“I was just trying to help” – Five Tips that will actually work

Let me tell you a little something about me. I bet you’ll recognise a piece of you too. When I was 18 I moved back home. I had been a Big Independent Adult for 12 months, but my parents had returned to the city, and I returned to the nest. There were some agreements in place about the division of chores.

Now it’s possible, at 18, that I was not the world’s best communicator, but I DID take my responsibilities seriously (yep, I’ve always been a rule-follower). There was this recurrent pattern of conflict in our home – I’d be thinking about when I’d get to the dishes, and then my dear mum would holler at me to go and do said dishes, and instantly, 0-100, I was like

“Screw you, I am NOT doing the dishes!”

Fast forward a couple of years and I had a gorgeous new boyfriend. I really liked him and I wanted him to be so impressed with me (not quite the fierce feminist at that point, sorry mum). We’re at this party and, okay, it’s possible I’m tipsy and he suggests maybe I should stop drinking.

I’m sorry????

I should Maybe. Freaking. What?!

“Bring me more drinks. Bring me ALLLLLL the drinks!!!”

Let’s zip past a couple more years, and I’m married to that rather gorgeous boyfriend. I’ve had a crappy day at work and I’m debriefing with him. He offers some suggestions about how I could’ve handled things better; or maybe what I could do when I get to work the next day.

Okay, so he’s lucky that he still has his head attached to his shoulders at this point. But it takes him a good few more explosions before he finally understands why I keep firing up (spoiler alert: we both mostly have much better skills now, but this was 20 years ago).

It turns out there’s this little, rather innocous-looking button I have. I’ve put a picture of it below. Look how sweet and unimposing it is:

And when you PUSH it – say, by telling me what I should do, it comes with a bit of a reaction. A fairly knee-jerk, near-automatic bit of:

F@#K YOU I WON'T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME

I do not like to be told what to do.

Even if what I’m being told to do is what I had been thinking I should do.

I don’t mind disclosing this to you because I’ve been catching up with people inside the therapy room for over 15 years, and I’m well aware – I’m not the only one with this button 😉

The iconic 90’s protest song about authority abuse of power (particularly in relation to racism) taps into something primal in each of us. Indeed, it was a theme captured over 200 years ahead of Rage Against the Machine by the poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), who penned:

“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

William Ernest Henley, Invictus

People do not like being told what to do. Who knew?

In the therapy room, I’m often helping well-meaning, loving, kind, befuzzled and distraught people. They have inadvertently pushed the Rage Against the Machine button of someone they care about – their partner, co-parent or friend. They tell me, almost invariably, a variation of:

I was just trying to help.

Other days, I might be helping someone process why they had such a strong, adverse reaction when their own Rage Against the Machine button has been triggered.

A teen is planning to get a head start on her homework, and her mum walks in and says, “Get a move on with your assignment!” The teen flips her the bird and heads out on her bike. Her mum is flabbergasted, and asks me what happened to her hardworking, dedicated daughter.


A dad is doing his level best to co-parent collaboratively with his ex. He sends her a text message, “I don’t mean to tell you want to do, but you need to actually spend 15 minutes a day with our son on his sight words.” He comes to see me to try and unpack her rather terse reply.


A gentleman is really concerned about the impact his husband’s weight gain is having on his health, especially given the husband’s family’s health history. He says, “I bought him a gym membership, and I’ve arranged my schedule so that he can go three times a week while I watch the kids – I thought he’d be grateful.” Spoiler alert: He wasn’t.

(They are all, of course, fictional clients – based on years of therapy sessions)

People are awesome problem solvers

Humans are very good problem solvers. It’s one of the reasons we’re top of the food chain. And therein lies the problem! We are so good at it, that we try to solve the problems of others when they don’t need us to solve them; and other people try to solve ours when we’re quite capable of doing that all by ourselves. What a conundrum!

Five Top Tips that will ACTUALLY help – and avoid triggering the RATM Button

The great news is, there are some simple ways we can avoid triggering the Rage Against the Machine button.

  1. When someone is sharing a problem, assume they want you to listen, not fix. We often solve problems better when we talk them out loud – that doesn’t mean you’re being asked for your advice or opinion. It means someone wants to be heard.
  2. Once we’ve been heard, we are often open to the perspective of others. If you have advice or an opinion to offer, just ask if it’s wanted first: “I’ve got some thoughts about that – would you like to hear them, or do you want me to just listen?”
  3. If you need something to happen (my mum sure needed those dishes done; and if we hadn’t reached a solution around drinking at parties, that lovely boyfriend would not be raising kids with me now): let the person know what the problem is, and invite them to help solve it with you, rather than solving it for them.
  4. Remember that people are more likely to follow through with an action or idea if they had some part in determining it.
  5. If you want to help people avoid triggering your button, give them a heads up: “I just need to vent, I don’t need you to solve this, can you just listen?”

This entry was posted in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mental Health, Parenting, Separted parents, Teens, Tweens and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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