The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Isn’t that how the saying goes? This is especially true when it comes to giving unsolicited advice--a bad habit it’s taken me quite awhile to break, because for the longest time, I didn’t realize how truly harmful it can be.
I can’t begin to count how many times my “good intentions” functioned more like a wrecking ball than a healing balm. How many times I thought I knew better than the person I was talking to about what was really going on with them and what would help them feel better. How many times I’ve unintentionally invalidated someone, creating walls where I was hoping to build bridges. And how many times, when I’ve been called out on this, I’ve gotten defensive, coming back with the retort, “I’m sorry you’re choosing to take it that way!”
Let’s be honest, this is akin to saying, “You’re an idiot. I’m being helpful, and if you can’t see that--if you’re choosing to feel otherwise about what I’ve so generously offered--you’re in worse trouble than I thought.”
It doesn’t get much more dismissive or condescending than that.
My past propensity to dole out “help” to those I’ve perceived as needing it has cost me a lot. It’s alienated people around me--from family and friends to potential clients. And what I’ve finally come to understand is: more often than not, when people share vulnerably, they’re not asking to be fixed. They’re not looking for advice. They’re simply hoping to be seen and heard and held. Witnessed and validated inside what they’re going through. Treated like a human being whose experience matters and whose emotions and thoughts are seen as valid.
How many times have we jumped straight into “fix it” mode with someone we’re in conversation with, when in reality, the person across from us was simply asking to be honored inside their feeling? And how many times have we ourselves bristled when someone we love, rather than simply holding space for us--for our grief, our pain, and our anger--jumped right into telling us what was really wrong and how we could “fix” all our problems?
It’s not until I began doing anti-racism work--educating myself about the ways in which white people unintentionally invalidate the experiences of people of color all day, every day without ever being able to fully understand the context of the BIPOC experience--that I’ve truly begun understanding that unsolicited advice is rarely helpful. That when we “offer” it, we risk re-traumatizing the person we’re trying to help, and that, in this context and many others, doling out unsolicited advice is no less than an act of aggression.
When we project what we think we know onto another’s experience, we’re denying that person the right to their humanity--belittling rather than empowering them.
Sometimes it takes being on the receiving end of something to truly understand the harm it can cause. A few days ago, I shared on my instagram stories how--when speaking with my primary care physician recently about an experience of prolonged fatigue--she asked me, “Are you depressed?”
My honest answer was, “I don’t know.” How am I to know if what I’m experiencing is within the normal range of human emotion? Is there a chemical imbalance in my brain that has me feeling more off-kilter than most? Is my fatigue a product of wonky brain chemistry? A product of my diet? A normal reaction to the grief I’ve experienced in my life? Is there something wrong with me? Or is this totally normal? How am I supposed to know?
I explored these questions on my instagram stories, saying outright, “I am not looking for advice on how to live my life.”
Despite this very clear statement of my boundaries, a woman in my audience took it upon herself to share a resource that had helped her, which I appreciate, and then proceeded to diagnose my problem for me.
“Tyla, it’s possible you’re thinking about thoughts that aren’t true for you, thus the suffering.”
Wow. I knew this statement was 100% well-intentioned and yet, I felt myself bristle. For the first time, I fully understood the scope of harm that’s possible when it comes to unsolicited advice. This well-meaning woman just made my suffering my fault. As in, “Tyla, if you’d just wake up and see that your own thoughts are really the problem here, all your suffering will disappear.” She’d went past sharing with me what was true for her into telling me what was true for me.
Thankfully, I’m of sound enough mind that I can differentiate my truth from the projections of others. But what if I hadn’t been in a grounded space when I received her message? What if I’d been in a state of deep self-loathing that day? What if I’d been living in a space of “what’s wrong with me?” and this woman’s implication--that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me other than my own thoughts--was the very thing that sent me over the edge, causing me to hurt myself?
This interaction, more than any other I’ve had, illuminated just how hellish a situation we end up in--and what very real damage we can do--when we go around thoughtlessly offering unsolicited advice.
Rather than ignoring her--which is probably the best course of action when someone unwittingly projects their “knowledge” onto you--I responded, in an effort to help her understand that her “help” was not at all helpful.
“While I appreciate you sharing a resource,” I replied, “the language ‘it’s possible you’re thinking thoughts that aren’t true for you...thus the suffering’ is invalidating, and it makes a lot of assumptions. It’s really important not to invalidate the experience of others when we are trying to help, because we do a lot of harm that way.”
How did she respond?
