Unsolicited Advice: Who is it really for?

For the last few days, I’ve had intense back pain that’s had me hobbling around campus like a penguin bearing a ball and chain. It’s not the I-slept-wrong kind of tightness or the post-gym-soreness that fades away after a few yoga poses. More like the I-might-throw-my-back-out-any-minute-and-fall-to-the-ground-paralyzed kind.

And like a typical self-involved twenty-one-year-old, I complained about it. To my boyfriend. To my roommate. To my coworker. To you.

Have you done any stretches? You carry too much stuff around. Take some ibuprofen. You should improve your posture. Are you sure you know how to lift weights properly?

Here’s the thing: I value other people’s opinions. I’m always looking for new ways to grow, to improve, and honest feedback can most certainly facilitate that process. Advice usually arrives packaged in good intentions. Upon hearing my troubles, my friends and loved ones don’t want to just stand there and do nothing; they want to help. Perhaps they’ll say something that I have not thought of before—that missing link that’ll make all of my problems go away!

But, more often than not, I have thought of it before. Of course, I Googled lower back stretches and performed them as soon as possible. Yes, I know my bag is too heavy and that I crouch over my computer for too long—I quite literally feel the consequences. And I took an ibuprofen an hour ago.

Rather than help me, my friends’ advice and questions made me feel like my pain was insignificant and easily resolvable—and that it must have been all my doing anyway, my fault, and therefore, I was not allowed to be upset about it. Stop whining, I heard. Don’t make such a big deal out of it. Not only that, but their advice insinuated an ignorance on my part, as if my problem-solving capabilities were in question.  

You see, in this particular situation, I didn’t want advice or “help,” nor did I need it. In fact, I think it served the advice-giver more than it did me, satisfying their desire to feel useful.

So what did I want? Well, I simply sought support in the form of validation and recognition. Yes, what you feel is real and it matters. A hug. Kind eyes. A little, “I hope you feel better soon.” That’s all.

It’s true: sometimes people seek guidance without actually asking for it. Then there are those who beg their friends, “tell me what to do!” In some cases, advice can be more harmful than it is helpful, more patronizing than supportive. Other times, a piece of good advice can be uplifting, even enlightening. There is no one way to support a friend in need, but perhaps there is a “right” way for that specific person—an ideal way. My own reactions to receiving help have confirmed my belief that when a friend comes to me for support, it is not about me and what would make me feel helpful. Whether I am an advice-giver, crying shoulder, or listener, I am part of the support system, not the answer to his or her problems. It’s about making my friend feel empowered, to believe that they have it in them to overcome whatever it is that troubles them—be it back pain or a broken heart—because, ultimately, it’s up to them what steps that they take next.

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