“Just take the pill in the prodromal phase, right away, then it works”, says my coworker after I tell her that I wasn’t at work the day before because of a migraine. I feel the irritation stirring inside me, slowly climbing up to heat up my still sore head. Irritation combined with shame. “I took the pill as soon as I woke up with the headache, but it didn’t help”, I explain to her in vain. (Why do I even explain myself?) “Then you were probably too late”, she says.
A few things bother me. First off, the general manager is standing next to her and I feel like I am being lectured and put in a bad light in front of him. Second, she gives me advice about a condition that I have had my whole adult life (and probably even before) and that she doesn’t have. But because she knows a lot about a specific migraine medicine, she seems to think she knows more about migraine treatment than me. Third, she wants to help me, and I don’t want to be ungrateful, but the thing is: I didn’t ask for help or advice. And last but not least: this happens all the time. Many people, when I mention I have migraines, immediately give their -probably very well-meant yet unsolicited- advice. “It sounds weird but I always go running when I feel a headache coming up.” “My friend goes to an acupuncturist and never has migraines anymore.” “I read that having sex and especially having orgasms makes headaches go away.” “Maybe you are just stressing out too much.” (Yes, I am, over all this unsolicited advice I am getting ;-)). I think it also has to do with the fact that people tend to see a condition like migraine as something that is at least to a certain degree the result of something you’re doing wrong. Because, how many times do they give tips and tricks to someone with, say, diabetes type I? Diabetes is not your fault. When you suffer from migraines, though, it is assumed, there must be something somewhere you fail at or forget to do. And therefore you need advice.
I use this migraine story because it is a clear example from my personal experience. But unsolicited advice is dispensed in many situations, not only in the case of medical conditions. Just go on Twitter, post something that bothers or strikes you and the tips, tricks, criticism and advice (yes mansplainers I see you ;-)) come pouring in.
Trying to help someone is not a bad idea in itself, of course, it can be a very loving act. We are social creatures and want to help other people out, by nature. Especially when you see that a person is clearly in trouble and looks like they need help. Maybe you know something about the problem the other person has that is the missing piece of advice to said problem. That is very well possible. However, you cannot read the mind of the other person and therefore don’t know whether this person wants help or advice. And how much help and advice they already have (had). Maybe they just want to vent, just want to express their feelings about a situation. Assuming that someone can solve things on their own and will ask for help if needed, may be a much more respectful thing to do than to immediately jump to the rescue. In fact, thinking the other person needs you(r opinion) and is not capable of dealing with their problems is a bit arrogant and condescending. I think we should believe in and respect the integrity, assertiveness and boundaries of others.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Imagine you have a problem. In the example above, a chronic condition. You have tried all kinds of medications, have gone to see different doctors, to no avail. Many, many, many people have given you many, many, yes, many bits of advice. Mostly unsolicited, sometimes helpful. Advice you often followed. Again, mostly to no avail. You have read so much throughout all these years about this condition you have become quite the expert. And because nothing really helps, even though all the bits of advice suggest it should, you start to feel like it’s your fault. And every time another person has a suggestion that should help you because it helped so and so, that feeling gets a little worse. It undermines your self-esteem, integrity and the acceptance of your problem as something you can and need to learn to live with.
How would you like it, if you were that person, if yet again someone comes up with the next ostensible cure to your problem, while you weren’t asking for it?
I am not writing this blogpost because I want pity for my migraines or want to complain about them. I am writing this because I see and feel the (consequences of) unsolicited advice very often and yet also feel the tendency to give unsolicited advice myself. I am writing about this because I want to learn to be more respecting of other people, of their integrity and abilities.
I also don’t mean to sound like a spoiled ungrateful bitch. I do appreciate it when people want to show their sympathy by trying to help me with something. I don’t think we should stop helping people or shouldn’t dispense, but I would like to suggest a more respectful way to do so: asking. Ask someone first if they want advice or help. Or if they would like you to just listen. Or, maybe even better: ask what you can do for them. Just ask. Wouldn’t that be a simple and nice way of showing respect for that person while also honoring the fact that you would like to help out?
I hope that more people (read: everyone), including myself, will think twice before giving unsolicited advice (wow, that even rhymes!).