Do you know people who try to make their problems your problems? They may not even realize they're doing it—but that doesn't make it okay. A few examples and a few thoughts on how to get out of this role for good:
Problem-Dumping: A Few Examples
- The roommate who needs a ride to the airport—at 6am
- The co-worker who tries to turn you into their counselor
- The direct report who wants you, the boss, to settle their disputes
- Anyone who wants you to pick up their slack
You can be kind and compassionate toward others without being responsible for them. Or as my father once pondered out loud when the two of us were at lunch, "I care—but not that much."
My father's eighty-four. He can say things like that. The point is, we all have limits.
How to Stop Owning Other People's Problems
1. Take note of your responsibilities.
It's easier to say no to other people's challenges when you've taken time to clarify your own. For example, if you're taking care of a sick loved one, you don't have time to throw someone a surprise party. Let that job go to the person who asked you to do it.
2. Trade "Can I do this?" for "Who owns the problem?"
You can ask yourself this question silently. And if you find you're not the owner, you'll be better equipped to respond with confidence. And hey, if you want to throw the surprise party, go for it. But sometimes we accommodate mere acquaintances at the expense of our inner circle.
3. Come up with a few stock phrases.
It also helps to maintain a neutral tone—what I call "cheerful dispassion." For one thing, you'll conserve emotional energy. For another, the less you get drawn in, verbally or emotionally, the more likely it is that the other person will find their own solution.
A few phrases you can use or mold for your own purposes:
- "Can't help ya."
- "That's not going to work."
- "I'm sure you'll figure it out."
- Smile and shrug (no words).
Notice in all of these, you're not explaining, justifying, waffling, or pitching alternatives. That's not your role. Your role is to land this conversation, not launch a new one.
Not long ago, I saw a refrigerator magnet that said, "Stand your ground, it's sacred." So is your time, so is your energy. When you stop taking on other people's problems, you will gain respect in the long run—including from those who protest the most.
When you stop taking on others' problems, you gain respect—including from those who protest the most.
— Gina DeLapa