“Oh I wasn’t doing that. I’m sorry you are choosing to take it that way.”
I had to laugh. How many times have I said or thought this exact same thing? So. Many. Times. Defensiveness is a natural reaction, especially when we know, without the shadow of a doubt, that we are a well-meaning human who is always being kind and helpful, regardless of how others “choose” to experience us.
Unfortunately, as soon as we get defensive, it’s over. We’ve now moved into a space of making the other person wrong so that we can be right; asserting that our good intentions are far more important and more valid than the very real effect our words and actions have had on the person across from us.
“You’re doing it again now,” I typed back. “Rather than honoring my experience, you are reacting with defensiveness and making me ‘wrong.’”
Can you guess what came next? I bet you can.
“No, Tyla. I am not doing that. You are actually accusing me of invalidating your feelings and I’m correcting you. That wasn’t what I was doing or where I was going with this. I was simply sharing with you some awareness that came through for me that I thought might be helpful to you.”
Read: How dare you accuse me of invalidating you?! I’m so generous and good and kind and helpful!
She continued, “You can choose to see that however you choose. People who watch your videos may feel a need to help if they can--you’re putting your pain out there, and some people might feel called to lend out a hand. That’s what I was doing. I hope you find the healing and relief you are seeking.”
While I understand where she was coming from, what’s also plain as day is that--in defending herself and ignoring the fact that I feel invalidated by the way she’s chosen to share--she’s rejecting my reality. With every word of her defense, she’s making me and my experience of her wrong, wrong, wrong.
I responded once more. “Your ‘help’ is not helpful in this regard. You’ve just told me I’m wrong twice in a row. How is that helping? Especially if I really am having a mental health problem, how is telling me repeatedly that I’m wrong being supportive in any way? If you tell someone suffering from mental illness that their suffering is their own fault, which is what you have done, you’re actually adding harm.”
She fired back again, “Never said you were wrong, not one time.”
Despite having just said outright that she was “correcting” me, she’s now telling me that she never said I was wrong. We’re veering into gaslighting territory now. This woman is digging so deeply into her defensive tactics that she’s begun trying to convince me I don’t have the capability of understanding a very straightforward exchange. That’s what’s happened, hasn’t happened.
She’s not only invalidated me repeatedly, she’s also failed to hear my very measured appeal for her to be more careful when it comes to offering advice to those who may be dealing with things that are beyond her scope of understanding and expertise.
Like I said, I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve been this woman. How many times, without knowing the full story, I’ve inserted myself and my opinions into someone else’s life because I just knew I had something helpful to add...something that would unlock their suffering and set them free. And for that, all I can say is, I am so sorry. I get it now.
There’s a huge difference between sharing a helpful resource with someone and assuming that you know better than they do what’s going on with them. This is especially true when it comes to experiences of trauma, illness and oppression. If you are not the one directly experiencing the thing, consider that in offering your “help,” you’re actually burdening the person across from you with the weight of your ignorance. That in making them feel wrong, you’re causing unintentional harm, and that it’s impossible to know how weighty the implications of that might be. And most importantly, that the fact that you didn’t mean to hurt someone, doesn’t mean you haven’t hurt them.
Like I love to say during an argument, “You may not have meant to run over my dog, but that doesn’t change the fact that my dog is dead.” When you dig your heels in and say, “You’re wrong! You’re wrong! You’re wrong! I didn’t do that!” it just makes you look like an asshole. Meanwhile, I’m standing here, looking at my dead dog’s limp body on the sidewalk and wondering why in the world you’re so insistent on denying my lived experience of reality. Why you find it necessary to attach so powerfully to being right and “good” that you’re unable to hear me when I say that, whether you meant to do it or not, you’ve just run over my dog, and I do not appreciate it.
In calling out what’s real for me about our interaction, it’s not my intention to shame you; it’s my intention to draw your attention to the harm you’ve unwittingly caused so that you can avoid doing it to others in the future. So please, don’t be the asshole who runs over my dog and then stands there trying to convince me it didn’t happen.
If ever you find yourself getting defensive when someone tells you your help isn’t helping or that you’ve caused harm somehow, take a moment to pause. Breathe. Consider before you leap valiantly to own your defense that perhaps the reason you’re feeling defensive is because you fucked up. And that’s okay! We all fuck up. Me included.
And please, whatever you do, don’t try to convince the person across from you that what they experienced isn’t real...that what just happened didn’t happen. Just say “I’m sorry,” remove yourself from the situation, call in the support you need to process your feelings around what you’ve done, and do your best not to let it happen again.