Even the best unsolicited advice is still best kept to yourself

One  friend never fails to try and fix other people's problems. Another closest friend is believed to be either bipolar or on the spectrum. Here's to well meaning friends who think they're "helping."

Q:

I have a well-intentioned friend who never fails to try and fix my problems. I know what’s in his heart, and there isn’t a mean bone in his body, but it’s annoying when he offers advice without me asking, and doubly so if he has no experience with whatever the issue happens to be.

I find myself clamming up around him, but I worry that saying nothing when something’s bothering me just makes me seem aloof, brooding, distant, or just “off.” 

Plus, I can’t vent or share my concerns, so then I’m left grappling alone.

Dear Abby:

This reminds me of a meme that always hits me close to home as an advice columnist: “Unsolicited advice is always self-serving.” It has kept me in check in real life when I’m not being asked for an opinion.

Your friend’s advice is serving his needs — to be helpful, to be a problem solver, and maybe even to cut you off from what he perceives as complaining.

It’s frustrating when we just want someone to listen to a problem, but friends or family can’t seem to do so without including their solutions. It can feel like judgment, or that they’re implying we can’t fix our own issues.

The underlying issue might indeed lie with him, but you can only control you. Tell him in advance that you don’t want advice but could sure use an ear or a shoulder to cry on. If he doesn’t take the hint, ask him if he thinks you’re whining or helpless, and consider ways to present it differently.

If neither of you can adjust, maybe he’s not the right person to share your problems. That doesn’t necessarily make him a bad friend. There are plenty of other people willing to listen on your terms, including professionals who might actually help.

Q:

I’m convinced one of my closest friends is either bipolar or on the spectrum. Little things over the years have become bigger, more frequent things.

She has seen professionals and has been on who knows what medications, but it never lasts. As is so often the case with bipolar people, she is super smart and can be manipulative, so I’m not sure she’s ever given these professionals the full picture.

No one else seems to notice or care, and I have picked up the pieces too many times. I don’t want to leave her in a lurch, but I’m not sure I can handle it any more.

Dear Dr. Phil:

When friends are like family, the temptation to do “whatever it takes” to help can be overwhelming. You’re unsure if you can handle it, and I am sure that you can’t. Rather than burn out with worry, give yourself permission to not know what to do. 

That includes diagnoses. You feel helpless, but it’s because you’re unqualified. It’s tempting to use bits and pieces of mental health knowledge that cross our paths, but it sounds like you might not know your friend’s full healthcare story, and definitely don’t have the expertise to diagnose her condition.

Offering a distressed person a ride or a hug is one thing, but rescuing them time and again at their beck and call could actually keep them from real help. You’d be most helpful to encourage your friend to stay in treatment, to seek out new providers and second opinions if what she’s getting isn’t working, and to divulge everything to her healthcare squad.

If helping your friend comes down to your own well-being, you may need to detach. It sucks, but that includes telling her that you’re not qualified to help in any lasting way, and it means learning to say no to requests that just delay her finding real help.

The Q is for entertainment purposes and not professional counseling. Send your burning Qs to [email protected]

Illustration by Brad Gibson

This column originally appeared in Q magazine. Read the latest issue, enjoy all of the past editions of The Q advice column, and look for a new issue of Q each week online and around town.