Why the best advice to give is no advice at all.
These days, I’m really shy about giving advice (at least the unsolicited kind). Or helping unless I’ve been directly asked. Which possibly sounds selfish, but I’ve come by these decisions from lessons hard-learned. Experiences that have taught me that sometimes the best advice to give is no advice.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I really love to share my two cents with anyone who will listen (or read). But these days, I try to do so in a way that is authentic, vulnerable and speaks to my own experience while honoring that of others. What ‘advice’ anyone takes from it is purely subjective. Which (selfishly) means I’m off the hook when it comes to responsibility for the what, how, if or why from doing so.
Not being responsible for anyones choices except my own = freedom (if you haven’t tried this, you really need to try it — my first piece of unsolicited advice 😉 ).
Who knew therapists don’t give advice?
Now, I’m not gonna lie, it came as a complete shock and something I had to work around when I realized that one of the most important things therapists should NOT do is give advice. Wow. My mind was blown and I had to reconsider my life goals and choices. As a people-pleaser and self-diagnosed over-thinker-extraordinaire, my evil plan was to use these skills to figure out solutions and give advice as a career.
Thankfully, as I learned and grew personally and professionally, I learned that helping clients come up with their own advice was a much more effective, long-term strategy — for them AND me.
Because, you see, advice is generally only helpful if it’s been asked for — and even then, unless we have all the details and context and mind-ninja tricks to understand WHY we are being asked for advice, we will still get it wrong.
And when we get it reasonably ‘right,’ the advice is really just ours — and can potentially serve to disempower the advice-seeker. Pretty quickly, it can all become a weird, toxic, co-dependent relationship. (It’s shocking how often that happens in therapy relationships, friendships, business relationships, families and marriages).
Certainly, I’ve asked for advice and then just as quickly thought of thirteen reasons why that advice won’t work for me. If you think about it, you probably have too.
We all do it. My teens do it about a zillion times a day.
The problem with unsolicited advice
Perhaps the biggest problem with unsolicited, over-helpful, solution-focused advice or help is that it only targets the immediate problem — and only from the experience of the advice giver. While a therapist might have a broader and deeper experience than, perhaps, your cousin Ricky, it is still limited by their own perspective, experience and ego (hopefully not too much of the latter).
Don’t get me wrong: cousin Ricky might have the BEST advice ever, so don’t let me stop you from following their pearls of wisdom. But remember no matter how good, Ricky’s advice will be colored by their own experience, their knowledge of your situation, and whether or not their intentions are objective.
I have PLENTY of advice for my teen girls that I dole out on the regular. Most of it falls on deaf ears, some of it they actively argue with me about until one of us calls a truce, and the rest of it ends up being some sort of mush-up of helpful and it-would-be-better-if-you-just-stop-talking-mom.
A personal tale of well-intentioned help gone very, very wrong
If you have read any of my previous blog posts, you know that I love to share personal stories to help explain what I’m talking about (and also to provide background for any future therapists trying to help my children). Today, it was a struggle to think of a good story to tell: my mind felt like a plate of mushy refried beans. When suddenly, out from the pile of beans emerged a picture of my childhood self. And in that picture I was wearing red knitted shorts.
Which I realized was the perfect analogy for today’s story.
When I was younger I experienced a number of kidney infections that were relatively serious. Just like someone who is prone to tonsilitis or foot fungus, I was prone to kidney infections. It’s possible that the dank, moldy, damp Irish countryside contributed to my susceptibility. But whatever the cause or combination of factors, I experienced kidney infections more than once.
Now, I’m sure my mother somehow suspected that the damp Irish countryside was at least in part responsible for this illness-prone situation. So, she did what any good mother would do: she decided that the best course of action was to keep my kidneys warm.
Back in the good old days, this was easier said than done. Especially when wearing skirts was more typical than wearing jeans. The days pre-leggings and spandex bike shorts. The yes-I-am-that-old convent school days.
Being the creative problem solver and knitter she was, my mother took matters in her own hands (or needles), and fashioned me a pair of red knit shorts that I could wear under my skirts. These shorts were held up by string of elastic through the waistband at the top.
This sounds kinda cute, right? I mean, little red home-knit bike shorts. It’s almost like something out of The Sound of Music.
But there was no music. Except, perhaps, if you count the sound of friction when my thighs rubbed those neat little knitted rows together with every step. If you’re a thick-thighed person, I know you can feel the pain. But let me describe it in a little more detail so those who have never experienced thigh-rub-burn can fully appreciate the agony.
No way to escape the agony, or the shame
Imagine, if you will, someone rubbing a rough wash cloth with apricot-seed-face-scrub back and forth on the inside of your thighs — where the skin is super sensitive. Imagine doing that all day. With every step, you are scrubbing. Except you’re not cleaning. It is not fresh or satisfying. Your pores are not clear.
You are burning. It burns like what you imagine the fires of hell burn like.
There is no relief.
