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  • Matthew Gallagher

Leave it Broken (let it fail)

The phrase too big to fail was used in times of crisis to justify interventions against natural consequences, such as financial institutions becoming insolvent or automakers facing bankruptcy. The motivation for these interventions comes from the belief that allowing the natural consequences to unfold will be unacceptable or do irreparable harm. Many of us face a similar question when a child, spouse, or family member presents a problem that requires our support.

This conundrum can be observed daily at most schools when a child forgets something they need and asks to call home. Our response to this question is likely a function of your overall empathy. Parents with a strong sense of compassion might struggle to let their child learn lessons of responsibility and create a pattern of rescuing. Parents who lack empathy might focus too much on responsibility and send a message of indifference or even criticism. The appropriate response to this challenge often lies somewhere in between compassion and deliberate efforts to teach responsibility, believing your child can endure difficulty and even learn from it. This is where parents are challenged to distinguish harm from hard.

Perhaps even more challenging is determining whether our relationships are too big to fail. We might feel like we have too much invested in a relationship by the time we recognize problematic behaviors in a partner (“But we just made plans to…”). Behaviors of control, dependency, and even abuse can prompt us to modify our behavior to make it work, similar to the enabling parent. To accomplish this we unconsciously use mental tricks to minimize bad behaviors that we might later describe as red flags, usually when we have some space to restore our objectivity.

This brings us back to the initial example of too big to fail. It’s important that we have some compassion for ourselves and not judge ourselves out of hindsight. It’s usually uncomfortable, but relationships grow through honest conversations of expectation which is also a description for a healthy conflict. We strain our relationships if we lack grace and complain about everything we don’t like. We also starve our relationships of honesty when we ignore bad behaviors and resign ourselves to doing without the things we need (unconditional acceptance, respect, playful fun) and resign ourselves to mistreatment. It can feel awkward or even wrong to express our concerns in a critical conversation, it can feel conflicted with social conformity and we often talk ourselves out of it by saying things like “it’s not worth it.” In our efforts to preserve peace (avoid conflict) we give in, over-adapt, or rescue, unintentionally reinforcing the negative behavior we wish would go away. Whether we have finally had enough or hopefully develop our own sense of autonomy and self-worth, we need to give ourselves permission to set boundaries with kindness and say “I care about you and no, I’m not going to…”

Matthew Gallagher, LCPC


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