Sometimes I feel like I put more energy and care into figuring out how to gently but firmly respond to unsolicited advice than I do writing what ends up becoming my real work.
That said, I’ve been the well-meaning helper who hurts. I still cringe when I think about something I wrote in a sympathy card about elephants grieving to someone who lost a family member on 9/11 when I was in my mid-twenties. I tried too hard because I cared but I also wanted really badly to help and there was something selfish in the amount and quality of what I tried to give. The unselfish thing would have been to be part of the crowd of caring people — not to try to stand out. The unselfish thing would have been to acknowledge my inability to really help and to just fully stand witness to the tragedy and send my condolences in a way that just added to an already-existing wave of support.
We’re all doing the best we can. But sometimes when we try to do the best-best we can overdo it. I think a good rule when considering piping in to give someone advice is to first ask yourself — did this person whose problems you’re about to try to fix ask for advice? If so, tread lightly and offer up the best you’ve got to give, my friend. If they did not ask for advice but you still think you’ve got some golden gems burning a hole in your throat ask them if they are interested in your advice. If they say yes, give them your gems. If they say no, keep your gems to yourself. Write them down at home if you care and move on.
If keeping your gems to yourself feels impossible maybe it’s time to ask yourself why it is so important to hand them this bit of advice? What feelings could we possibly be trying to avoid by needing to tell this person what to do? What will we gain by having this person hear what we think they should do to fix their problems? How would we feel if someone told us what to do without our asking? And consider the person to whom we’re speaking. If we don’t know them well enough to really know in advance how they feel about unsolicited advice we don’t know them well enough to give them unsolicited advice. Even my therapist does not give me unsolicited advice because she is trained to know that it is usually not helpful.
I know my opinion is unpopular because unsolicited advice is practically expected these days. But you’ll notice people asking or not asking for help. And in my experience there is a huge difference between someone well-meaningly helping and someone who “helps” because they need something to control in the midst of emotional chaos. In which case it’s probably not advice anyone would want to take. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is keep it to yourself, homeslice.
Jenn Sutkowski is very protective of the inner-rudder that steers the ship. When it gets derailed by the well-meaning but oblivious it’s dingy off the port bow! Find her firing into the ether at jennsutkowski.com.
This Full Frontal column was published first in the Newport Mercury.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
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