The Fixing Instinct (and ignoring it)

I have this problem — maybe you have it too? — I like to fix stuff.

It seems like a great problem to have, right? Who doesn’t want to fix things? Broken = bad, fixed = good! Surely there is nothing simpler.

In my family, here were the two possible models for dealing with the world:

  1. Retreat into your cerebral ivory tower and forget to think about yourself and also forget to come down for dinner, or
  2. Do stuff and clean stuff and fix stuff so you don’t have to think about yourself, ever, besides that would be selfish and nobody likes a selfish person.

I’ve become remarkably good at both those strategies. I’m soooo good at it [insert smug self-congratulatory grin here]. But! This was another Rally-related revelation recently: what if the thing I’m good at is not good for me?

Maybe I’m making it too obvious. Duh, it’s not being selfish, it’s self-care! Also, dinner is important. Yum.

Sure, sure. But it’s still all very complicated.

I’ve figured out just recently that sometimes this fixing instinct springs from fear. Not from a generous love of helping others or self-care (though I’ll try to convince myself both of those are true–because I genuinely do feel better when I fix things), but from a genuine terror of what if I don’t fix it. These are other people’s things that I am fixing. Not my own, even though my terror is connected to it.

Figuring out that the easy thing is the same as the fear-based thing is hard. As Mish and I were talking about yesterday in the comments of her Type X Livin’ post, it is possible to be really, really ridiculously good at getting good grades without actually being happy about it. In fact, I bet a lot of us were raised like this. Good grades are…good! Intrinsically, right? So therefore pursue them, forever, hooray, happiness and fulfillment for everyone!

Except this nagging damn idea that keeps coming back to me: what if the thing I’m good at is not good for me?

Originally the context of this idea was the realization that just because I am good at my job and like it, doesn’t mean it is the best thing for me-as-a-whole-person. I am a grantwriter at a small liberal arts college. I have my masters degree in this stuff. And yet, writing (in this job) is all about sitting in front of a computer, day after day, staring into the screen and cultivating terrible posture-related back pain issues because of aforementioned sitting. Is this good for me? Plainly, no.

And that’s a hard thing to face up to.

Even harder: this whole fixing thing. Fixing other people. Fixing my family, most particularly. It is an instinct so carefully inscribed in my habits and character that it makes me so very, very uncomfortable not to follow that instinct. Even when I’ve talked to myself about how we’re not going to go fix that thing that happened for all kinds of good reasons (like: sanity!) there is still the panicky little child in my soul who says: but if I don’t fix it, no one will.

(Oh, it hurts to write that.)

All week I’ve been going around thinking I need to fix this thing, but how? without realizing that the very instinct to fix it was part of the problem. There is nothing broken to be fixed. The “brokenness” that scares me is actually my own wholeness, my ability to set a healthy, sovereign boundary and enforce it for my own safety and sanity. The very fact that I thought this was a broken something says much about the broken set of rules that arose out of my family.

This is one of those times I have to bring in the self who understands the need for gentle self-parenting. The zen Buddhist who knows that the self in pain must be nurtured and comforted before anything else can happen.

The first thing to do is notice it: this crazily urgent need to fix what’s wrong, to apologize because I’ve broken the invisible rule. It’s okay to feel this way. This is an old, old pattern and we’re working on it. But we’re still going to let it stay broken. It’s not ours to fix.

Because hey–the thing about sovereignty is that it is the best thing you can do. Better for yourself, better for others. The better path is to explain that I wanted to fix it but that I recognize that is motivated by fear, not by love and trust.

Fixing other peoples’ stuff is, in the long haul, not good for me. Or at least, not in the context of my family’s model, wherein I fix You and neglect Me until assorted nervous breakdowns and divorces result from it. (This isn’t really about other kinds of Fixing/Helping which actually do bring pleasant feelings and mutual goodwill to many people; I’m talking about the kind of fixing done in true Yankee Puritanical self-negating cat o’ nine tails and a hair shirt on Sunday style. Just in case that wasn’t clear.)

Anyway, loving myself while also ignoring the fixing instinct is my challenge this week. Noticing my desire to fix the broken thing and letting it stay broken. Sending love and understanding toward the terrified girl who has taken on too many responsibilities and thinks she has to fix it, and reminding her that we are creating a place of safety. Understanding that the gift of sovereignty is the freedom to trust that others will create their own sovereign kingdom, too.


(Maybe this is all old-hat to you. It feels big to me this week, right now. There are plenty of loud voices telling me I’m stupid for writing it down in the first place. But I think writing about it is another way to gently confront the fear and learn how to parent myself. In a good way. With the good voices and allies, not the sad scared fixit voices.)


About jesse k.

Writer. Mama. Spy in the house of self-awareness. Occasional crafter, letterpress geek, and academic snob.
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10 Responses to The Fixing Instinct (and ignoring it)

  1. Mish says:

    delicious stuff. hard stuff. but it tastes juicy. i’m thinking asian pear. (shape and texture of an apple! taste of a pear!)

