The Problem With “Fixing”

We are so helpful. We have to keep things perfect. When things aren’t perfect, even if that happens in someone else’s life–we have to fix it.

You don't need a toolbox to help

You don't need a toolbox to help

My husband slipped on the kitchen floor a few days ago and crashed into the kitchen island. He will have to have surgery and an immobilized arm for a while. Life for us will be significantly different for a few months. We will have to make work adjustments. He will have to ask for help. I have to drive him everywhere, pick up his chores and do them along with mine. I won’t be cheery all the time, and I’m sure there are frantic days ahead. My focus is to be mindful, balance humor and despair, and know it’s OK to harbor murderous fantasies as long as I don’t act on them.

As people hear about this, I will inevitably hear  a lot of “fixing” advice. Sure, people say the first thing that comes to mind. It’s almost as if they need to create a space between misfortune and themselves. But I’ve gathered a few things people say from some other incidents in my life–the other rotator cuff of ’04, the fire of ’02, my mom’s death in ’03–and I’d like to pass on what sounds like “fixing” –things you think would fix the problem.

I notice that they are not necessarily things people actually do, but things that sound good.  The next time you get ready to “help” someone by using one of these phrases, re-think it. Most likely you don’t know all the financial, emotional, or work circumstances involved. And a “fix” generally is a big-picture idea that has small-detail consequences that are hard to apply.

“I had the same thing happen to me two years ago. . .” This isn’t about you, and telling that story is not helpful to the person you are telling it to.

“Well, what can you expect if you run in bare feet?” Thank you, Obviousman. What do you expect for an answer?

“It could have been worse. . .” What, this isn’t bad enough for you? When a dominant arm is strapped to your side, you need help in the most interesting ways. That’s plenty bad for me, thanks.

“Here’s what you should do. . .” You don’t know this person well enough to take over responsibility for their decision-making, even if it’s your sister.

“Just hire someone to do the yard and house work. . .” Unless you are offering to pay for these services, don’t suggest it. Most freelancers, if they have medical insurance, have a giant deductible that has to be paid out of pocket before the insurance kicks in.

“You’re so lucky that it wasn’t worse. . .” Lucky is winning the lottery. If that didn’t happen, don’t use the word ‘lucky.’

“It’s all God’s will . . .” Stop blaming higher powers for dumb accidents. Accidents are called that because no one wanted them to happen and they don’t have a lot of purpose. I’m with the Buddhists on this–stop trying to get ground under your feet and deal with the uncertainty that is.

“Really, some good will come from all this. . .” Unless you are personally going to make something fabulous happen, skip this one. Some things are just rotten, and getting through them is rotten. And it still has to be done. Self-discipline is a virtue you hate to practice.

“I’m not married and I have to do all the work all the time. Be glad you have a husband.” Sigh. It’s still not about you. When you are married it’s more than twice the work to take over the spouse’s chores. When you live by yourself, there is less laundry, less food (and you can eat over the sink), and half the people to make the mess in a smaller place.

So what is a good way to help? Be empathetic. You don’t need to fix this. Just witness it. A witness sees and notices but doesn’t turn into Dear Abby. If you offer help, expect it to be taken and be ready to give it cheerfully and without payback. You don’t have to offer help, either. You can say something like, “What a rotten break. I’m so sorry, ” or “I hate it along with you.” Empathy glides over bumps while advice has a nail in the tire.

If you do offer help, give a hint what kind you are willing to offer. Because if you ask “What can I do?” and your friend says, “Clean my house and drive him around on Tuesdays,” you’ll probably turn her down. If you say, “Can I bring you my clam and watermelon casserole?” you’ll get a polite turn-down and won’t have to offer anything else.

Being a witness is all that it takes to nourish a friendship. You don’t have to be a healer or a fixer.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and creativity coach. She has a business website at and an art website at