This is part of my online book on Healthy Boundaries Made Simple.
Can I confess something? I love giving unsolicited advice. My instinct is to jump in as soon as I see someone struggle and offer my very best, top-notch, knee-jerk advice. Put simply, I blurt out the first obvious thing that occurs to me. What’s not obvious to me is that they also thought of the obvious thing.
But you know what’s really weird? I don’t love receiving unsolicited advice. I don’t want to hear about the obvious suggestion that popped into someone else’s head. (Am I a cantankerous old man? Absolutely.) In most cases, the advice-giver lacks the context to give good suggestions. They’re oblivious to my goals, constraints, and everything I’ve already tried to solve my problem.
But the steady stream of unhelpful advice never ends. It’s like that quote from Bernard Williams:
Unsolicited advice is the junk mail of life.
Examples of junk-mail advice from Stewie’s life:
- When I feel down, one friend always sends me Tony Robbins videos.
- When I have a cold, one coworker always recommends “more orange juice, as long as it’s organic and not from concentrate.”
- When I need to shed extra pounds, one family member always suggests “just eat less” and some new-fangled fad diet from talk radio.
Each of these well-intentioned people has some oversimplified—and sometimes bonkers!—solution to my problems. They’re a lot like Gus, the father from My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), who believes that “every ailment from psoriasis to poison ivy can be cured with Windex.”
So I get annoyed when people peddle unsolicited advice. I know they’re trying to be helpful, and this tempers my irritation, but their recommendations don’t help. And if this happens too often, I worry they don’t trust me to manage my own life.
John Gray sums this up with:
To offer a man unsolicited advice is to presume that he doesn’t know what to do or that he can’t do it on his own.
As a result, I try to restrain myself when it comes to doling out unsolicited advice. The urge is still omnipresent. I want to jump in and solve their problems, but I tell myself that they can manage their lives. I tell myself they’ll ask for advice when they need it.
So don’t hand out unsolicited advice. And when you feel tempted, remind yourself of three things:
1. It’s a distraction
Millions of people have the potential to be magnificent artists, musicians, and writers. But they never realize their potential because they fear rejection. They’re plagued by thoughts like, “What if I fail? What if everyone hates me? Or worse, what if no one ever notices me?”
This fear leads us to procrastinate. We invent “things to do” and hunt for “problems to solve.” And the easiest way to fill time—and the most interesting!—is to jump into other peoples’ business and tell them how to solve their problems.
We distract ourselves by getting embroiled with other people’s drama. It starts by giving out unsolicited advice, and then when the drama deepens, we give even more advice and become further entangled.
Don’t do this. Acknowledge your fear of rejection and push through it. Do the thing that scares you. Ignore others’ drama and work toward mastering your craft and achieving your goals.
2. Lack of Context
The advice we give people is only as good as the context we have. And we seldom see the whole problem, with its multiple facets and perspectives. Worse yet, we often don’t understand how little we know.
It’s like that time my coworker heard me cough over Zoom and said, “Are you sick? Are you drinking enough organic orange juice??” This guy meant well but didn’t know that I had a sinus infection. And bronchitis. Furthermore, he had no training in treating respiratory infections. But he didn’t know what he didn’t know and therefore spouted unhelpful advice.
So don’t be like orange-juice dude. Before you give advice, consider how little context you have. Do you really understand the whole situation?
I’m not a financial advisor, nor do I play one on TV. I barely have enough knowledge to manage my own affairs.
Similarly, I’m not a trained medical professional. I have enough information to manage my own medical conditions and take care of my own body, but I’m woefully unqualified to recommend how others manage their health.
As such, I hesitate to give anyone any sort of financial or medical advice. I’d feel terrible if I spouted some off-the-cuff advice and things turned out poorly for the other person. I’d feel responsible if they had to live with the consequences of acting on my ill-informed suggestions.
Seriously, I don’t want that sort of responsibility. And neither do you.
Don’t give unsolicited advice.
That’s it. That’s the whole conclusion.
There’s really nothing else to say here. When you feel the urge to jump in and solve someone’s problems, just pause. Tell yourself, “I trust people to manage their affairs.”
And if someone gives you unsolicited advice, just nod your head and go about your day. Or if you’re a troll, like me, you can misconstrue their advice, as Bonnie McFarlane did:
When you’re pregnant, people feel like they can come up and give you unsolicited advice. When I was nine months pregnant, this one woman came up and she said, I have one word for you: epidural. And I was like, Oh my God, thanks. But we already picked a name.