You Cannot Save People

DenaDecember 14, 2011

“You cannot save people. You can only love them.” —Anaïs Nin

Like all families, my family had its problems. For as long as I can remember, I believed that it was my responsibility to fix them. And so, at the ripe old age of ten, I started trying. I made lists, drew plans, and created budgets. I’d gotten it into my head that I was responsible for everything that happened around me. So I made it my life’s mission to right the wrongs, to fix everything that was broken, and to somehow make everybody happy.

I spent the greater part of my life on this suicide mission. My self-worth depended on it. When bad things happened, I did my best to make them better. But most of the time I failed. See, I was never going to be able to fix a marriage, or prevent anyone from losing their home, or talk a friend out of an abusive relationship. But because I thought that I had to, I tried. Time and time again, I tried. And time and time again, I failed.

I couldn’t understand it. I spoke from my heart and I gave people good, solid advice. But no one listened to me. They just kept on with what they were doing. Sometimes they even went and did the opposite of what I suggested. The heartaches grew more painful, the financial situations grew more dire, and the marriages fell apart.

All the while, the little girl who thought it was her job to fix things grew sadder. I was a failure. Everything crumbled around me. It was all my fault.

Such are the thoughts of the anxious and the depressed. Why are some people predisposed to this line of thinking? There are two types of people in this world. There are the people like me, we make ourselves sick with worry. We internalize all of the pain and blame ourselves for everything. We are racked with guilt. Then there are the other people, the people we try to help. The ones who seem hell-bent on a path of destruction. Who don’t take good advice, but always come crawling back when the shit hits the fan.

I don’t remember which session it was, but I was in a session with the therapist who saved my life with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). We were talking, again, about my guilt, about how I thought that everything was my fault. It was something about my family. I’d been blaming myself for something ridiculous and I was awaiting her response. There was silence for a moment, and then she said, “Dena, did you ask to be born?”

That was a lightning moment for me. There are still-points in a life wherein everything else falls away. We define our lives in chunks of time, separated by these great, catastrophic instances. This was one of those instances. My life can be cleanly divided into two parts—everything that came before that moment and everything that came after it. I was inexplicably, irrevocably changed.

I had not asked to be born. Everything was not my fault. And I could not save everybody.

Andy Warhol wrote that “When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them.” I have had to learn this truth the hard way, the very hard way. I had to spend the first half of my life like a chicken with my head cut off. I ran myself straight into the ground trying to save people. I suffered deeply and often.

And then one day, I learned the truth. I learned that I am never going to be able to save anyone. The only way a person can be saved is to save themselves. And whether I like it or not, not everybody wants to be saved. All that I can do is love. And so I do, and so I will. Sometimes I forget this, sometimes I need to be reminded.

Comments (30)

  • Crista Lamore

    December 14, 2011 at 9:18 pm


    1. Dena Botbyl

      December 15, 2011 at 10:58 am


  • Olivia Groche

    December 15, 2011 at 12:24 am

    Wow, I can definitely relate.

    I often feel very guilty if I’m not perfect or if I don’t act according to my standards of perfection (or the standards that were taught to me when i was little). I also blame myself and the people around me are not happy… I am just starting to work on that, and realizing that no I cannot please everyone, and no perfection does not exist. 

    Your posts are amazing 🙂

    1. Dena Botbyl

      December 15, 2011 at 10:59 am

      Thank you, Olivia.  I am so happy to know that you are working on it, don’t give up.  There is a better way.  xo

  • Kateshrewsday

    December 15, 2011 at 1:34 am

    Hi Dena, had to leave a comment: I have been working for six months in CBT and what a life-changing business it is! Fantastic post, thank you.

    1. Dena Botbyl

      December 15, 2011 at 11:00 am

      Thanks, Kate!  I am so glad to hear that.  Are you working with a therapist?  Feel free to drop me an email or a Tweet @denabotbyl! xo

  • Frenchy Caroline

    December 15, 2011 at 3:50 am

    Beautiful post Dena, it really touches me and I definitely know what you mean. I’ve tried to change some people for a while but you’re right, if they don’t want to, they won’t change, as simple as that. So I gave up and start taking care of my own, I’m still there for them if they want to, but I’m not running after.

    1. Dena Botbyl

      December 15, 2011 at 11:00 am

      I can tell what an enormous heart that you have.  Yes, be sure to watch after it.  You are the only one who can.  xo

  • Anonymous

    December 15, 2011 at 8:29 am

    A great post, particularly for this Holiday season when so many people are trying their best to make everything and “everybody” just perfect.

    I would say that I also had a need to make everything work right as a young man and it became apparent to me during my four years of teaching school and coaching football and basketball that it really wasn’t up to me do make everything work. I could help someone, I could show them how to do something in the classroom or on the football field, but, it was up to them to do it and either be successful or fail.

    That was my first realization that all I could do was try to do the right thing every day, live the Golden Rule as best as I could and lend a hand where needed. I can’t change people or the world, I can just make the effort and hope for the best.

    1. Dena Botbyl

      December 15, 2011 at 11:01 am

      Thank you for sharing this, Lou.  It inspires me to hear about your journey and what you had to go through to get where you are today.  I am working hard to get there, too.  Life is a journey, a series of unending lessons.  xo

  • Andra Watkins

    December 15, 2011 at 9:07 am

    I used to believe I could save people, too. How freeing to let that go.

    1. Dena Botbyl

      December 15, 2011 at 11:03 am

      There were times, while writing this, when I was thinking of you.  One of your relationships in particular reminds me of my own relationship with a particular family member.  I love you so much.  xo

  • Dpaccione

    December 15, 2011 at 9:36 am

    <3 this Dena im a fixer myself always try to fix everything for everyone most of my love life has been with fixer uppers too and i worry like crazy they call my momma dee cause im alsways worring

    1. Dena Botbyl

      December 15, 2011 at 11:16 am

      I know exactly how you feel.  It’s not easy to be a worrier, but if I remind myself often enough, I can take control and keep it from bringing me down.  It is always a struggle though.  <3

  • The Dame

    December 15, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Thank you for this! Im always trying to tell people what they need to do to get better, whether its love, health, themselves and they never listen. 

    1. Dena Botbyl

      December 15, 2011 at 11:16 am

      One of my favourite phrases– “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”  xo

  • Clare Bear

    December 15, 2011 at 10:57 am

    “There are the people like me, we make ourselves sick with worry. We internalize all of the pain and blame ourselves for everything.” that gave me chills, hits home.

    I love your blog so much.

    1. Dena Botbyl

      December 15, 2011 at 11:17 am

      Thank you so much, doll!  I am so glad to know that this resonated with you.  xo

  • nrhatch

    December 15, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Excellent post.

    No one saves us but ourselves.  No one can and no one may.
    We, alone, must walk the path.

  • Kristinkielar

    December 15, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    I can relate to this completely, and the simple question that your therapist posed to you is … something I wish I had heard earlier. It reminds me of Audre Lorde’s “Stations,” too. 

  • Mark David Robertson

    December 15, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Well said, Dena. We clearly shared the same wave today: there are two people. And then there’s a third, isn’t there? The hell-bent, and the bent-over-into-hell–and then those who’ve been to hell and back so many times they realize they’re loved because their loved. Everything else is an expression of that love. Participating in someone’s life is like withdrawing $25 from a trust fund of a billion dollars. Well said, Dena. 

  • Anon

    December 16, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    I feel like I have wasted a few years of my life being in the same situation as you. I am almost 22 now and really feel enlightened with these ideas. All I can be is a listening ear to people I care about, and let them make their own choices. I have quit giving my opinions as to what they could/would/should do and I just listen and let them make their own choices. What I have learned is that when people bitch to me, they don’t want to be saved from it, they just need to vent. I have learned its not my duty to save them either.

  • Anonymous

    January 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    I’m a born fixer, as well. For my own peace of mind, I’ve had to find middle ground. I never blamed myself for my family, but I always felt like if I could help, I had a responsibility to do so. I feel restless and miserble if I don’t at least try when I can see a solution. But once I’ve put that forward, if it goes by the wayside, I’m OK. I feel like I’ve done my best and I can go on living my life. As you say, the marriages will end. The wrong decisions will be made. We cannot save anybody. It doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying, though.

  • Pepe

    April 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    I can really relate to your post and life story. I really admire how you have turned your suffering into something positive! Keep up the good work!

  • Tashe

    August 21, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Wow this could have been written by me ( if I had as much insight!) that’s how closely it resembles my own childhood and current path. Thanks for helping me get some much needed awareness this morning! I’m at the beginning of starting the Cognitive Behavioral part and feeling huge resistance. How did you overcome this? It literally HURTS to say the positives about myself.

    1. Dena Botbyl

      August 25, 2012 at 10:23 pm

      Hi Tashe and thank you for your comment. Have you read my other posts about CBT. Please keep searching through the archives. There is so much there that may be helpful to you. Also, if it is easier, you can also get all of it neatly in my book:

      Stay strong!! xoxo

  • Jenifer

    October 20, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    This is my life exactly and I’m at the point in life where it’s either let it go or continue to suffer. Thank you for you words.

  • sai

    January 20, 2013 at 4:28 am

    very similar to me……

  • cristina

    May 5, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    this hit so hard to home..but i needed to read this because i am the exact same way, on a life goal to help others and putting myself last.. i needed this so much. thank you. you seriously inspire me to find a therapist because i honestly have no one to talk to, because i am the one everyone turns to. but i know thats not right and i have to value myself before others..

    1. denabotbyl

      May 5, 2013 at 5:48 pm

      i am so proud of you for coming to these realizations, love. it is a hard lesson, but so incredibly important. xo

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