My feelings are not to be fixed

Unsolicited advice really doesn’t help.

In fact, it’s always made me feel worse.

A lot of people refer to my job as a professional advice-giver, which really misses the mark.  I’ve often had clients come in and expect direct advice – they’ve even asked me straight up what I think they should do. I get that with some cultures, this is the expectation of coming to see an expert.  Others just desperately want “the answers” (whatever those are), they want a quick solution, and they are afraid or not ready to put in the work to get there on their own.

I always pull back and slow down when a client asks me for advice.  Sometimes I’ll ask why they are wanting to be told what to do, because often their answer reveals a lot about their world view.

And then I lay it right out for them.  I explain that, while I’ve gone through training and I am qualified to help, I don’t know all the answers.  And I certainly don’t know what’s best for one particular person from Adam.  Sure, I have my own opinions, but I see clients for typically only one hour per week, and each client is really the expert on their life – they know better than anyone what may help and what won’t.  Most importantly, a client has to live with whatever consequences their decisions bring, and that’s why they should be making these decisions – not me.  My job is simply to help them make that decision, whatever it is.

And all that is just for advice that was actually invited.

I got onto this topic because 1) It’s one of my biggest pet peeves ever, and 2) Being pregnant seems to invite unsolicited advice, like a lot, and 3) I revisited a comment I made on a similar post, Tolerating Sadness:

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I do hesitate to post sadder things on Facebook, mostly because I don’t want unsolicited advice or the other unwanted phrases I mentioned in the post. I don’t want to feel judged, dismissed when my sadness makes people uncomfortable. What a shame.

Number 1 is just me, and I tend to not like to be told what to do, unless I am specifically asking for help.

Number 2 is, in my opinion, an example of the (horrible) concept that a woman’s body and sexuality is everyone’s business and is to be regulated.  Do we ask men how their erectile dysfunction is going today?  No.  Do we inquire about the state of their prostate?  No.  Do we give random advice about how to get their sperm count up?  I seriously doubt it.  I could be wrong about this, since I am not a man, but I do know that women’s bodies are more regulated than men’s due to the fact that men have no trouble getting Viagra and penis pumps covered by their insurance, while women have trouble getting birth control and access to safe abortions without unnecessary ultrasounds in some states.  But I digress – this could be a whole other string of ranty posts.

Pregnancy, once a woman starts showing, is also a very obvious, visible condition, and I think this contributes to women getting unsolicited advice from strangers, not to mention getting their personal space violated. (By the way, always ask a pregnant lady if you can touch her belly BEFORE you touch it.  And if she says no, then don’t.  Please.)

Back to the advice-giving.  It all boils down to the fact that advice serves to help the advice giver, not the recipient.  I’ve found that when I am expressing some aspect of my life and feelings that is less than optimal, (sadness, frustration, fear, some icky pregnancy side effect, etc.) that sometimes creates feelings of discomfort in the listener.  One way people try to alleviate that discomfort is to give advice as a means of maybe fixing the problem, or at the very least, feeling like they’ve helped and thus the uncomfortable-feelings-burden has been passed back to me.

Let me be clear.  When I am expressing discomfort, it is not my intention to pass a burden onto the listener to fix my problem.  If you feel discomfort while listening to me, please know that means that you care, you’re tuned into me, and that’s awesome.  Seriously.  But please, don’t take on my discomfort as your own.  It’s not yours to carry.  And it hurts my feelings when you try to deflect the discomfort with advice.  My feelings are not yours to fix.

What I would like instead is empathy.  I know you already feel it for me, hence the advice-giving.  So, instead of covering up empathy with advice, try to give a voice to it.

I’m so sorry you had to go through that.

My heart aches for you.

I wish I could make your pain go away.

Let me know if there’s anything I can do.

These sound wonderful to me.  They are vulnerable.  They keep the two people on the same plane, as equals, as opposed to one who is suffering and one who gives advice as an expert.  I think they are harder to say than advice is.

I’d much rather have someone come join me in empathy than try to slap a bandaid on my feelings.

So please, I invite you to pause the next time you feel the urge to give someone advice.  Why do you feel like giving it?  How are you feeling in relation to this person’s news/problems?  What would it be like to refrain from trying to fix, and instead try to feel?

It might feel uncomfortable, and that’s ok.

Because my feelings (and yours) are not to be fixed.

14 responses

  1. It’s true when I’m talking to my friends what I really want from them is empathy and if they give advice instead I feel judged and I pull away. But from my mental health professionals I do get frustrated when they won’t offer advice especially when I’m in real need of help and all they’ll offer is talk. It seems the people in my life are in the wrong place… Haha

    • I can see how that would seem backwards. One technique I’ve used with clients is to ask them what they want to hear me say, because often the best advice is something the client already has in mind and just wants some validation. Just a thought.
      Thanks for reading!

  2. I hope you’re not getting too much mummy advice! As I teach kids it was all the other mums wanted to do!

    Another excellent post that helps me consider how I react to people, thank you :)

  3. It’s hard not to fill the space some times… I know I struggle with that. However, I’ve also learned that when we give advice, we often send the message: I don’t think you can figure this out on your own– especially with young people. It’s hard to just sit with others’ sadness/discomfort/frustration/anger/ etc… but, it’s an important piece for everyone involved! Great post, M.

  4. I understand your feelings with this. But I know that we are socialized to be “fixers.” We’re taught that there is always a possible solution, we just have to find it. So giving advice to people we care about becomes second nature.

    Long ago, I decided to stop letting advice bother me–I decided to interpret (most) advice to my complaints as empathy. I know that’s what it is, it is just masked.

    • I agree that most advice is well-intentioned, and I do take that into consideration, just as I understand I can’t stop people from giving me advice.

      I also agree that we’re socialized to be fixers, and while finding solutions to problems definitely has its place and is useful, I also see how much damage that mentality can do. Some things can’t be fixed, and some things aren’t meant to be fixed. And if we continue to assume that there’s always a possible solution, we’ll be setting ourselves up for a lot of disappointment.

      I can’t help but look at this through the lens of my therapy training: skipping straight to problem-solving often misses and mark completely and mislabels what the “problem” actually is. Studies of therapy outcomes strongly show that listening and empathy contribute much more to positive change than any other sort of “active” intervention.

      Sometimes I fall into the fixing roll, too. It’s hard not to. I just don’t want feelings to continue to be glossed over or negated, even in a well-intentioned way.

  5. This is great advice–and no pun intended. It is human nature to want to fix things, and when someone we care for shares a problem with us (and even someone we don’t know that well), we want to help them and fix it for them. But as you point out, that isn’t what the person who’s venting or sharing is asking for. They just want to be listened to, which, really, should make the listener’s job easier. He/she doesn’t have to come up with a solution; they just have to be there.

  6. So true. All of it. And I’m the same way. I tend to not voice those “uncomfortable feelings” because most people lean toward advice and wanting to fix it. In general, I think they have good intentions. It happens all the time with the more serious blog posts I share. But in the end, I’d much prefer empathy and the types of responses you shared.

    And don’t even get me started on the pregnancy thing. That’s definitely a whole ranty post. The things people say!

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