Learning not to “own” other peoples’ problems

An LDS bishop tells the following story:

Members of the Relief Society Presidency were upset. Several sisters felt completely overwhelmed by the visiting teaching duties. There were members who were suffering, and the sisters were spending hours every day helping. They were cooking for the people who were suffering and doing their laundry and organizing groups to take care of weeding the garden.

But after several months of doing this, the sisters discovered that the people involved had grown very comfortable with the constant attention. The people had overcome their problems but continued to expect constant visits, constant meal preparation, constant help with the yard. The people involved were physically able to do such work, but they preferred having someone else do it.

And this of course created resentment on the part of the sisters who were doing the helping. They had no problem helping out temporarily, but they assumed that the people involved would become more self-sufficient. And they didn’t. And the sisters who were helping had become part-time maids, constantly doing things for people who were pretty capable of taking care of themselves. This constant work of helping others was taking over their lives, making them neglect their own families and their own needs.

An LDS counselor I recently talked to says that this is an extremely common phenomenon. People in the Church love to help people. They love to give of themselves to another. Caring, sharing, compassion and empathy are extremely important qualities. But sometimes they don’t know when to stop. And pretty soon the people doing the helping start “owning” the problems of other people. This creates more problems than it solves, this counselor said.

Let’s look at another example:

Mary meets Jim. Jim is a really nice guy but he’s kind of lazy and disorganized. Mary is organized and driven. She really starts to like Jim and they start dating seriously. Mary begins to get frustrated with Jim’s disorganization. He was supposed to go to a job interview but he slept in rather than show up for the interview and he didn’t get the job. So Mary makes a deal with Jim that she will call him every morning at 6:30 so Jim can get up on time.

One morning, Jim has another job interview, but his phone batteries run down, and Mary calls him and he still misses his appointment because he never gets the call.

Several months pass and Mary realizes that she has become a babysitter for Jim. Jim has not gotten any more organized, but Mary is spending a lot of her time trying to help him. She suddenly realizes that she is thinking more about Jim’s life than her own. She realizes she has basically put her life on hold while dating Jim so she can help him get his life together.

The crucial problem is: Mary has crossed the line from “caring and sharing” to “owning” Jim’s problems. It is of course a praiseworthy thing to help somebody else. So Mary’s intentions started out being good. But at a crucial moment — probably the time she offered to call him every morning to get him out of bed — she went from a creating a positive relationship to creating a negative relationship.

Owning somebody else’s problems is not good for either of the people involved. It is not good for Mary because she is unable to progress in her life. And it is not good for Jim because he never learns self-sufficiency.

I will mention some caveats in his post. I can imagine scenarios — carrying for a terminally ill relative, for example — where selflessness may be completely appropriate. Readers may also come up with other examples. There are always exceptions to the rule.

In addition, it is difficult to know exactly where the line is between helping just enough and helping too much. It is probably different for every case.

But the general rule that you should be careful that you don’t fall into the trap of “owning” the problems of another person seems to be very good advice.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

8 thoughts on “Learning not to “own” other peoples’ problems

  1. Interestingly, while reading this, I couldn’t help but think that this was part of the idea behind marriage. In that type of relationship, you are meant to “own” the issues of your spouse, you take on their issues and your issues become theirs; as the comment says, “co-dependency.” Just interesting how something can be so right in one context or type of relationship, but absolutely wrong in another.

  2. Rew, good point, but it seems to me it is still possible to have unhealthy aspects of a relationship with somebody even if you are married.

  3. Really good post, Geoff.

    Learning about co-dependency, enabling, and boundary maintenance are a few things I’m a fan of.

  4. Yes, excellent points. One of our primary failures as a church/community is the ability and consequent willingness to give raw feedback (with tact and respect) to members that are failing in holding up their roles and responsibilities.

    Ideally, in the circumstance such as the “dependency” the initially needy members becoming “users,” the RS President could take them aside and point out the issue, and why the service will be stopping. This is a skill widely taught to managers in business. It is based upon true principles (no scripture or revelation needed, it is simply true). And, we need to train our leaders to be more able and willing to use it. More common is the need to use it when a person is sloughing off their responsibility as a leader, counselor, teacher, home or visiting teaching (and thereby shifting the burden to others in the “community”–rather than just finding some “face-saving” other calling to switch them to when they are released).

    We of the “same ten people” (STPs) should not continue to carry most of the burden–not for any reasons of doctrine, scriptural vagaries, or teachings of the prophets–because It is not good for us, the community, or the slouches among us.

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