While it is generally a good quality to be emphatic, helpful and supportive, it also makes you a target for emotional sponges who want to latch onto you for emotional support and give nothing in return.
"But . . . if I want something in return, I'm not selfless anymore."
Relationships—not just romantic ones but friendships, too—are two-way streets. Doing something only because you expect something in return isn't selfless, true, but having certain expectations in your friendships and having some needs that need to be met for it to be a worthwhile relationship is a very normal thing. You might have heard of the expression "Don't light yourself on fire to keep others warm": in emergency situations, you have to make sure that you yourself are safe before helping others. Emotional help isn't any different.
In this article, I will try to detail how I realised I am a Fixer™, someone who is attracted to people that need fixing. I will explain how I realised it wasn't a good quality to have, how it drained me, and how I went about my last Project™: fixing myself.
"I am attracted to people who are broken, messed up and need fixing. I want to help them be better. I want to fix them. The more fucked up they are, the more attractive they are to me. I want to help."
Fixer and Project
A Fixer is someone who is attracted to people they can fix. They will try to help that person, give them attention, check-in with them, are always there for them, give them emotional support, try to fix their problems by giving advice, almost like a free and unlicensed therapist. They do this mostly at the cost of themselves and will find themselves drained of energy on behalf of their Project. "But how can I focus on myself if they need my help so much more?"
A Project is someone thriving on that attention. They suck it up like sweet cakes, always coming back for their fix of support and advice. They vent to their Fixer, always ask for what to do but never go through with following the advice. Some Projects go as far as blaming their Fixer for their own failure. "If you had given me better advice..." or "you weren't there for me yesterday so . . ." and are often - intended or not - very manipulative.
How do I recognise if someone is just a friend in need, or actually a Project?
From my personal experience, Projects will always refer to you as their friend (and they yours), they will tell you how important you are and how much you mean to them, etc. Not much different from what an actual friend would say, so where lies the difference? The proof of this pudding is in its actions: however small, a true friend will care about you and be there for you when you need them. A Project, however, will find ways to turn your issue into something about them, dismiss your concerns because theirs are more important, and not really follow through on any friendly promises they may have made.
You have a friend who seems to be under a lot of stress with work, school, parents, etc. They vent to you almost daily, through text or Facebook (or another messaging app you may use). You always listen to them, tell them it's tough, give them advice on how you think they can change the situation, support them until they feel better - which they seem to do after your talks. One day, though, you aren't feeling it. You're feeling pretty down yourself, had a rough day at work, slept badly, you're tired and drained, and you're really not up for playing armchair psychiatrist. You tell your friend "sorry, pal, I'm not really in the mood to talk about your issues today, I'm a bit drained myself. Can I talk to you about what happened at work?"
A true friend would (after x amount of introspection, perhaps) use that opportunity to say, "Oh, shucks, I've been focusing an awful lot on myself, haven't I? Sorry, what's up? Let's talk about it! You've been there for me too!" Maybe not immediately, maybe it takes some time, maybe you need to explain - but a true friend would see that a relationship is a two-way street and that you're not asking much by expecting them to be considerate and be there for you, too. They'll put in the effort to make the relationship more balanced, and even though it's been leaning towards you helping them lately, they'll make up for it sooner or later, when you need them to.
A Project, however, would probably not care too much about your issue. They might sweep it under the rug and turn the conversation back onto their own issue ("oh, that's bad, but anyway, as I was saying...") or even worse, lash out because you aren't putting their needs first ("wow, really? A bad day at work? At least you have a job! I don't know what to do about this and I really need you to be here for me now, okay?!") They might even go as far as saying it's your fault something didn't work out because they followed your advice or you didn't give them advice when they needed it.
You now know the first few signs to look out for, and can start looking into what you are getting out of your relationships.
What should I do if I think someone is a Project of mine?
See what a cost-benefit analysis of your friendship tells you.
It may sound a bit economic, but essentially, that's what relationships are.
You put in time, effort, dedication, love, compassion, empathy, all sorts of things you would like to see returned one way or the other.
I am often the "Mama Hen" of groups, people come to me for advice on relationships and self-growth. I have some friends who rely on me for that but aren't very "wise" in that aspect themselves, so of course, they aren't the person I myself go to with those issues - and that's fine. Those friends are there for me when I'm feeling down, and instead of talking through my issues, they'll volunteer to have a board game night or some drinks to cheer me up. So while I'm not getting the same exact amount of emotional support I put in, I get it back in a different form that helps me when I need it, and that works for us. I can confidently say that my friendships are balanced, and I'm not putting in more than I get out - just different things, and that's fine.
