Well meaning advice

(Or: I give myself very good advice but I very seldom follow it… What makes you think I’ll treat your advice any differently?)

  

 (Source: Disney)

Well meaning advice and when not to offer it 

(Clue: well meaning doesn’t always/ever equal useful.)

One thing I’ve noticed lately is people getting uppity when other people don’t accept their “well meaning advice” with open arms. 

An example of this is a friend on FB who had a massive rant yesterday because a friend of his had told him to leave her alone when he offered her “advice” on dealing with her ME. He was absolutely “livid” that she had “had a go” at him for offering advice when he had been “only trying to help”. He also felt like she was “wallowing in self-pity” (because being housebound with ME and chronic pain is the kind of situation that you should just, y’know, snap out of).

This wasn’t about his friend. It was about him and the injustice he had faced because his friend with ME had not gracefully accepted his unsolicited advice. (He does not and has never had ME.)

(*Edited to say: I should have put Myalgic Encephalopathy / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (US) which is the full name. It is generally referred to as ME in the UK. Thank you to Ashley for explaining the US understanding in the comments below!)

Knowing him, and knowing how cantankerous and self-righteous he can be, I asked myself the following questions on his behalf. I call them the When To Offer Well Meaning Advice Test (WTOWMAT).

  1. Did the person ask for advice? – The answer was almost certainly no, given the reaction.
  2. Do I have any experience of dealing with this particular issue? – No. He doesn’t have ME. He isn’t housebound in chronic pain. 
  3. Is the advice I am going to give likely to help the person to improve their situation? – No, given she’s housebound and his advice was apparently to get out of the house more and “stop wallowing in self pity”.
  4. Is the person I’m offering advice to likely to have never encountered this advice before? – No. Given that ME used to be referred to as “yuppie flu” and has only recently been recognised as an actual valid medical condition, and is still controversial – she has probably been told to snap out of it quite a few times. 
  5. Am I particularly qualified to deal with the problem this person is facing? – No. He’s not medically or psychologically qualified in any way. 
  6. Is the advice likely to make the person feel better about the situation? – No. Most people who are suffering don’t tend to react well to being told to snap out of it. 

6/6 “No” answers. (I reckon if you answer no to any more than 2 of them, you need to stop and think if it’s the right thing to do, or whether it might be more useful to, I don’t know, make a cup of tea instead.) These are a few basic questions it’s easy to ask yourself before you offer well meaning advice. I’m sure there are many more but just answering these will probably give you a clue about whether the advice you’re thinking of is likely to be gratefully received or not.

So here’s my “advice”, which you can take or leave (I won’t take it personally): Before thinking of giving advice, put it to the WTOWMA Test

It’s entirely anecdotal, but I’ve found that people are less likely to tell me to get lost and more likely to want to remain friends if I use this test before giving out any advice.
 


Well meaning advice is not expert advice

I’m always a bit wary of advice. For one thing, as Alice would say, “I give myself very good advice but I very seldom follow it”, so I’m not that great at taking advice full stop. For another, I’m often on the receiving end of well meaning but ultimately unfounded and unsolicited advice and I don’t take it very well (due to my inability to have given birth to a child and as a female in my thirties, which makes me something of a statistical anomaly and magnet for “helpful” advice from fertile friends).

It’s a well known fact that most humans aren’t very good at statistics. They tend to extrapolate from their experience to all experience. They tend to think that one off events are of greater significance than they actually are. The human brain is predisposed to see patterns – and so can’t cope with randomness without trying to make sense of it or attributing it to a benevolent/vengeful deity or a blind watchmaker (depending on your religious persuasion). And also, the majority of humans have a certain level of experience that doesn’t extend to the entire human race and tends to be limited to people who share similar characteristics to themselves – so in statistical terms, their reference group is not representative of the overall population. 

So, where does this leave advice?

