According to John Bradshaw, “co-dependency is the most common family illness.” Co-dependence is a set of maladaptive, compulsive behaviors learned by a person in order to survive in a stressed or dysfunctional family.
We learned these behaviours from a dysfunctional family which involved a primary stressor such as the presence of alcoholism, depression, passive/aggressiveness, actual illness or death, abuse, or the controlling of feelings and situations. We adjusted (became ‘co’-existed) to the person/stressor which lay down the pattern of familiar behavioural co-dependent ways.
Symptoms of co-dependency include controlling behavior, perfectionism, rigidity, avoidance of and difficulty identifying feelings, boundary issues, physical illness related to stress, and hyper-vigilance. One way of gaining control (over uneasy situations, maintaining perfectionism, avoiding chaos, etc.) is by giving unsolicited advice.
When someone shares an uncomfortable situation, the unsolicited advice-giver (consciously or unconsciously) feels anxious and is then compelled to ease their own uneasiness by offering any “should,” “you might want to” or “If it were me, I would …” In doing so, the advice-giver gains a sense that things are (or have a better chance of being) in order, manageable and predictable. With the origins of co-dependency in abuse, trauma, chaos, or control, we see how uncertain or even somewhat troublesome situations can trigger the advice-giver to fix, help, boss others – not so much from a place of caring for others, but rather from easing their own angst.
Catch yourself wanting, almost compulsively, to give advice. What is this really about? It is about you feeling better about yourself (superior) that you know the answers or can help others feel better? Co-dependents feel that they are acting in another person’s best interest which makes it difficult for them to see their hovering, interfering and controlling nature.
For the person receiving the advice, unsolicited suggestions often trigger core wounds of inferiority – “I’m not good, smart, or capable enough.” It weakens their sense of self and autonomy. We may get irritated, frustrated or angry. Shame may surface. Unsolicited advice disempowers the receiver. At times, even a “Are you OK?” comment smacks of this.
How to handle unsolicited advice. When the advice does come, we can acknowledge it, and let the other person know (set a boundary) that we can handle it: “I got it, thanks.” We may even have to state (if they persist on helping) that we are fine with making a decision, dealing with the consequences and learning whatever we do (even if the advice is ‘better’).
Sometimes the boundary has to be fully stated: “Hey friend, how about we agree to not give advice unless asked?” No fixing or judging – simply sharing, listening and being heard. What is interesting to notice is when someone shares a situation to a non advice-giving listener, they often get insights and resolution on their own!
In the work around not giving advice (if you really can’t stop yourself!), ask permission before offering advice or suggestions. This may sound like:
- I have some ideas about what might be helpful. Would you be interested in hearing them?
- Are you open to suggestions?
- Would it be most helpful for me to give you some advice or for me to listen?
- I’ve been through something similar. Can I tell you about what worked for me?
- Is there anything I can do to help?
We all exhibit some degree of co-dependency in our relationships. Look for times of caretaking, feeling responsible for other’s feelings or situation, giving unsolicited advice, and being passive or nice.
For more … check out Melody Beattie’s classic book, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself and You’re Not Crazy, You’re Co-dependent by Jeanette Elisabeth Mentor.