A Path Through The Messy Middle

A few minutes into my morning run, familiar signs of stress crept in. Inside my cheeks felt ragged from teeth grinding, the night’s sleep interrupted.

The body will always tell you how you are doing.

In our house, it’s application season. The real work, however, has nothing to do with the online forms. The details are not my story to tell, but the urge to do it my way, on my timetable, definitely is.

I’m having a hard time stepping back and allowing my child to mobilize. Or not. If you feel pulled to solve problems for your nears and dears, I see you, my friend.

Yesterday, a trusted observer said, “you are the only one doing the work, Elizabeth.”

I blanched at the truth of that. It’s not my style to rob my kid of agency. Once upon a time, this same kid rode his bike to elementary school alone. In our town, that level of independence is practically unheard of. Ever since Covid, however, I’ve indulged in the mad urge to swoop in and take over. It is undoubtedly parenting malpractice.

If you’ve tuned into these Friday Stories for a while, you know they begin with a problem and usually end with a tidy solution. Not this time.

Welcome to the messy middle.

Why am I inviting you into a problem with no end in sight?

A few reasons. First, everyone deals with hard stuff. Often, we handle it alone, no matter how willing our support system.




If you are like me and prefer your story to end like a renovation reveal, I feel you. Maybe you’ll debrief your people when it’s over, just to keep folks in the loop. I am lucky to always have a story to write or a coach to call up. My vulnerability is safely contained.

Sharing face to face with an actual person is far more difficult.

So, why do we keep the messy bits to ourselves? We justify our silence with some version of the following:

Everyone struggles with something— why bother discussing it? 

I don’t want to look like a disaster to other people. 

Support is for the weak. 

I don’t need anyone to solve my problems.

No one really cares.

People don’t know how to listen.

At one time or another, I have believed every one of these painful thoughts. And you’re right, not every little thing is meant to be shared. But that last one about listening? That one happens to be true.

But letting others in for the big stuff actually matters. We share to be seen, not fixed. When you reveal your truth, you get to be your whole self with someone else. That vulnerability creates human connection, there’s just no way around it.

Finding someone who can listen deeply is tricky though. Most of us aren’t—it’s not a skill any of us was taught in school. Algebra? A must. Listening to another human being: useless.

If you’re short on good listeners, I have a tip for you. Become a really good listener yourself. The universe is one big ole boomerang.

The best tutorial on the art of listening comes from Untamed author Glennon Doyle. She demonstrates what not to do. I have been a few versions of this terrible listener. And I’ve been “listened to” in those ineffective ways too. The shover, the comparer, the fixer—not listening.

Do your friends and family a favor and watch this:  

As a coach, I am now trained to listen. Admittedly, I do better in a coaching session than in conversation. Old habits die hard.

So. Back to the original dilemma. How am I going to step back from trying to solve my kid’s problems? How do any of us resist the urge to fix what doesn’t belong to us?

I’ll start by acknowledging what this is really about. For me to stand by and allow him to feel the painful consequences of his own mistakes is excruciating. I imagine it sucks for most parents.

The truth is, taking the pain away really isn’t about saving my kid. It is about saving myself from the pain of watching my child suffer. But by robbing him of a difficult growth experience, he misses out on the lesson the pain showed up to teach. The deeper truth is that I have actually saved him from nothing. I have only deferred his pain into the future, possibly creating a worse problem with higher stakes later in his life. And that sucks WAY worse for him.*  




So how do I stop the madness? There are a few possibilities which I am just going to have to experiment with because I’m not sure.

I can try being a comfort instead of a fixer.** I can be there, steady and present to his experience, as best I can, instead of hijacking the whole business for myself. I can hold my own space, like an oak tree in a storm.




When I start to feel anxious and pulled in to rescue, I can step away and feel those difficult feelings about witnessing the struggle. Maybe seek support of my own.

That’s all I got.

So. Have I convinced you to share your messy middle with a trusted friend? Or to start by being that good listener for someone else? I hope so. I’m going to give it a whirl myself. After all, authentic connection is what makes us feel like it’s all going to be okay.



WRITING PROMPT: What big truth is right there waiting for you to discover? Do you have someone to share it with? A good listener, perhaps? Are you a good listener?

*This is also about something else which I didn’t realize until I this Friday Story had already gone out. We also clean up the mess because we worry about what other people think of us just standing by and watching it happen. We imagine their thought bubble, what were the parents thinking? That is such a given I didn’t even think to mention it.

**This insight came from someone I coached. This is the magic of coaching! The sessions are co-created so there are gold nuggets for all in every session. Ready to start doing some work on yourself? Email me to schedule a free Discovery Session at Curious about coaching? Learn more at  And if you are family or a friend, I have an amazing coaching community ready to partner with you.

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