It means that:

  • People often use anecdotal evidence to support an argument – “My sister’s cousin’s husband’s brother’s grandmother was having trouble conceiving but then they were about to give up and went on holiday/took some vitamins/adopted a child and they found out they were pregnant and now they have four kids! Have you tried doing that?”
  • Humans are humans so they hope, rather than looking at facts or data, and they see hopeful patterns rather than looking at facts or data – “Everyone I know who has a baby also drinks water so I think maybe you should try drinking water more because I bet that’s the reason they are more fertile than you.”
  • People want to feel useful so they will try and come up with solutions even if they are not tested or likely to work – “I read somewhere that if you eat kale whilst howling at the moon and covered in bodypaint made out of ground beetroot then you will ovulate and get pregnant within a month! Why don’t you try it?”
  • People want to feel that stuff isn’t just random and that it isn’t their fault, so if they can possibly make it someone else’s fault then they will – because then they don’t have to accept a world where random good and bad stuff happens – and where you’re a reminder that bad stuff might happen to them – “It’s because you work so hard and you’re stressed. If you only focused more on having a family like I’ve done and stop being such a career woman then maybe you’d be more likely to get pregnant. Also you shouldn’t drink / eat chocolate / ever have any fun in your life… even though I conceived my two children whilst drunk.”
  • People have something called a confirmation bias, where they see more evidence for stuff that supports what they think, and ignore / don’t see the stuff that contradicts it – “I have noticed that all the people more like me find it easier to get pregnant. (Apart from Marcie. And Helen. And Judy. And Rita. But I mean, we are all doing the right stuff and I’m sure they’ll be pregnant soon.)”
  • A lot of people believe that there is a God of some sort who is controlling things so they just have to figure out what it is he wants, and pray a bit, and be good because their life must have meaning; it can’t just be random bad luck – “It’s God’s will that I haven’t yet had a baby. It’s because he has a higher purpose for me. I’ve been called to adopt / remain childless / do IVF… God never gives us more than we can bear and it makes me a better person.”

Massive generalisation, of course, but my background is in stats and data analysis and I have an interest in human interactions (and a human tendency to see patterns in things, ha) so over the years I’ve noticed these things. I’m also not keen on falling out with friends, which I used to do a lot when I was younger, so I have analysed a lot of my behaviour and realised that not listening / not empathising / trying to force people to do exactly what I would do – are all things that tend to make people want to avoid me. 

 

Well meaning advice is not always helpful advice

None so more than in the context of people’s attitudes towards infertility. But this could equally apply to anything where someone’s going through something of which the “adviser” has no direct experience. Or if the advisee hasn’t asked for anyone’s help. 

Here’s a clue: If it’s not an intervention, and they haven’t asked for advice – they probably don’t need advice.

And another one: It’s not all about you. Really.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who take it as a personal slight if I’m not interested in their well meaning advice on relationships / work / infertility / anything else. If your advice isn’t heeded: This isn’t because I think you’re a terrible person. It’s just that your advice probably isn’t that helpful to me and I’d rather you didn’t waste your time. I’m on it. Just be my friend. 

 

Everyone’s an expert problem solver

You know when someone’s about to give you advice. It’s like it’s in slo-mo and you are just waiting for them to elicit some kind of personal information from you (“I’m infertile”, “I had a miscarriage”, “I was adopted”) and use it as an excuse to expound their Theory of Everything. (Assumption #1: Your level of acceptance of their advice is a direct correlation with how much you love and respect them as a person, and also how clever / smart / empathetic / wonderful they are.)

Firstly this means that they often think that there is a solution, and that solution is something that they are likely to come up with in the five minutes it takes to have a conversation with you that makes you feel worse about yourself. (Reality check: Some problems don’t have immediate solutions. Some shared experiences are not asking for solutions. Some problems you don’t have the solution for – and that’s okay.)

