Genuine Helping is Sharing what one has learned from a place of compassion. It is accompanied by a willingness to listen. Skilled helpers listen a lot and check to see if s/he understands what the other is saying by paraphrasing or asking questions. Helping differs from Narcissistic Unhelpfuness. Narcissistic Unhelpfuness is based on a misperceived ego need of the self-appointed helper: the need to prove oneself, the need to be right, and the need to feel morally superior. On the receiving end, the help or advice seems disjointed, cloying, abrupt, out-of-place, suffocating, shaming or demeaning. The shaming can be subtle, leaving you feeling not quite good enough as opposed to feeling empowered.
In a need to prove oneself, new professionals can be over eager to help and to share their new information, which is understandable and often innocuous, but it can also annoying or insulting. People new in recovery are susceptible to the same eagerness to help and share information as helping professionals, partly from a desire to share the excitement of the new information and partly to prove that they are healing. The consequence for not resolving the insecurity or not healing the "narcissistic" attitude for both helping professionals and people new in recovery is that helping and healing are hindered. But new professionals and people new to recovery are not the only ones over zealous to "help." It is an epidemic in this country.
Concurrent with the insecurity driving the need to prove oneself can be arrogance regarding the amount of knowledge/intelligence the helper possesses and defensiveness when challenged regarding facts and ideas. There is a need to always be right. The need to feel better than others is a narcissistic trait that tends to run rampant in hierarchical cultures (probably most people reading this have been narcissistically unhelpful at least once, and probably many times. It's a cultural liability). This includes the need to feel morally superior.
Sometimes, there is no real attempt to be helpful, but the advice is used as a way to insult you. Looking the person in the eye before you answer can inform you as how to answer. If there is a gleam in their eye or a smirk on their face, they are most likely being mean. Or, if you feel hurt or stung, set boundaries, as suggested below.
Responding to "therapizing," "moralizing," and other unhelpful advice can be tricky if the person is your friend and you would like them to remain your friend. Speak in a kind, but firm tone. Some innocuous replies are "Oh, I am just venting." Or, "Thanks, but I am just not in the mood for fixing anything right now."
Often people can be good listeners, but make the mistake of making suggestions or commenting prematurely. When that is the case, the following responses are helpful.
"I'm sure that you mean well, but listening would be more helpful right now."
"What I would like is someone just to listen to me."
Sometimes it's hard to tell whether someone is being clumsy or hurtful, but the above comments cover both bases.
If the friend is in a helping profession, help them out by saying something humorous, "(their name), it's time to get off the clock!" Or, "Hold it. I'm not paying you. You can relax now."
Responses to unwanted advice/therapy speak:
"Advise just isn't doing it for me right now."
"Please, let's change the subject. Now is not a good time." Then change the subject.
"You know, that just doesn't resonate with me."
"Is that what you are working on right now?" (said inquisitively can effectively turn the tables.)
Sometimes people act as if they are trying to be helpful, but they are being critical. Or they want to be helpful, but in reality what you are sharing makes them so uncomfortable that they give you "advise" and pat answers, rather than listening empathetically.
Responses to hidden criticism given as advice:
"Please stop, that's not helpful right now."
"I'm not feeling valued by that comment."
"I'm afraid that comment feels more hurtful than helpful right now."
"Are you aware of what you are getting out of that communication?"
"What you are getting out of that communication?"
Response to a subtle putdown, especially when said in a helpful tone:
"That didn't feel loving/helpful. That felt like judging."
If they respond with denial and you are still not satisfied, state, "Is it really just a matter of perception?" This response gives them a chance to level or apologize. (To level means getting emotionally and factually honest.)
Responses to pat answers/pat advice:
Avoid agreeing with them. Obtuse answers said gently can be a useful hint to people who truly mean well but are being unhelpful. Obtuse answers can also be useful when you are uncertain whether someone is being unkind.
"I suspect the subject deserves more consideration."
"You know, I just never thought that about (the subject or person or advice mentioned) in that way."
"You think so?"
"That's certainly one possibility."
Pausing (as if you are giving their comment consideration) and then stating your own opinion can be a good tactic for all unwanted advice:
"I think/feel/believe/suspect that (then state your opinion)."
"I'm glad therapy/group is working for you." This comment works for people who are new in recovery and are sure everyone has their symptoms and keeps bugging everyone s/he knows to go to group with them. It is a stage people go through, but after a point, it can get very invasive. It also works when the "therapy speak" is thinly veiled criticism.
"I am truly glad that the program/therapy/religion is working for you."
Please, let's change the subject. Now is not a good time."
"These kind of changes are exciting. I know I have enjoyed my own."
"Thank you for thinking of me. I have my own program/strategy/spirituality that works for me."
"Thanks for thinking of me. I can see that it is working for you. I don't think it's the right thing for me."
If you do have the problem mentioned, and you sense the other is genuinely attempting to be helpful, it is probably time to own up to the issue and do something about it.
IF YOU HAVE MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT HOW TO RESPOND TO DESTRUCTIVE CRITICISM OR OTHER FORMS OF VERBAL ABUSE, CONTACT firstname.lastname@example.org
. A workbook, A ToolKit for Healing from Verbally Abusive Relationships and other Abuse, is also available.
©Noreen Wedman 2007