A friend of mine, Kim, is a single mother with two grown daughters, Lisa and Molly. Each of these women—two in their thirties and one in her fifties—spends a good portion of every day trying to make the others happy. Kim calls Lisa to tell her Molly’s having man trouble and needs to move in with her. Molly calls Kim to tell her Lisa is having trouble with money and needs a loan. Lisa and Molly call each other to figure out what to do about Mom’s flitting from job to job. They all love one another, but each feels unhappy and unsupported by the other two. In watching the interplay, I’ve been struck most by the fact that they each believe that love means trying to help one another in this overinvolved way. Without realizing it, they disempower one another every day in a misguided attempt at caring.
No one taught Kim, Lisa, and Molly that when we “truly love someone,” as Don Miguel Ruiz writes in The Mastery of Love, “you trust their ability to take care of themselves.” From this place, we can say, “I love you; I know you can make it. I know you are strong enough, intelligent enough, good enough that you can make your own choices.”
So, if it’s impossible to create happiness for another person, why do we try? Lissa Coffey, author of Getting There with Grace, believes it’s because we’d rather try that than work on ourselves. “We tend to focus things outside of us, because it is difficult to take a close look at ourselves and change what is going on inside. So making others happy is basically a distraction, we fool ourselves into thinking we are doing good work, and we get a temporary fix thinking that we are making some kind of a difference when the reality is, if we could just be happy ourselves, then others would see that and do the same.”
Life coach Ray Dodd says it’s because we’re motivated out of fear and have unconscious pacts with one another including one that says, “love is a commodity that lives outside of me and I have to be the right thing, say the right thing and do the right thing to get it. If I make you happy then you will love me.”
Others, such Patricia Farrell, PhD, see it particularly as a women’s issue. “Women are socialized to think first of others and then of themselves. This ‘other orientation’ can lead to feelings of self-disapproval or blame when a woman feels that she hasn’t adequately met the needs of another. While men may see themselves in terms of their own accomplishments, women see themselves in terms of others.”
If this sounds like you, come back next time for my three-step approach to stopping this self-destructive behavior.