on CFOs and problems

Earlier this year, a friend of mine gave me a nickname. Or title. Or mantra.

“C.F.O.” (to stand for “chill the eff out.”)

She gave it to me because I was, at the time, in a second-guessing spiral, wondering why somebody did or said something or another, and then wondering whether my response was okay, and then being sorry if my response was not in fact okay, and then wondering if everybody in general were okay… It was exhausting. But, it’s this thing I do, when I’m tired or under stress of some kind. I second-guess myself. Worse, I convince myself that every single thing I do or say has a negative, rather than neutral or positive, impact.

I convince myself that I am responsible for everything–the bad with the good–because I am in desperate need to control everything. That need grows in proportion to the stress and exhaustion I feel. It’s a vicious and silly spiral.

It’s what we do, those of us with certain predisposition. The worriers. The “fixers,” as another friend described us (the ones who have a hard time seeing a problem without attempting to solve it, no matter what the problem is). I wonder if at some point, growing up, we were rewarded for solving problems, by a parent or friend, or another important person in our lives. Maybe that reward took strong hold in our egos. Maybe it came to define us, so that we felt worthy if and when we “fixed.”

Consider my case: I felt incredibly important and loved when I was the first, upon hearing a question, to come up with the right answer. I felt incredibly valued and respected when I was the first to learn about a situation and present a way to handle it. I could see it made people happy. I started to believe I was really good at solving problems, even quite brilliant sometimes. But therein hides another vicious and silly cycle: feeling brilliant for solving problems is addictive. It can make you want to manage situations so that you can continue to feel brilliant. In other words, it can make you try to control everything and give you an overly inflated sense of responsibility. Add stress to the mix, and well, you have a CFO on your hands.

Fixers, it seems, might be setting themselves up to feel pretty powerless. I for one, think I misattributed those initial rewards, whatever they were (a smile, a look on a parent’s face?). I wasn’t important, loved, valued, or respected because I had the right answer, or because I knew how to handle it. I would have been just as important, loved, valued and respected even if I had the wrong answer, even if I didn’t know how to handle it. Because I still would have been participating, enthusiastically. That’s what earned the reward. That’s what made people happy. Being there. Trying. Caring. Listening.

I am learning this, slowly. The reason my spouse comes to me with heavy, serious work-related stress, is not because I can take away his stress. It is because I can listen and provide buoyancy, so that he can manage his stress. The reason my friend shares her work and family challenges with me is not because I can provide the answer to her challenges, but because I can give her the space to share them in the first place and process them on her own.

I am not right all the time. I cannot fix everything. I am learning this. But I’ve always known that I am empathetic, that I am curious, that I listen, enthusiastically.

I am not a Fixer, but simply a Friend.


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