Taking on Other People's Anxiety

Last week, I wrote about how I manage my anxiety. This week, I want to write about managing other people’s anxiety.

Warning! This post probably isn’t for you if you’ve said one of the following:

“I don’t want to be a doormat.”

“I have boundaries.”

“I have to take care of myself first.”

“I let too many people take advantage of me.”

In my experience, people who say things like that don’t really have a problem with this subject and they’re in very little danger of taking on other people’s anxiety.

This post is for those of you who cannot stop no matter how hard you try. You cannot break from caring, helping, or serving. . . And you get as anxious as the people you’re trying to save. In short, their problems become your problems.

People who are doormats don’t know it. They don’t talk about boundaries, because they don’t have any. And, they don’t take care of themselves first, because it never even crosses their minds.

In seminary, I remember one like-minded professor rebuking me for doing just that. I was an “orthodox” Christian in an increasingly “unorthodox” school. Future pastors were giving up on things like the virgin birth and the resurrection. Some were even giving up on Jesus. And I had a mission: I was going to save them! Their growing anxiety (their doubts and fears) became my anxiety. “I’ve got to fix this,” I said to myself. “I’ve got to champion Jesus to these overly impressionable students and get them back on course through my powers of persuasion.”

The only problem? It wasn’t working. I wasn’t getting anywhere—at all. Eyeing defeat, I became discouraged and frustrated, even depressed. “God, why can’t I save these people?” I’ll never forget my professor’s response—his rebuke: “You’re not the Savior! People change when they want to change and no one can do that for them.”

Edwin Friedman, in his classic “Friedman’s Fables,” tells the story of a man who ties himself to an unsuspecting passerby and then jumps off a bridge. The man left standing on the bridge, holding the rope, tries and tries to pull the now dangling man to the platform, but to no avail. He tries to save him, but he can’t. The man refuses to be saved. Still, that doesn’t stop him from sharing his anxiety.

The dangling man cries out, “If you let go, I will be lost!”

“But I cannot pull you up,” the other man cries. He is trying, but the man won’t cooperate. He won’t help.

“I am your responsibility. . . If you let go, I am lost,” the dangling man repeats.

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves.” And while it’s a phrase I generally dislike, there is some truth in it—in particular when it comes to helping others.

Most of us don’t like taking responsibility for our own behaviors and poor decisions. We don’t like owning our actions and the consequences that come with them. “The devil made me do it!”

So, what we do instead is put as much anxiety as we can on the people around us. “It’s your fault I’m acting this way.” “If you had helped me just a little bit more, I wouldn’t be in this situation.” Like the man dangling from the bridge, we expect others to save us and then blame them when they don’t.

“Pastor, you’ve got to help save my marriage.”

“Pastor, if you don’t change this thing, I’m leaving the church.”

“Pastor, I reached out to you for help, but you were no help at all.”

Here’s what I’m learning:

I can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.

I can’t fix a marriage that doesn't want to be fixed.

I can’t prevent someone from leaving the church by changing some thing. If I did, someone else would be unhappy with the change to that thing. I’m not the reason they’re leaving. They’re the reason they’re leaving—their preferences, their desires, etc.

Bottom line: I can’t help people who don’t want to be helped. I can make suggestions. I can pray. I can make myself available, but I can’t "fix" them unless they want to be fixed themselves. Not even God will do that most days.

What did Jesus ask the man looking for healing? "Do you want to be made well?" As the old expression goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

Another example: Sometimes a troubled adult child will say to his parents: “Mom and Dad, I need money.”

Your response, parents, if you’re not an enabler, will likely be: “I’m not going to give you any more money.”

“Well, if you don’t give me money, we’re done,” the child snaps back.

“Please don’t be done. I love you. I just can’t give you this money.”

“Well, then, Mom and Dad,” the child says, “You’re making the decision to end our relationship. Not me.”

Wrong! The parent (you) isn't making the decision to end the relationship. The child is.

Listen to me! LISTEN TO ME! Taking on other people’s anxiety isn’t your job. Care for them, love them, help them, but don’t carry them.

YOU ARE NOT THE SAVIOR. To quote our President, “YOU'RE FIRED!” You’re fired as the Savior.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” He didn’t say, “Go to that person over there! They’ll give you rest. They’ll take on your anxiety for you.” No! He said, “Come to ME. . . Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus takes people’s burdens. . . not me and not you.

But Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens!” True enough. Carry those burdens right over to Jesus. He'll take it from there.

Are you gentle and humble? Very likely. Otherwise, people wouldn’t dump their anxiety on you. There’s a reason people come to you for help.

Are you finding rest? Is your yoke easy and your burden light? If not, you may be taking on other people’s anxiety a little too much. You think you’re doing them a favor, but you’re not. Instead of directing them toward Jesus, you’re directing them toward you. And they don’t need you like they need Jesus.

At the end of Friedman’s fable, the man left-standing on the bridge finally makes a choice. He lets go of the rope. Friedman doesn’t tell us what happens next to the man dangling in the air. We can only imagine.

The man standing on the bridge makes a decision and it’s a difficult one. It’s consequential. In letting go, the dangling man will likely fall to his death and blame the other on the way down.

However, the man standing on the bridge understands something many of us don’t (including me, many days). The anxiety isn’t his to carry. He lets God be God and he fires himself as the Savior.

Are you listening? Yes, I’m talking to you! YOU! The one with the Savior complex. “You’re fired!”

Jesus loves you and I love you. And, if this post makes you anxious, try reading the one below: Three Way to Conquer Anxiety.