I have spent most of my career becoming a better problem solver. For me, that means mostly legal and business related problems. After 20 plus years, at times I’m pretty dang good at it. Clients come to me usually in a crisis or with a problem about to become a crisis. They are usually stressed out and in desperate need. My natural stress reaction is to be more calm and focused. It often allows me to see clearly what others have missed in the midst of a chaotic storm.
Then I combine what I know with the wisdom I’ve gained from experience and mix that in with what some would describe as an over-developed self-confidence and before you know it I have a strategy and can see a path to help my client. It does not always work of course and I am not always calm or right or confident. But mostly, when someone has a problem to solve, I have something useful to offer in finding a solution.
But to paraphrase an idiom, when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Or, said another way, when you view yourself as a problem solver you begin to believe that every person who presents a problem is asking you to solve it or needs for you to solve it. Then your ego gets caught up in a feedback loop that allows you to believe your service to the world is to solve other people’s problems. And eventually, without even knowing it, you make every problem more about you than the person who has the problem in the first place. And then, you become the center of everything, because someone else’s challenge or pain or struggle is simply one more ask or one more chance to perceive yourself as a hero.
Only now, in my late 40s, I am at the beginning of realizing how much I have centered myself in other people’s pain. Sometimes that shows up in an over-eagerness to “fix.” Sometimes it is defensiveness when I perceive the other person’s pain has somehow been caused by me. Sometimes it is simply avoidance when someone’s problem doesn’t seem to afford me the ego stroke I rely on.
I’m not writing this as some kind of self-flagellating confession. Instead, I mean to share my own mistakes as an invitation to examine whether you may be falling into this same trap.
So often our natural, well-intentioned impulse when we see someone in pain is to help them be out of pain….or run away from their pain as a way to protect ourselves….or deny their pain so we don’t have to feel it too…or diminish their pain in hopes of changing their perspective or, again, to protect ourselves. But so often we are really just ignoring what that person really wants or needs in honor of our own impulses and comfort.
So, here are some things to consider. When someone is brave enough to share with you that they are hurting, could you keep your mind curious instead of racing to fix? Could you learn to simply help carry someone’s pain instead of trying to eliminate it? Could you learn to offer connection instead of solutions? Of course, sometimes people want and need help. But perhaps just as often a quick move to offer help makes people feel unseen and unheard. I know this via a long, well-documented history of making people feel unseen and unheard as I raced in to make their problem my accomplishment.
And carrying pain is hard and,…well…painful. We all carry enough of our own and the idea of carrying someone else’s can be overwhelming. But it can also be the thing that makes life survivable and allows your people to recover and help you do the same.
Please hear me when I say that I am bad at this. I only relatively recently began to learn it was a worthwhile skill to have. I have spent so much time trying to make myself the hero that I stopped considering the people I thought I was helping. I wish now that I had spent more time trying to make myself the friend, the confidant… the pain Sherpa. I wish that when my loved ones brought me their fears and hurt and challenges, I had developed the muscles and skill to help them carry what they are going through. I wish I could listen and empathize and leave every person knowing that they will never be alone. Instead, I often just leave with the regret of knowing that they need something I never even thought to figure out how to give.
But I am not giving up on myself. I’m excited to be learning these things even as I am sad to not yet be as skilled as I want. I have incredible friends like my wife and Aaron Metcalf and Jeff Morrow and my brother Enoch and the list goes on and on and includes many of you who will read this that have taught me so much and are teaching me so much about this. Teachers on this subject are everywhere. Find one.
Here’s my advice. While you figure out how to solve the problems of the world, spend just as much time trying to figure out to how center someone else in a conversation and communicate to them that their pain is real and important and something you can help them carry…not just discard or eliminate. Don’t wait until you’ve spent 50 years trying to be a hero before you figure out how to be a friend.