Secondly, there’s an implicit assumption from people who’ve never experienced it that there must be a reason why they’re okay and you’re not. And that reason is usually that you just haven’t tried the solution that they cleverly came up with a minute ago after thirty seconds of thinking (or probably no thought at all) and all you have to do is implement it, silly. (Reality check: For anyone dealing with something “heavy”, which let’s face it is the usual scenario which elicits the aforementioned well meaning advice – the chances are they’ve been dealing with this for a while. And they’ve probably already thought through all the scenarios you could possibly imagine. And you telling them to try something, when they’ve already explored that, is probably making them feel bad and like you i) think they’re stupid not to have thought of it before, ii) make them feel as though you’re saying it must be their fault because they haven’t tried enough, and iii) minimising their suffering by suggesting there’s a reason for it. Which is not okay.)

Thirdly there is the assumption that because you’re in this situation, you just haven’t tried the solution they are offering (via that often welcomed medium of forced advice). If only you would just try and open your mind, and have the right attitude you would be fine. Just like them. (Reality check: If you are not in a very similar and directly relatable situation then ask yourself the questions on the WTOWMA Test. At a minimum, ask them whether giving this advice is 90%+ likely to give them the desired outcome. If they haven’t asked for your advice then maybe, just maybe, they don’t want it. That is okay, and no reflection on you as a person. Knowing when to STFU is actually a great reflection on your ability to show insight and empathy and friendship. That is awesome.)

  
Oh, now you’ve made me feel bad! I was only trying to help!

You know what? **** happens. Suck it up, buttercup. Your friend is going through a bad time and it’s your job as a friend to be a friend, not an expert adviser.

As a friend with a friend who’s going through a bad time or facing a problem, it’s pretty damn simple.

  • Be there for your friend. Offer hugs, empathy, a shoulder to cry on, hot drinks or a place to crash / night out on the town if the going gets rough.
  • Be someone’s 3am person. I know there are friends who, if I called them at 3am, would pick up the phone. I know people who would hop in a taxi / drive across country to save me if I was in a fix and asked for their help. I know others who would sit on the end of a phone and listen to me rant and cry and open a bottle of wine just so I never have to drink alone. Just because you’re there doesn’t mean you ever have to do anything – think of it as being on the stem cell register. Maybe you’ll never need to donate, but it’s enough to know you would if needed. 
  • Leave the door open. I have a friend who was told they had terminal cancer. It is absolutely horrendous and we don’t live close by or are even in contact very often, but I sent messages saying to call any time or see if we could set up a visit. I knew my friend would be inundated with requests so I didn’t take it personally that we didn’t speak for a while. When my friend felt able (and when the prognosis had improved, thankfully), we had a great, long conversation about everything. I wanted my friend to know I was there, but I also didn’t want to intrude when they were fighting the biggest battle of their life. It wasn’t about me – it was about them. (I’m not perfect by a long shot – but I knew in that case when to shut up.)

Thing is: All you can do is your best, and everyone gets that “well meaning” isn’t badly intended – it’s just that sometimes it hurts. 

It hurts to be told when you have cancer that maybe you shouldn’t have tried that cigarette that one time in college, or eaten bacon or not gone to the gym.

It hurts when you don’t have a child that maybe you should just relax, or that IVF is unnatural, or that adopted children will never be like “real” children.

It hurts when you have a disability or painful condition to be told not to feel sorry for yourself and that positive mental attitude is what you need to get through it, by someone who’s never walked in your shoes.

If we know that things are hurtful then we can try and minimise doing those things. Nobody’s perfect, and life is sometimes unfair. But we can make it that little bit nicer by trying to understand the consequences of our actions and by not doing things that we know will hurt others. 

Don’t knowingly hurt others. 

That’s my free advice to everyone. Take it or leave it – I won’t take it personally!

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23 comments

  1. ashleykyleanderson

    ** Note to Americans: ME= Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 🙂

    This really hits home for me.

    “If we know that things are hurtful then we can try and minimise doing those things. Nobody’s perfect, and life is sometimes unfair. But we can make it that little bit nicer by trying to understand the consequences of our actions and by not doing things that we know will hurt others.