It wasn't always like that, though. I had a few Projects, and I would hardly ever get anything out of it. They hardly had time for me when I needed them, but when they needed to vent their issues, they suddenly had hours of time to dedicate to that. If I asked for something, there were a lot of excuses why they couldn't, but if they needed something from me, they'd guilt-tripped me into making time for them. From this paragraph alone, you can tell these friendships felt really unbalanced, and I started wondering if I was being taken advantage of, if I was really being a bad friend for being selfish, and if there was something wrong with me that I couldn't handle all of this.
The questions I asked myself were:
Am I getting enough out of this relationship compared to what I'm putting in?
If your answer to this first question is "yes, of course", you have nothing to worry about - but then again, you wouldn't be reading this if you had the feeling that it was. This is a very difficult thing to quantify, but it's worth thinking about. How do they react when I ask the same thing of them as they are asking of me? Have they given you excuses when you needed them? What exactly makes this relationship worthwhile for me, other than feeling good about helping them? And am I even feeling good about helping them, because it feels more like idle effort with no progress.
Am I putting their needs before my own?
This is the big question because the answer is almost always "yes."
"I feel tired, but I'll stay up an hour more just to listen to them vent."
"I really don't have the energy to be dealing with this now, but they said they need me so..."
"I need a hug and some ventilation myself, but they don't have time to listen to me today."
If these are things that define your relationship with them, then you can be pretty sure they aren't as invested in you as you are in them.
What exactly would I need from them to make this balanced for me?
It could be as simple as them making an effort to do something fun with you. Or them listening to something you need to vent. Or maybe you want them to stick to plans you make without making excuses to bail every other time.
Once you've quantified what exactly you are looking for, it is time to communicate that to them. And that may very well be the hardest thing to do, because you are accustomed to them not showing they care much about you. Sit them down and tell them, "Listen, we need to talk about something. I have been trying my best to help you and be there for you when you need me, which honestly is quite often and is draining a lot of energy from me. I would like you to X and Y, in order for me to feel validated and loved in this friendship".
Their reaction will tell you everything you need to know.
Two options: either they'll act understanding, or they'll blame you for bringing more drama to their life.
If they act understanding, they will have to back up their words with actions. Give them some time to prove to you that they are putting in the effort. If they don't, those words were just an idle attempt at keeping you there as their crutch anyway.
If they blame you, don't write them off just yet - they might just feel attacked in the moment, thought about it and come around to apologise. In that case, see the above: let them prove it to you. If they don't, then you know this isn't a friendship worth keeping around.
Are they treating me in a similar way as I am treating them?
If you are a Fixer, then you're probably very self-aware. You make sure you're nice to people, polite, listen to their issues, give advice, are patient, apologise when you mess up and are generally caring and trying to do the best for everyone.
But what happens if you have a bad day? You only had one hour of sleep and you snapped at your friend. You apologise, but what then? Do they forgive you? Are they patient with your temper? Do they understand? Are they trying to help you through this issue? Or are they blaming you, and using that one time you snapped as leverage for you to be even nicer to them in the future? Do they cut you out for a week and then come back when they need your help again?
What can I do to work with them to fix this imbalance?
Express the feelings you are having ("I feel like I'm getting emotionally drained trying to care for you while I'm not getting much effort in return") and tell them what you need from them to fix it ("I would appreciate it if we could work together to make our friendship stronger, and go through with x or y in order to do so!")
As said above, their reception of this will tell you a lot.
Were they genuinely just caught up in their own issues and didn't realise they were being a bad friend? Are they genuinely remorseful and trying to fix it? Then you have a friend who's just caught up in a bit of a bad period, and with some working together, you'll be able to salvage your friendship and turn it into something you both get energy from.
But if they get defensive and blame you, are generally unwilling to work on this or just don't care, you might have a Project on your hands.
What do I do when I'm sure someone is a Project?
You need to realise you can only help people who want to be helped.
You can give advice and support them, but they are the ones who have to be putting in the work to fix it. If they don't, you'll never see progress and they'll leech off you forever.
So sadly, the best thing to do is cut out these people.
I've had the misfortune of having to do that with a handful of people, and while hurting initially, my life became better for it.
As I wrote above, I went through those steps explaining my issue with them and how I'd like to work with them to fix it, and in return, they lashed out, blamed me, got mad and demanded I continued the relationship the way it was.
I then told them that if that is the case, I have to take care of myself first, otherwise, I'll end up drained and miserable on their behalf, and that's not a reasonable expectation to have. Going forward, we couldn't be friends until they were willing to put in that effort, and I told them my door was always open if they changed their mind on that.
Spoiler alert: they didn't come back a changed friend. They found another Fixer to latch onto and be dependent on. I realised they never really cared about our friendship in the first place, and while that hurt, it also was very liberating. I now had a lot more time and resources to invest in the people that really mattered, most of all myself.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.