I couldn’t remove the offensive red shorts, because of the fear that everyone would see them in my hand and ask me about them. And then I would likely be teased mercilessly for the Rest. Of. My. Life.
In the school bathroom there wasn’t even a trashcan big enough, and even if there was how would I explain to my mother what happened? Even worse, my wildly detailed imagination painted a picture of Sister R* pulling them out of the bin after everyone had left for the day, somehow knowing they belonged to me. And then showing them to all the other nuns over tea later that evening. And I could imagine them all laughing and tutting and exclaiming how they “always knew she was a peculiar girl.”
So I kept wearing them. Pulling on them as inconspicuously as possible as they keep sliding down down as I walked — the elastic not quite tight enough and the wool starting to bag out from wear. They continued to irritate even while sitting at my hard wooden bench desk.
As the day progressed, I could feel the rash bumps forming, and found myself daydreaming longingly about sudocreme (the rash-and-everything-magical-ointment at home) and icecubes ‘ down there.’ And then felt shame because if the nuns only knew that I was contemplating putting ANYTHING … well, I’d probably be going to hell.
(Fear of hell factored in my decisions a LOT during my early years).
Hindsight is 20/20
In my dreams the misery should have ended with the final bell. But I still had to walk a couple miles home.
Why didn’t I go to the bathroom before I left? I could have shoved the shorts into my backpack then. But I didn’t want to dally and I was deathly afraid of the nuns finding me in the bathroom after the final bell.
And hindsight is 20/20.
So I soldiered on. Near tears from pain with every step. Convinced that my inner thighs were gone and once I got home all we would be dealing with is gaping open sores that only plastic surgery could fix.
And then it happened. The final step in my tale of personal horror. Frantically grabbing at the shorts through my dress, I was too late: the elastic had given way and the shorts had slipped down. Before I could do anything, I was standing there on the side of the road with red knitted shorts around my ankles.
I was horrified. I wanted to run, but knew that there was no way I could outrun the shame or pain. There were other kids walking home and I just prayed and prayed that they were too far behind me to even notice what happened. A deafening whooshing sound filled my ears and my sight narrowed to a pinhole vision. If I had known then what I know now, I was having a mild panic attack.
There was only one option. Taking a deep breath I stepped stepped out of the shorts, shoved them into my schoolbag, stood up as straight as I could and kept walking. Without even a sideways glance, I marched forward. Cheeks burning, doing my best to act like whatever had just happened was completely normal and anticipated.
(The therapist in me now recognizes this is how I used to handle most set-backs: stubbornly, with an air of ‘I totally meant to do that’).
Inside, I desperately hoped nobody else could hear the deafening THUMP THUMP THUMP of my heartbeat, and the fact I was biting my tongue to stop myself from crying.
(Also a common experience, as recent as last week… 😬 🤔).
But I survived — long enough to BEG my mother to not make me wear the shorts ever again.
Did my mother make me wear those shorts because she wanted me to suffer in horrible ways? Absolutely not! Her intention was pure, and her solution was based on some solid facts, a good intuition and great knitting skills.
Heck, she might have single-handedly started the bicycle-shorts-under-skirts thing — if she had known it would be a ‘thing’.
But had she ever worn tight knitted shorts in a damp Irish climate for more than a couple of minutes (or ever)? No.
Did she personally have thick-thighs that rub together? No.
Had she walked to school getting sweaty while wearing the itchy wool contraption? No.
Did she have nun-trauma? No.
Was she an almost tween who struggled to fit in at the best of times? No.
So you see, her advice and solution were absolutely perfect — except just not for me, then.
But if I were to give some advice…
If it’s that hard for a well-intentioned mother to get it right for her own child, how can any of us provide the ‘right’ advice, ever?
My personal approach (which I guess could be considered advice) is to try not to provide advice, input, or feedback unless directly asked. This is particularly hard in close relationships (and I fail at that one often with my own kids).
This means not saying
“I would have done/said _____________” or
“Why don’t you try _______ instead?” or
“_________ works for me.”
Because nobody wants advice they didn’t ask for. Period.
Instead I try to ask questions, and really listen to the answers.
(Most of us just want to be seen and heard anyway).
If you still find yourself needing or craving some good advice, all I have is some reasonable advice from personal experience, which is:
Before you seek or ask,
- Take a deep breath.
2. Take a few moments to decide what advice you need or want.
3. Think about who you might trust most to provide that advice based on their experience, attitude and/or skills. (You may need to consult an expert depending on the question!).
4. Recognize if what you really need is someone to listen and acknowledge that you are struggling without telling you what to do… Because if that is you — you are most certainly not alone. And know there are LOTS of people qualified, willing and able to hold space for you to do just that.
Listen, we all have a red woollen shorts story or two. Times where someone else’s solution failed miserably. Times we have asked and received great advice. Times we have not asked and received great advice. Times when we should have asked for advice.
And if you do — I want to hear about it! Because honestly, if we can’t laugh while we learn and live, what is the point?
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