    Don’t knowingly hurt others.” <– I really like this paragraph. As someone who lives with both chronic illness and infertility, I can't tell you how often I have to fend off unwanted, insensitive, and even hurtful advice. And why? Why do people feel like it is necessary? I've lived with chronic pain for 16 years… what does someone who has never lived with anything other than temporary pain think they can offer me that I haven't already tried in that time period? I don't want to be in pain, and most days I try never to acknowledge it when I am with other people because I know they don't want to deal with it, but every once in a while I feel like I've earned the right to say that living with pain all the time SUCKS! There are many days when I feel like dealing with the criticism and judgement from others is worse than the actual pain/fatigue. I was even told once by a doctor that she wouldn't diagnose me officially because as soon as it was on my file, no one would ever take me seriously or see me as anything other than a "complainer" again. I have had everyone from acquaintances, to family members, to doctors, to professors tell me that they thought I was making the pain up for attention.

    Don't knowingly hurt others. So simple, yet so difficult for so many people to grasp.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nara

      Thank you for clarifying! I have edited accordingly… I really should have put a link in the first edit – in the UK we pretty much always call it ME and never by the full name, so I didn’t realise you call it something different! Also didn’t realise till I checked the link that it also encompasses PVFS (post viral fatigue syndrome) as I had a friend who had this (which later turned into full blown ME) and I kind of think of them as different things causally. It’s all very mysterious and horrible though, and maybe I was feeling defensive to this unknown friend-of-a-friend, as my friend who had it was the most conscientious person ever and it was really debilitating for her.

      I do try not to hurt others, but I know I do – which is why I put “knowingly”. You don’t want to blame people for doing it unknowingly, but also I think when we are in this position of fighting battles of health, infertility, other… We can become really disillusioned by people who do stuff unknowingly. I’d actually expand it to include “unthinkingly” as I think people can purposely not make an effort to understand! Like – if you’re fertile and have kids then I think you can at least make an effort to understand what it might be like and how horrible it might be not to have kids. But I don’t think people do.

      Like

  2. My Perfect Breakdown

    It is a sad state for our world when we feel the need to give advice like “Don’t knowingly hurt others.” And yet, I think it’s the best advice anyone could ever give. Imagine how different our lives and our world would be if everyone simply lived by that rule!! It seems so simple, and yet here we are in a place and a time where it’s something that cannot be taken for granted.
    P.S. I liked this post. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nara

      Thank you! I’ve actually expanded my sphere of intolerance 😉 – see my comment to Ashley above.
      For sure it’s very sad that people need to be reminded or told not to hurt other people. It’s weird as I really don’t think of myself as “nice” – I’m very sarcastic in real life. But I would die (not quite) for my friends and family. I actually find it more enjoyable to do nice things for them that make them happy than to do them for myself. This isn’t because I’m some selfless saint – I’m really quite selfish. I just enjoy the sensation of making other people happy more than the sensation of chasing my own happiness (and also because my own happiness sort of comes from interactions with other people/Dog!).

      Like

  3. Ella Mathews (ex-Crazy Stork Lady)

    I loved this… was nodding along vigorously. Ever since I started suffering chronic back pain I’ve been on the receiving end of so much of this and it drives me UP THE WALL. My mum is the worst for generalising from one case with utter certainty (my sis and I keep trying to make her more scientifically literate but to no avail). It’s tough too because people can be so persistent that you end up having to explain why they are wrong (or at least I feel I do) which means I basically end up having to talk about a bunch of fairly miserable stuff I don’t like talking about.. which invariably leaves me feeling worse. Great post though, thanks. xx

    Like

    • Nara

      Oh yeah, I hear ya. I had chronic back pain for several years and there was nothing people could do to cure it – I saw loads of specialists and in the end it was just “you need to learn to deal with it”. Oh-kay then. Now I just load up on painkillers and I’m happy! Also as time has gone on it doesn’t hurt so much (was after an accident). I think the other thing with invisible pain is that people can’t understand it – like when I had to go to A&E after my op because I was crying with pain, they were asking me to describe it. “IT HURTS!!!! THAT’S WHY I’M CRYING!!!”
      I’m sorry you get annoying advice from people. My mum has a habit of doing it too – I know it’s because she cares, but honestly sometimes I just say to her “You really don’t understand and I’d rather you were just sympathetic than offering me pointless advice!” (I know, it’s rude but sometimes I can’t take it any more.) Also she has a habit of suggesting things I’ve already done, like going to the doctor, getting specialist appointments… Sometimes I think people think we are stupid! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ella Mathews (ex-Crazy Stork Lady)

