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Don’t Fix It, Dude

Learning to stay with emotional discomfort – as men, leaders, and human beings

February 22, 2023

There’s a story I’ve heard from men in my coaching practice many times.

It goes something like this: The man’s partner is emotional or facing a challenge. When the man hears about it, he tries to provide a solution. It seems like the most natural thing to do: something is wrong, so he explains how to fix it. Problem solved, he thinks.

But of course, the partner doesn’t want to be fixed. The partner wants to be heard, listened to, and understood.

Often, the man knows this in theory. But in practice, he struggles. So, he either freezes, goes numb, distracts himself, zones out, gets angry, uses logical argumentation, or reverts to providing solutions.

He either fixes or leaves.

Whatever our gender, many of us will have found ourselves in similar situations. I know I have. Whether it’s our own emotion or that of others, staying with the trouble can be a challenge.

When feeling out of one’s depth, it’s natural to reach for tried and tested tools. One of our favorite tools is fixing.

We live in a world that venerates fixing. In daily life it goes by a more respectable name: “problem-solving.”

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with problem-solving. Fixing a bike, solving a math problem, or debugging code are necessary and worthy endeavors. But the subjects in question are inorganic, mechanical, and dead.

When you try to fix something that is alive, it ceases to be an appropriate or even possible task. You can’t fix a person. You can’t repair an animal. You can’t solve an ecosystem.

Yet this is what we so often do when we encounter emotional difficulty. We try to fix the issue. We try to solve the problem. We try to make the pain go away.

The assumption underlying these patterns is that emotional difficulty is wrong. We believe we shouldn’t be sad, angry, troubled, confused, irritated, or grief-stricken. Only happiness and positivity are permitted. Everything else should cleaned up, disposed of, and eliminated.

These assumptions stem from our own difficulty in meeting and regulating our own emotions. If we’ve grown up in environments without sufficient attunement and support, then moments of overwhelming sadness, anger, fear, or joy will remain unaddressed. When there’s chronic mis-attunement—a defining feature of our society—then we learn that the only way to deal with overwhelming emotion is to avoid it.

We become experts at numbing, ignoring, and fixing.

The alternative starts with a simple word: meeting.

Meeting is a process of welcoming what arises in yourself. When emotional difficulty shows up, you notice how it lives in you. You don’t resist numbness or fixing impulses. Instead, you get curious. You become interested in staying with yourself as much as with the other person. You become a connoisseur of your inner landscape, diving deeper into it rather than trying to escape it. If you find yourself trying to avoid what’s arising, you notice that, too.  

With increased awareness comes the possibility of bringing it into relationship. So, when you notice a fixing impulse arise, you include it in the relational space. You own your difficulty in staying present, and you communicate that if and when appropriate. You notice the impulse to fix, but you don’t give in to it. You see it, but don’t succumb to it.

We can’t force our emotional states to change on demand. All we can do is to be honest and transparent about what we’re experiencing.

Responsibility means taking ownership for our experience, in relation.

Often, that is all that is needed for emotional challenges to melt, move, and flow.

These dynamics apply as much at the workplace as they do in intimate relationships.

When emotions run high in an organization, the quality of leadership becomes apparent.

Immature leaders will reactively try to solve people problems, fix issues, and get rid of emotional difficulties. Or they will hide.

Mature leaders will meet their inner and outer turmoil. They will notice and explore their own emotions as rich sources of information, and even share from their inner world when appropriate. They will acknowledge and listen to other people’s experiences with hospitality and care – not because it’s good for business, but because it’s the respect that anything living deserves to receive.

The mature leader sees emotional challenges not as obstacles blocking the path, but as the footprints of the path itself.

Whatever our gender, and whatever our professional position, we face a choice of how we meet ourselves and each other.

We can choose to avoid, override, and escape our experience.

Or we can turn toward what we’re experiencing, and be there with the care and attention that life deserves. It’s the choice to stay still as the storm rages inside and outside, remaining openhearted yet unperturbed in our sense of who we are.

Without reaching for a fix or a cure, we embody care by simply being there.

The longer we stay, the further we go.


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