You Can’t Fix Their Problem

Somewhat based on a conversation with my youngest daughter.

Some of us are just wired to have more empathy for others than usual. If you’re one of those sensitive types, when someone else is in pain, it’s easy to get sucked into the situation emotionally and want to save the other person from their problem.

The truth is though that most people don’t actually want to solve their problems, they just want to talk about them. So when you get hooked into the emotion of their problem, their problem might not end… even if it makes them unhappy. So if them being unhappy makes you unhappy, you might be unhappy for a long time.

Most times the other person already knows what they need to do to start solving their problem. When I help people with their marriages, about half the time the person asking for help tells me that they had already started doing what I was going to tell them to do. I talk about getting in shape a lot and often people had already started that a few months before finding me online. People don’t always need more information, they just need to get into action and start working with the knowledge they have.

So your friend that moved away to a different state and doesn’t have any new friends where she moved… she already knows how to make friends. She just needs to start doing it. Say hi to someone. Invite someone over. Say she wants to see a movie and ask if anyone else wants to come. It won’t fix overnight, but she could get started. She just chooses not to. There’s nothing you can really do to make her change her mind about that either. One day she’ll just be tired of her choice and change her mind and start making friends again. If you’re going to be unhappy until she makes friends, you might have a long wait until that happens. You won’t be able to have any control over when that happens either.

Just offer your advice and maybe she follows it, and maybe she doesn’t. Either way it’s her choice and her outcome. Her friendships or lack of friendships don’t directly affect you on anything but your emotional level based on your empathy. What you’re really reacting to is being able to feel what it’s like to not have friends yourself. You’re imagining what she’s feeling and it feels real to you. Unfortunately she’s probably only telling you the “complaining and just talking about the problem” aspect of her life. I bet she never tells you about the time school was fun, or she had a good time at the mall with a new friend. I suspect that when she really gets happy with her life, you’ll probably never hear from her again.

There’s always going to be people around you that are unhappy and having a bad time of things. Every day of the week, someone at school is going to be having a terrible day. Feeling hurt, lonely, mad, lost and confused. You can’t save everyone and you can’t make everyone happy. One of the things that you risk by always being the one who will listen to people’s problems… is that people will seek you out to tell you their problems… because people like telling their problems to people who will listen. Mostly because it makes them feel like they are doing something about the problem, when they aren’t.

In my case it’s fine that people tell me their problems because that’s all part of what I do. Even then, most of my advice can be summed down to “Stop putting up with that crap, and do something about it.” Even doing the wrong thing in a response to a problem can often solve it better than just complaining about it. Action beats talk every time. It’s not so much that talk is bad, but that it covers up the lack of action so the negative energy of problem continues. Actions carry a far more positive energy, which is why even the wrong action can somehow work to solve a problem anyway.

Also at school there are people who are paid to look after the kids. There’s teachers, nurses, counselors, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, crossing guards and a principal. It’s not your job to ensure that all the kids are fine 100% of the time. If you see a real problem, just report it to one of the people responsible for the kids. Rather than worrying about it yourself, you can do far more good for a kid in real trouble by telling a teacher – that’s your problem solving action. It’s your job to get to school on time, get good grades and complain that there’s too much homework.

The truth is that most people in the world are pretty selfish… which is just fine… because it means that they are pretty motivated to take care of themselves. You need to have a little faith in the selfishness of people. Left to their own devices most people try and make the world a better place… if only their little part of the world.

So. Do what you’re meant to be doing. Report the bad crap you see to the adults. Have a little faith that the universe will unfold as it should. Oh and clean your room.





  1. Very true, Athol. The Strengthsfinder test shows Empathy as a strength. To me it feels more like a weakness, because I feel other people’s emotions as if they were my own. I’m 37 and still trying to figure out how to put my empathy into action without hurting myself.

  2. This post needs to be engraved on a two-by-four so I can go back in time and beat 14-year-old me about the face with it.

  3. @J Undeveloped empathy is a pain in the ass. You have to learn the learn between being a capacitor and a conduit. The first tries to solve everything from their own power and cycles between being drained and recharged. The second tries to see the energy of the problem as part of the larger energy system and seek only to remove the blockages within the system.

    Sometimes you do use your own power supply to jump start another system, but that’s to get it running under its own power again, rather than you continuing to power it.

    So widen your scope. Don’t focus solely on the emotions of others, though those are the easist to experience. Open yourself further to your empathy and experience the total landscape of emotions and actions. Once you identify the problem area… let the other person solve the problem. By solving their problem for them, it makes you tired and them dependant on you. (Lose-lose.)

    The exception being ideally closed energy systems like a marriage. What you do to solve your partners problem cycles back around as a benefit to you.

  4. This is me to a T. Thanks for posting it.

  5. That whole conduit versus capacitor comment is really insightful stuff. Never saw it that way. Pretty brilliant.

  6. “The true secret of giving advice is, after you have honestly given it, to be perfectly indifferent whether it is taken or not, and never persist in trying to set people right.” – Hannah Whitall Smith

    It’s all about outcome independence. ;)


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