fixer…those titles sound familiar…
I’ll tell you one way to keep from soaking up anxiety like a sponge, from being a fixer, a busy body, a web weaver, a thief of growth opportunities in the lives of others…pray. It is that simple. Tell God about it. And, watch Him absorb all of that inner conflict, all of that anxiety, fear, and even anger that gets our mind spinning. Just pray. Write it, speak it, sing it. Whatever you have to do. Just pray. Pray for people in your life. He is the Fixer, Healer, and Savior anyway…not us.
Somewhere along the way we will do good to learn that we are called to help bear one another’s burdens…not fix them. And, every time you (ahem…I) step in to fix, heal, and save you just might be fixing, healing, or saving something that God is using in their life or in that relationship to do some incredible things.
I just need to get the heck out of the way. And, pray. And, listen. And, maybe help them think through it.
Hello, my name is Emily and I am a recovering web weaver, triangle maker, attempted fixer. I tend to soak up anxiety like a sponge. I struggle to stop and pray. But, I’m working on it. I’ll keep working on it…working on injecting confidence in the lives of those I love and work with rather than insecurity…and getting the heck out of the way for what God is already doing.