“I’m going crazy. My girlfriend is driving me crazy! It’s always something. ‘Did you remember the keys?’ ‘Be sure to double-check the deadbolt.’ ‘Take this street, it’s quicker this time of day.’ She obviously thinks I’m an idiot, and she always has to be right. No matter what I do I just feel like she isn’t happy with me… Should I just break up with her now because I can’t do anything right?”
I hear these moments of frustration and hurt most days. The frustration and hurt are equally felt if rarely distinguished, especially in moments like these where it feels somehow certain that something is wrong, and uncertain what exactly is wrong. The confusion is also compounded, because there is a lot to figure out in a very delicate moment.
A single comment of unsolicited advice can lead to this Escher-y like ascent to emotional oblivion that might also be a descent into relationship oblivion; or maybe even closeness. Which is to say: it can be hard to fully understand or follow unsolicited advice. Unsolicited advice can vocalize expectations, responsibilities, balances of power, and relational history all as subtext, or tone, with a seemingly incongruent text of helpfulness, concern, or good intentions. In these moments it can be hard to know which way to move and what is meant with what is said.
The frustration and hurt are equally felt if rarely distinguished.When someone tells you what to do or how they would do something, some sort of advice, there is a lot that is said in that exchange and a lot that can be felt. Emotionally, unsolicited advice can sound condescending, accusatory, disrespectful, demeaning, belittling, arrogant, presumptive, or even quizzically unrelated and a source of amusement. Relationally, it can feel like an attack, a jab, or an unsubtle undermining.
Unsolicited advice has a lot of emotional and relational nuance, but unfortunately it is rarely felt with any nuance. Most people simply feel it as unwanted and don’t look at it any further; they simply don’t want it. However, there are worlds of exploration waiting to be had in those moments.
I presumptively write this as a shrink that has spent considerable time dissecting emotional nuance in those moments, and with each instance of helping someone navigate unsolicited advice, I continuously encounter undiscovered twists and turns that we weren’t expecting to see nor were we looking for. Also, what can sharply twist it all around is the person, offering the unsolicited advice, can call it love.
Although in counseling I generally help people work towards hearing others from a loving place, unsolicited advice doesn’t feel exactly like love; it isn’t exactly love.
I think that one part of unsolicited advice that hurts is the realization that it is unsolicited, and in that moment of another person offering an idea that was not asked for, they demonstrate a kind of not listening; a jagged breaking. This advice comes, unbidden, unwanted, and as such the person receiving it can feel the implicit disconnection from the other person in that moment, and feel it as a kind of not listening, which therefore doesn’t feel like love. The advice itself can then be interpreted as an act of silencing; as more than a show of disconnection, but as an imposition of another’s expectations; as a reminder that we are not good enough like them; or an insidiously swallowed idea that we have never been listening or done right at all in our relationship. None of these interpretations look or sound like love either.
Unsolicited advice has a lot of emotional and relational nuance, but unfortunately it is rarely felt with any nuance.This is one part of unsolicited advice, the not-exactly-listening leading to the not-exactly-loving, that I find most curious. It isn’t the only part, for there are many more, but it opens another psychological avenue to detour along.
I think how we hear other people, how we hear their intentions, how we interpret their intentions to suit our own emotional constructs of some idea of how a relationship is, is, well, brilliant.
Psychologically, it takes mental and emotional strength to hold both your interpretation and their intention as valid, without discrediting or dismissing either. Being able to hear unsolicited advice takes this strength.
Interpret it as you feel it, but interpret it for what it is and not for what it isn’t.To throw some concrete, one therapeutic scenario I like to use is the unasked-glass-of-water. In this scenario, A is a guest and over visiting B. B, as a host, decides to go and get a glass of water for A, unsolicited, because B did not explicitly ask for a glass of water. B feels critiqued, as if A is implying that B can’t take care of their own physical needs. Or B feels infantilized, and not trusted to get water unsupervised. B might also feel it as uncaring, because food would have been preferred and felt as care. There could be many reactions and feelings that B has in response to A’s unsolicited actions, and they are all valid responses and reactions. Being given a glass of water can be felt as many things, but being given a glass of water isn’t being physically kicked in the stomach. This distinction is important; both the subjective distinctions and the objective distinction.
To stop my own digressing from my solicited advice about unsolicited advice, and to answer: interpret it as you feel it, but interpret it for what it is and not for what it isn’t.
To use the beginning part of this article to illustrate this point, in the unsolicited advice at the start, sure, feel it as a critique of your competency as an adult, a driver, and a partner, but also hear it as your partners own anxieties around safety, driving, and being late. Feel it like an unasked glass of water, because it is not a kick in the stomach.
Big picture here: this is an area that a lot of people struggle with.
It is long simmering emotional stew that I consistently challenge people to refine how they taste it. On a top-level, it is important to not dismiss one’s subjective, more personal experience of a moment. A little deeper is to also have some perspective on what may be happening intersubjectively, which is to say, all the possible relational moments that happen between persons. Further in, I encourage a little objectivity to see what is happening and what isn’t happening, and this requires more than a little imagination and an ability to not fully know, but to want to know, what is happening. As a grace note, I challenge people to not value or prioritize one facet of feelings or facts over another, because all are occurring simultaneously. This is all a lot to digest and discern, but I think this level of carefulness to one’s self and another is a balanced response to another’s unsolicited advice.
It may be hard to discern what is there: challenge, critique, conditional love and so much more. However, unsolicited advice isn’t complete disregard. It isn’t cold indifference. It isn’t silence.