I didn’t realize I was a fixer until late in life.
Growing up in the internet-less 70s I couldn’t simply google a particular personality trait and then spend the next 12 hours reading about it, clicking on other links and eventually concluding I suffered from a rare ailment one can only contract in the Amazon forest—a destination I’ve never visited.
The point is, I had no convenient way of identifying a key component of my personality: the compulsion to fix.
Maybe you can identify. In high school, college, and beyond were you the person people confided in when they struggled in relationships?
Did just think you friends told you things they’d never tell someone else because you were trustworthy?
As an adult, are you drawn to potential partners who clearly face emotional challenges that seem daunting?
I’m not going to try to tell you why you and I are fixers. There is a ton of literature on the subject, as well as extremely talented men and women with grad school degrees who are much better equipped to help you with that part of the journey.
I am going to tell you why, in my case, the costs of being a fixer far outweigh the benefits.
I was the guy girls shared secrets with, asked advice of—the guy they called after devastating break-ups. You could identify me by the tear stains on my shoulder. When I thought about my motivation to be “that guy,” I rationalized that I was building a foundation for a relationship much sturdier than my peers had with their girlfriends.
I assumed my deep-rooted friendships would evolve into something more.
In adolescent terms, that meant departing the friend-zone for a physical relationship, something that was always on my mind as a teen.
On the few occasions when a relationship morphed, it was usually a drunken tryst while consoling a girl after a tragic break-up, the two of us waking, finding ourselves treading water in an ocean of regret rather than lounging on a tropical beach, as I had imagined.
For me, fixing was a diversion. Without knowing it, I wanted to be identified for what I did, not who I was. I was ashamed of who I was.
I felt broken and unworthy of love.
As long as I kept fixing things, I created a benevolent, caring version of myself impossible not to love. For decades I didn’t give much thought to how I was using sleight of hand to divert attention from my “self.” I just did it.
Then I found the right therapist. A therapist who saw past my ability to hide in plain sight.
I actually saw her twice a week. First in group therapy. And then one-on-one. Often, I spent a great deal of time in individual therapy, discussing Group. Who was engaged. Who was in pain. Whose body language was contradicting his or her words. In the beginning, as a fixer, Group was a chance to hear people confront raw, real feelings, while avoiding my own.
When nudged by my therapist to explore my own feelings, I initially struggled. I didn’t have the skills to identify my own feelings as they were happening. And then there’d be a minor breakthrough, where I would actually acknowledge my feelings, real-time, and respond in the moment, authentically, taking care of my “self.”
And then I met Buddha, or at least the application of Buddhism to a western life.
When my marriage was collapsing, a friend gave me Pema Chödrön’s wonderful book, When Things Fall Apart.
The book’s Buddhist overlay helped me understand I’ll always have contradictory emotions: serenity and anxiety, mourning and the joy of anticipation. Through the book, I learned happiness is not the absence of pain and regret. If that’s our goal, we’ll never be happy.
My therapist introduced me to Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. Brach, a practicing Buddhist and psychologist, discusses techniques, primarily meditation, to break the “trance of unworthiness.” Ultimately, her message is compassion.
Compassion is what led to my realization that I’m not broken, and freed me from the desire to hide my true self.
There’s a reason I’m avoiding discussing how people become fixers. The answer is complicated. According to people a lot more educated than I, the fixing compulsion often stems from relationships we, as children, had with our parents. In that light, whenever I stumble across an article that promises, “Five easy steps to stop being a fixer,” I become extremely skeptical. Perhaps, somewhere out there someone actually can follow five generic steps, but not me.
I’ve come to understand that my fixer compulsion will never go away. I’ve just changed my relationship with it. I still see problems that I think I can fix. I no longer feel compelled to act on those observations.
If you find yourself nodding in recognition, it may be time to take stock of your relationship with your own impulses. It takes work. It takes time. Perhaps the hardest aspect of the process is that it takes patience. We’re breaking a life-long habit of hiding our true selves.
Try not to be too hard on yourself. Even if you can’t see it, just being aware of the fact you’re trying to change your relationship with fixing is a huge step.
I’ve come to understand being authentic is the only way I will truly connect with another person.
The fixing compulsion was a smoke-screen I no longer use to obscure my true self. I appreciate that I’m trying to reverse a lifetime habit, so I savor the tiniest of glimmers of progress: the moments when I truly take care of myself.
And that feels great!
Author: Jon Freedman
Image: Gypsie Raleigh
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren