I had lunch with my mother a few days ago and she said something that struck me. She was talking about a coworker of hers that she feared would get fired over a hostile altercation with a customer. She worried for his wife and 3 kids, whom he supported financially. I remarked that as her coworker was the one who cursed at a customer, it wasn't her problem.
She shook her head. “But it is, isn't it? We take on other people's burdens; carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. You do it too.”
“I try not to,” I said because I really am trying not to take on problems that aren't mine to fret over or solve.
“But you can't. It's hard wired into you.” She countered.
I didn't have an answer for her. I hope it's not hardwired into me. I don't particularly need or want to take on other's burdens – especially when they haven't even asked for or don't want or need my help. But, I find myself doing it far too often.
My friends call it my ‘professor mode'. I have been known to ‘lecture' my friends without even realizing I'm doing it. It's just so natural for me; I want to teach, educate, inform, and help them in some way. Even when they really don't want my opinion or my help. Fortunately my friends are also the first to call me on it.
My next question, of course, is why. Why do we take on other people's burdens? Don't we have enough problems of our own? What do we get from the act of offering unsolicited help, advice, and burden carrying? Feelings of worth? Accomplishment? Generosity? Or is it merely that we offer to carry other's burdens so we don't have to carry our own? Is taking on other people's problems a way for us to mask or escape from our own issues?
I’ve spent quite a bit of time contemplating those questions this past week. I think, for me, it’s a combination of all of the above. I’ve spent so many years of my life earning accolades from being “the professor” that it has become difficult for me to remember to take that hat off when I’m not supposed to be wearing it. Many of my friends experience a similar feeling about wearing the “mother” hat – the y find themselves “mothering” students, coworkers, and friends. I also think, in some ways, getting all wound up in someone else’s life not only makes me feel special, but it takes the focus off my own life. My inner mean girl usually takes a back seat when I’m in helper mode. After all, I’m doing what I’m “supposed” to be doing, so she has less to complain about!
But sometimes I think we do need to stop fixing everyone else’s problems in favor of taking a good, hard look in the mirror. Our inner mean girls need to be dialogued with, not avoided.
If you’re ready to face your inner mean girl, I hope you’ll join me for this podcast episode: