Just Trying to Help: The Codependency of Unsolicited Advice

I need to write this article for catharsis. You see, unsolicited advice is my biggest pet peeve and I’ve been on the receiving end of too much of it lately. I don’t want to shame anyone for being a giver of unsolicited advice, because we all do it, but I am hoping that this article will help people recognize when they are about to do it or how to manage when it is being done to them. Whether you are that person who has a tendency to jump in to help when no one has asked, or you are the person who is sick of being rescued, this article is for you. Chances are, you are both. So am I. Let’s get into that.

First let’s define what unsolicited advice even is. Unsolicited advice is the act of giving advice, help, solutions, and so on, without having been solicited to do so. Everybody does this from time to time, some much more than others. Unsolicited advice is almost always done with good intentions – the people who do it really want to be helpful. They perceive someone who is struggling and they want to alleviate their suffering by offering advice and solutions. Any warm-blooded, breathing human with a heart wants to help when they see someone in distress. How is that so bad?

Here’s the thing: when you jump in to help someone when they haven’t expressed a desire to be helped or without asking permission first, you are overriding that person’s agency. The act of helping unsolicited is intrinsically self-centered, because you haven’t even consulted the other person! How can you possibly know that the help you were going to offer is even going to be…helpful? In fact, how do you know that it won’t in fact be harmful? In helping professions, “first, do no harm” is a powerful mantra that speaks to the important responsibility that falls upon these professionals to ensure that their intervention is needed, consensual, and actually helpful. If helping and caring for others is something you are passionate about, then I’d like to offer for consideration that there is an entire body of ethical philosophy centered around how to have the greatest possible impact on the people you want to help. A lot of people are not necessarily aware that there are established principles of being of service to others beyond the surface-level desire to do so. With that being said, this isn’t an article about ethics. This, really, is an article about codependency.

When talking about codependency, I like to refer people to Karpman’s The Dreaded Drama Triangle model, or TDDT. This was introduced to me in therapy and has been one of the tools that I most frequently utilize in my day-to-day life interacting with others. With TDDT, codependency occurs in a triangular relationship between 2 or more people. Within this triangle are three roles one may occupy in a given moment: the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor. The victim is someone who views themselves as a passive participant in their environment – everything is happening to them and they are powerless to stop it. The persecutor uses aggression to dominate others in their environment, wielding criticism, shame, and blame to take power from or shirk it unto others as they please. Then we have the rescuer, who takes on other people’s problems and suffering as their own, simultaneously disempowering themselves through self-erasure while also reinforcing patterns that remove agency from others. You have probably guessed that unsolicited advice falls under rescuer behavior. Two people can bounce around these roles within a single interaction, but generally it starts with an “invitation” by one person occupying a role. Learning about these roles and the subtle ways they show up in behavior can help someone prevent themselves from victimizing another person through unsolicited advice and insulate oneself a bit from receiving unsolicited advice in the first place.

TDDT represents a dynamic of relating to others that is inherently devoid of boundaries and confused about who has power in the relationship; that is why it is a model of codependency. As I mentioned before, it all starts with an invitation. An invitation might look like someone taking on the role of victim: “I’m so sick of being the only person who does anything around here. Why don’t I ever get any help?” This invitation beckons the other person to respond either as a persecutor (“This wouldn’t be happening if you weren’t such a doormat!”) or a rescuer (“I’ll clean the house for you, don’t worry,” or “I’ll talk to them for you.”) Likewise, the invitation can also be initiated by a rescuer or a persecutor. One such scenario that is fairly common is when someone has shared that they just received an unfortunate health diagnosis. In this scenario, rescuers begin leaping in with solutions and unsolicited advice: “Try this diet,” “Look into this research, it has what you need,” or “Here’s a product that can help.” The person on the receiving end is being invited into the victim role usually, but rescuers might get shocked and offended when their targets choose the persecutor role instead. How can we handle these invitations?

The nice thing about TDDT is that there is an antidote: The Empowered Dynamic, or TED. In TED we have a triangle but the roles have changed – the victim becomes the creator, the persecutor becomes the challenger, and the rescuer becomes the coach. In these roles, boundaries are clear and everyone is aware of their own power to choose how to act and respond in their environment. When you find yourself being met with an invitation to join TDDT, you can counter it with your own invitation to join TED instead. It’s important to keep in mind that you are only in control of your own behavior. Just as you may unexpectedly find yourself responding to someone’s invitation to step into TDDT by joining in with them, you may also be shocked to find that when you try inviting someone out of TDDT, they refuse your invitation. Some people simply lack the tools and understanding to embody TED, as the behaviors therein may have never been modeled to them – and it isn’t your job to reparent them either. What is within your power is setting boundaries with behavior you don’t wish to engage in – whether your own or someone else’s. Next, I will go over some strategies for how to do this.

If You are a Rescuer

  1. Ask more questions.
    One of the most frustrating things about receiving unsolicited advice or help is that often the rescuer is lacking critical information that only the person being helped has access to. Information such as: whether or not they want to be helped, what strategies they have already tried or are trying, and even their own ideas about what would be most helpful. Being able to ask, “do you want my help?” is one of the easiest things you can do to stop yourself from becoming a rescuer and step into being a coach. Other great questions to ask are, “What have you tried so far?” and “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” Be curious about the person’s situation, perspective, and experience – it will go a long way.
  2. Validate the person you’re trying to help.
    Another thing that can be particularly frustrating about being on the receiving end of unsolicited advice is that it often occurs without the other person’s feelings or experience even being acknowledged – the rescuer just jumps straight into problem-solving. I am especially guilty of this at times and I find that it is a reflection of my own discomfort with other people’s negative emotions. I struggle with validating others. Validating doesn’t mean that feelings and perspectives become indisputable truth – validating is just about acknowledging what someone is going through. It is a fundamental component of empathy to be able to listen to someone share their experience and reflect on what that experience must feel or be like, and then state that. “I can see this experience is very hard on you,” “You’re going through a lot right now, that must feel overwhelming,” and “It’s understandable why you feel angry and hurt right now” are all examples of validating someone.
  3. Try not to take it personally if someone doesn’t want your help or doesn’t put your advice into practice.
    It doesn’t reflect on your worth as a person if you can’t help someone or if they don’t want your help. Most people really need to be able to find their own solutions to heal, which includes knowing when to reach out for help. If you find yourself becoming upset or anxious when people don’t want your help or don’t put your advice into practice, it’s a good idea to explore why that is – either through self-examination or with a licensed therapist.
  4. Please don’t say “I’m just trying to help” or other similar things when someone sets a boundary.
    It comes across as defensive and dismissive, adding to the previous point about taking things personally. I understand it can feel embarrassing to have someone point out that you are actually bothering them with your well-intentioned attempt at helping. A better response would be: “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel invalidated. You matter a lot to me and I want to see you be happy. I am eager to help you however I can, what would you like me to do?”

If You are Being Unwittingly Rescued

  1. Try not to take it personally if someone gives you unsolicited advice.
    Yes, this goes both ways. For the most part, people engage in rescuing behavior because they care and want you to be happy and/or because they have internalized issues around codependency. It’s easy to become annoyed and lash out, donning the persecutor role. I get it. The important thing to understand is that another person’s behavior is about their internal environment, not you. It doesn’t help the situation to act out in anger. There are more effective strategies, like setting boundaries.
  2. Reclaim your agency by drawing boundaries.
    When you are being approached by a rescuer, often you are being approached as a victim. You want to counter this by being a creator. One of my favorite ways to counter rescuing behavior is with a gentle, “thank you, but I can handle this myself.” Some other ways you can draw boundaries are with phrases like, “I appreciate that you want to help, but I didn’t ask for advice right now,” or “What would be most helpful is if you could just listen to me. Your presence is enough.” It’s possible you can get an undesired response to this, which goes back to the previous point: try not to take it personally. Not everyone is equipped or ready to join you in TED, and that’s okay. If someone lashes out at you for trying to draw a boundary, draw more boundaries with their lashing-out behavior: “This interaction doesn’t feel good for me, I’d like to move on” or “I’d appreciate if you could remain respectful, otherwise I will leave/hang up.”
  3. Consider if you are inviting others into a rescuing response by “victim-ing” out.
    Sometimes it is hard to tell that we have put on the victim role. We may think we are just venting or getting things off our chest, but often these activities take on victim language (“I keep trying but nothing works! I’m sick of always struggling.”) I’m not saying you should never be in victim energy; indeed it can be cathartic and sometimes necessary for bringing difficult emotions to the surface. If you are doing it all the time and getting annoyed by people jumping in with advice though, it’s important to recognize how you may be contributing to the dynamic (which, coincidentally, is how to shift into the creator role). It’s okay to just want to vent, but it can be helpful to preface it with “I’m looking to just vent and be listened to, not receive advice, is that okay with you?” before launching in. It’s important to give others a chance to opt out of your venting, out of respect for their boundaries, but also it clearly conveys your expectations for the interaction and informs the person what you need from them.

These are strategies that have worked for me and I hope they are helpful for anyone else who struggles with the rescuer/victim dynamic. TDDT and TED were introduced to me through my own therapist and have been really helpful tools for me to evaluate and take charge of my own behavior and communication. I know I did not touch upon the persecutor as much; that may end up becoming a future article on its own. Take care.

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