    <blockquote cite="All week I’ve been going around thinking I need to fix this thing, but how? without realizing that the very instinct to fix it was part of the problem. There is nothing broken to be fixed. The “brokenness” that scares me is actually my own wholeness, my ability to set a healthy, sovereign boundary and enforce it for my own safety and sanity. The very fact that I thought this was a broken something says much about the broken set of rules that arose out of my family.”>

    this is so beautiful. the brokenness that scared you was your own humanity. the thing that’s always on your side. yes. yes yes yes yes yes.

    the most painful thing, that is when other people are broken and a fix seems so obvious and you open your mouth and terrible things happen. “there! fixed!” (snrk.) yesterday i had to stop myself. say to them, honey, if you feel that way, can you talk to somebody about it? a person who is good at these things? because all i have is myself and i can listen but i don’t think i can solve.

    hard things.

    it takes the wind out of your sails, to know you can’t be the solution to someone’s problem. that some person who is a stranger to you maybe could be but you can’t. still waiting for an emotional resolution to this one.

    • jesse k. says:

      Asian pears! A girl after my own heart. Love those.

      Fixing friends — I’ve had that same problem! It seems so clear from where I’m sitting and so so hard to keep my mouth shut! I try to remember that often what people want more than advice is empathy, so I go for that first. Usually if someone wants advice, they come out and ask for it.

      The whole issue of bringing in A Professional to a relationship *is* a hard one. But I once lost a very important friendship because I refused to think about going to a professional w/ my problems. This friend eventually cracked under the strain and booted me out; we haven’t talked since and the pain still smarts a little. A good lesson though hard to implement — learn boundaries rather than lose the people you love.

  2. Heather says:

    This is all good stuff to read and to think about right now. I like to think that I use my fixing instinct for good–like, at work, where I manage tech support and work on project management (improving websites), but, um, maybe that is not always the case. Just yesterday at lunch I was telling my boyfriend a work story (something’s broken; the current logic of it follows process x, but that makes no sense; a few people suggested switching the logic to the reverse of process x and asked me to comment on it, but really the reverse of process x is just as nonsensical as the original process; I suggest a different approach entirely) and he stopped me and said, basically, “whoa, wait a minute, I just realized: I live with a woman who identifies problems all day long!” Hm, yeah, maybe, and maybe I should leave my problem-identifying at the office a little more!

    • jesse k. says:

      I think there’s an easy guideline to whether it’s good-helping or scared-helping: does the problem get better? When it’s beneficial for all involved, usually later you feel good about it and the problem is resolved. But when I am trying to fix out of fear, usually it’s such a temporary fix that I’m worried about it all over again, right afterward.

      Also, I think it is way, way better to think of you as someone who Solves Problems all day long. I mean, even Super Woman has to go looking for people to save sometimes, right?

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  4. sarra says:

    I’d never been a fixer till a few years into adulthood, when I’d shed the adolescent snakeskin of misanthropy and part decided, part was compelled to Be A Better Person. It’s not part of my family psychodynamic. Thus I’ve quite a different experience of this, but I think it’s got some important similar roots. I won’t try to lay those out: they’ll be obvious, I think, as will be the differences.

    When I try to help out friends, yes it’s initially in response to some need they have, and yes I help because I like them and I want to support them – those are the good bits. But I tend to put my whole self into trying to fix their problem, and… oh goodness. I tried to draw a diagram for this just now, which is much more difficult than writing. I’ll try writing.

    On the surface I think – hey, great, I’ve got masses of knowledge/resources/know exactly what friend needs to do to fix the problem, as well as lots of care for them, and this is surely exactly what they need – nothing can go wrong! To me so often it seems like a perfect selfless true situation where I can genuinely do some good.

    However… there is all that. But there’s also an underneath, which is ‘good friends are able to help each other out’ – alright, but then ‘I’m only a good friend if I can actually help and not just offer empty advice’.

    And… in the real world, with real human beings, of course my advice is often not very helpful to the person, because help and advice needs to fit with a real person, not an ideal person who lives in your own head and is fully capable of doing alpha to omega with no qualms, neuroses, lack of confidence/skills/resources… it doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. Just a person.

    So what comes out when I can’t help, due to the other person being a real person (shock!), is a deeper underneath – huh, well why can’t they do what I say? They should! Their life would be so much better! I can tell them every little step they need to do to do that! I understand all the barriers, I’ve got ideas for how to overcome them (etc etc etc). Analytic mind in overdrive. And underneath that is the reason – if I can’t help what am I? What skills do I have? This is the only thing I have. If I can’t help I’m not a good person. I might not even be a person. And it’s then clear that while the tip of the iceberg is good intention and real care, the rest of it is this gargantuan force of trying to make myself (/my self) feel okay, and other people being often just the things I try to use to achieve that.

    Trying to fix (!!!!) that has been a long slog and will continue to be one. I know that the way out of it is based in continuing to develop a) understanding and empathy (i.e. recognising ever more the personness of other people, especially my friends and partner) and b) building up my self so that I can practice that detachment and less & less need to depend on false action.

    This has been a massive comment and it could well’ve been painful for you, & if so I’m sorry – what I wanted to express was a you-are-not-aloneness. ‘If I don’t fix it, no-one will (or can)’ is part of it too, which would’ve taken hundreds more words to express above. And, oh god, why didn’t I spend more hundreds on telling you how I understand your exact fear? But part of both a) and b) is learning more about other people & about communication, and what is and isn’t good for others to hear – about the boundaries of what counts as self-indulgence, which one can’t work out by pure logic, but experiment and (proper) listening. So… with that in mind, I’ve my fingers crossed that I’ve not overstepped the boundary TOO far (I know that I have played out some of the above here!) and if I have, that it can be a step on the path to that learning, at least.


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