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My personal definitions of these are:

Helping is when someone asks you to assist them, or asks for your opinion or expertise, and you give it to them, keeping their interests and goals in mind at all times, and not taking it any further than that.

Meddling is when you try to force someone to 'see things your way;' to impose your will onto them, to boss them around and insist that they do what you want, regardless of whether it's actually best for them or not, under the guise of 'helping,' when they haven't asked for it.


Example:

Yesterday, we were sitting down for dinner; me, my partner, her older sister, and her parents. We're all adults over 30.

At one point, my partner said that she's planning to go to a walk-in vaccination centre. Her sister then started saying that she "needs" to book an appointment instead (despite us having used the walk-in centre before), and said:

"Give me your details, I'll book it for you."

My partner said that she didn't want her to book it because she has other commitments she needs to work around, but her sister kept insisting, and gradually getting more and more bossy and nasty. My partner eventually got so fed up that she got up and left. Her dad then started saying:

"Yeah, there's no point in trying to help her."

After that I left to go and comfort my partner.

I wanted to explain to them that, while they might think that they have good intentions, ultimately they're bossing my partner around like she's a child, and implying that she can't do anything by herself and needs them to come in and "help". This often happens in various ways. Whenever my partner wants to do something or has an issue, they take that as a signal to jump in and start bossing her around.

My question is: how can one explain this to one's family, who may think that they have good intentions and so would be hurt by someone telling them to back off, and may not understand why?

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  • 2
    Have you tried anything yet to put a stop to this? If not, why not? If you want answers to not just tell you to tell your family what you wrote in your question: What's stopping you from just telling your family what you told us you want to tell them?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Commented Dec 18, 2021 at 13:18
  • I don't think they'd understand, and they'd probably take offence and treat it as if we're 'acting up' and that they need to drive their point even harder to get through. Put bluntly I feel as though they're control freaks and won't respond well.
    – Touchdown
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 8:54

2 Answers 2

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If you're going to intervene in these conversations, try not jumping to the end. By that I mean don't say "don't insist on doing it for her". Instead, engage in what they are saying. For example:

We did walk-ins a month ago; was there an announcement that it is appointment-only now?

(If they say no, but the walk in lines are horrible, nobody can wait 5 hours etc)

Thanks, I'm sure [partner] appreciates that you don't want her to have a long wait. But it's her decision to make, right? And if she decides to get an appointment, she needs to make it because she knows her schedule. I'm sure you realize the reason she hasn't booked an appointment isn't because she's not capable of booking one.

In this way they will see both better ways to communicate (they also should not jump to "you need an appointment" but should offer the extra information they have) and be reminded that their behaviour is sending an unpleasant message (that she's not competent and must be taken care of.)

But when someone says "there's no point in trying to help her" that is a great cue to say something like:

In my book, it's only helpful if it's asked for or accepted. She didn't ask you to take over her vaccination experience, and she's quite capable of handling it. She's not doing it wrong, and you're saying she is. Now I'm going to go and comfort her.

(You might want to soften that a little. Like "only helpful if" could be "the best help is" and so on.)

My experience with bossy people is that if you argue with their jumped-to-the-end conclusion they push back hard, as you've seen. But if you back up a few steps and ask questions (have they stopped walkins, are the lines long, are you concerned she'll just never get around it it) you might be able to have a sensible conversation about their concerns, where they can end up reassured that your partner is getting vaccinated and they don't need to "help". Ideally before they push so hard that your partner flees the room.

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I've had to deal with such situation with family in the past.

My first try, when I was (much...) younger, was to discuss their straight-to-the-point "my solution is the only one that works, do it or die", and it led nowhere but to people getting upset or patronizing. We had fights, and stopped visiting them for quite some time...

My second try (as I already had more experience) was to ask them questions, to set "invisible" boundaries:

  1. why do you want me to do that? (and then slowly moving to "I can do it myself ya'know" without reaching the previous state of 1st try).
  2. I have no interest in doing that (with or without explanation of "because I'd rather/prefer doing A/B/C").
  3. I prefer my solution because it makes life easier for me (with no explanation this time).

Doing this, the goal is to avoid the arguments and dead-end discussion. Guess what? Never worked... Stubborn people are just deaf ears. So, I finally went by not playing the game by their rules and by (softly) ignoring their remarks. I deflected their assaults by not directly answering, switching topics, moving ahead asking question about an unrelated topic, and so on... You keep talking, but no direct answer to their request. Gandhi's example of Ahimsa, where war has to be avoided (unless you really have no other choice and as a last option), with non-violence but resistance. Stand your ground, but with calm and no answer to provocation. You also find this kind of tactics in aikido, where you defend yourself while also protecting your opponent until he gives up.

Guess what? After a couple of years (yeah, I know, years...), I finally got rid of the attacks and remarks.

My 2 cents about that (because I'm not in their head): they finally realized that the ball keeps boucing off the wall and coming back to them, and there's nothing to do about it anymore. And they also may finally see you as an adult, able to make his own decision.

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