Just a little advice
Your friend says to you “I just don’t know what to do, my mind is whirring and there are so many things going on in my life right now. It’s just so much and it’s getting me down and I feel so stressed”
How do you respond? What’s your instinct? To help them think of ways to change their situation or figure out the things they’re going through? To offer some perspective on their worries? Or just to say not much at all?
The various responses you may have come up with will vary from person to person and of course from relationship to relationship are probably all equal parts wrong and right, like most things in social life. But one thing we know as mental health practitioners is that it’s often not very helpful to give advice to a stressed person.
We understand that the instinct is there to look after your friends, to try and improve their situation, maybe to encourage them to do the thing you think is best for them or their career or their family, to make them feel better. But there’s a weird inverse thing going on that anyone who seeks to help a person should be aware of:
The things you might not realise you’re doing when you’re giving a person advice:
1. Giving them another set of expectations to worry about
Your friend likes you, you like your friend, as a general rule, when we like people at least a little part of us probably wants them to like us back. Because most of us are not so good at managing emotional boundaries with the people we like or love (blog on this to follow!), your advice may well be contributing another layer of stress onto the person you’re trying to help. If you make them aware of what you think they should do, you probably just became the latest person they feel that they should please. Then the question for them isn’t just what should I do, it becomes am I going to do what X thinks I should? And therefore how is X going to feel if I do/don’t do what they do?
2. Challenging their autonomy
Back to boundaries. I’m not saying there’s never a place for advice. But most of the time just keep it to yourself. It’s not really okay to tell another person what to do, even if you think it’s in their best interests, because you’re making it about you.
3. Overstating your own knowledge
Ever noticed how much easier it is to give advice than to live by it? No coincidence. When you give advice there is no consequence for your own life, which is why it’s no great emotional hardship to band it around. But the truth is, it is absolutely impossible to understand the full breadth of emotions, consequences, values, relationships, experiences and imagined outcomes that go into making a person, within the context of their life, making a decision. Even when you think you know what’s best for a person, you probably don’t.
4. Not trusting them to know what’s best for them
A person is the expert on their own life – they live in it all the time. They’re the only person who they spend all of their time with. Trust them to figure out what works for them at that moment. Even if you feel like you don’t trust a person to know what’s best for them, letting them know that is hardly going to empower them to make more positive choices next time. And as discussed, who are you to know what’s truly best for a person?
Just listen. It’s fascinating how when you don’t try and change the way a person feels you can help them change the way they feel. Let them know that you understand why they’re feeling the way they feel. We’re social creatures and we worry about what each other thinks – you offer a person autonomy, trust and validation when you say “I totally get why you feel that way” and you let them know that you accept them just the way they are.