        Hahahaha. Oh yes, the advice to do things you’ve done long ago. Wonderful stuff. My personal least favourite though is this conversation. ‘So what’s the cause?’. ‘They don’t know, they can’t find enough physical damage to explain the level of pain’. ‘So it’s psychosomatic then’. GRRRRRRRRRR. No it’s not effing psychosomatic, it’s genuine pain that has no neat cause that can be pinpointed. I’m sorry to hear you’ve got chronic pain too though (but glad yours has got easier over time… I’m hoping the same will happen over here). x

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      • Nara

        Yes! I actually got told to attend a pain management clinic at my local hospital (when I didn’t live where I do now) and it would have meant taking days off work so I never did it. Apparently it was mainly about Pilates! Ha! In the end I just had prescription painkillers for a few years which helped mostly. And now just have over the counter stuff. My back used to go into spasm which was horrible, but that hasn’t happened for ages – though it still twinges sharply every now and then.
        Also I used to get told to “just move around more” when I couldn’t even move because of the pain! Ha!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ella Mathews (ex-Crazy Stork Lady)

        Eugh. Yep the pain management booklet made me want to put my head through the window! The clinic was pretty decent – more psychological type work than physical but def helped in terms of coping. But I know what you mean about it being so hard to balance work commitments and looking after yourself… if only we had after work appointments for healthcare.

        Like

    • Nara

      Another way I’ve found to deal with unsolicited / unhelpful advice is to say “Thank you but I don’t want to discuss it” and then refuse to engage. It can come across rude, but it makes me a lot less stressed and leads to fewer horrible/awkward conversations!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nara

        I find it really is better than getting into an argument. I can’t be bothered with people being tossers when you don’t want to sit and listen or implement their silly advice. Like if it was actually relevant I would consider it but especially things like “You need to give up work if you want to have a baby” – impractical stuff which is not feasible if I also want to pay my rent! (If only we could just go and hang out on a lovely desert island with a spa… I’m sure I’d be preggers easily, and if not, the cocktails would help!)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Nara

        I think people just live in a different world. It would be impossible to survive in London without a salary – the cost of living is so high. I would give up work in an instant if I could! It’s frustrating…

        Like

  4. Recurrently Unlucky

    You really nailed this one! Especially the part with all the reasons why people suck at statistics (and advices), it’s so true! So often people try to make us guilty just so they can pretend they live in a just world! I wish I had the guts to reply: ‘Well, life is not fair, stop pushing your stupid advices to me!’.
    Your post also remind me of when I explained my (new) boss what was going on with me and he started throwing lots of ‘solutions’ at me, as if in those 5 min he could come up with all the doctors couldn’t! Why people have to be like that?! Shouldn’t they know I’d see an specialist if I was looking for medical advice?
    Great post, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nara

      Ha, thanks! I think bosses are just a bit annoying a lot of the time (in thinking they know more than you do!). And I really don’t think we are good at statistics as humans… Least of all me, and I studied them! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. circumstance227

    This was a scream! I loved all the examples of anecdotal wisdom. Made me laugh so much and then remember the “best” piece of advice I got during infertility years: “Have you tried having sex?”
    Can I take a tiny bit of credit for getting you going on the topic of “well meaning advice”?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nara

      Yes of course! I’m so sorry, I meant to credit you and then was writing it on the tube on my phone (so I don’t get the chance to link to things without knowing the exact URL) and then I forgot! 😳

      Totally your train of thought!

      Also: I can’t believe you didn’t think of having sex! 😜

      Like

  6. Haisla

    Oh this is excellent and should be made in into a pamphlet that could be handed out to well-meaning friends/relatives/acquaintances!

    Like

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