The other morning I took my dog, Egon, on his morning walk. A woman and her pit bull were walking toward us, but at a weird stop/go pace. The woman was texting, and I had to decide whether she was aware enough of her dog for us to safely pass them.
I stopped in the path to decide, and then the woman suddenly picked up her pace walking toward us. I quickly stepped off the path and Egon barked. I led Egon away in a different direction (a distraction technique taught to me by Egon’s trainer) and the woman yelled, “It’s ok, it’s normal behavior, but he could use some training.”
A wave of emotion swept over me.
Unsolicited advice. I’ve always disliked it.
As a woman living in our patriarchal culture, I’ve received a lot of it.
So what is it about unsolicited advice that makes it so maddening?
The first reason is that it sets up a power dynamic. It puts one person in the role of “knower/ teacher/advice giver” and one person in the role of “ignorant/ teacher/advice receiver.”
Dr. Richo, an author I admire, explains that anger arises when something we value is in jeopardy. As humans, we need and value equality and mutuality. When a power dynamic is thrust upon us, equality is stripped, leading to a sense of anger.
The second reason that unsolicited advice is maddening is that the advice receiver did not consent or agree to this power dynamic. It is put upon them without choice. Whenever something we value is threatened or taken away (such as freedom or choice), anger is the appropriate reaction.
Third, by offering unsolicited advice, the advice giver makes multiple assumptions about the advice receiver. First, they assume the advice is wanted or needed. Second, they assume they know something that the receiver does not.
For example, the woman this morning assumed that my dog was not trained or currently in training. I’ve spent months and thousands of dollars working on Egon’s training (which you can read about here) due to his background of living in a dog hoarding environment. I’ve also felt this investment was necessary due to my lack of dog training knowledge, my inexperience with dogs, and my desire for Egon to be a therapy dog.
When this woman yelled out advice to me, she did not know any of this, and so her advice was wrong and unhelpful.
Unsolicited advice severs the connection between two people. Instead of the advice giver taking time to understand and ask questions, they cast out their opinion, making their worldview the only perspective and priority. This can leave the receiver feeling misunderstood, disconnected, unseen, and unheard - all of which can lead to feelings of anger.
Fourth, unsolicited advice is centered in the advice giver’s world. The giver assumes that their perspectives on the situation are accurate and right. It’s a form of egoism and self-centeredness. Unsolicited advice giving is about the giver. It actually has nothing to do with the receiver, because they haven’t taken the time to truly understand, check in, and see if the person is wanting advice.
This amount of egoism and self-centeredness severs disconnection. As humans, we crave equal, balanced relationships where we are mutually seen and heard. Unsolicited advice does not provide that.
Fifth, unsolicited advice places the blame on the receiver. It says - this is what YOU need to do. It also denies any responsibility the speaker may have in the dynamic. For example, the woman this morning was on the phone and not appropriately aware of her dog or her surroundings. This caused me to pause in hesitation and Egon appropriately picked up on that. When the woman unexpectedly began walking rapidly toward us, Egon barked as a defense mechanism because he knew I was unsure of the situation.
And yet, this woman understood none of this and placed the blame fully on me - which was upsetting.
Many people think it’s wrong to feel angry (or that it’s a sin). It’s not. Anger is a signal to us that something is not right. It is a good and necessary thing to feel anger.
What matters is how we respond when we feel anger. We can take time to listen to it, understand it, process it, and choose our response.
We can choose to respond in ways that are life-affirming, such as when we address and resolve the root cause of our anger. Sometimes, we can choose to stuff our anger and simmer in it, which can be life-corroding.
This leads us to the sixth reason that unsolicited advice can be maddening. It can feel unsafe for the receiver to respond and address the inappropriate advice. The giver has already demonstrated that they are in a disconnected state when they offered advice unsolicited -they are not hearing, understanding, or seeing the receiver.
The receiver may not want to share how they are feeling (put themselves in a vulnerable state) with someone who is already out of disconnection. Thus, the receiver may stuff the anger, which never feels good. For example, I don’t think the woman I met this morning was in a connected enough place for me to say, “Actually mam, it was your behavior of being on the cell phone while erratically walking with your dog that led to an unsafe situation.” I did not feel she would be able to hear those words. I did not know enough about her life (maybe she was texting about a very upsetting matter) or her current emotional state to know if she would be able to hear and accept my critique.
In other situations of unsolicited advice, the receiver may also not feel it is safe to respond. For example, if someone yells at me in a moment of road rage, “Get off the road if you’re going to drive so slow!” it may not be safe for me to yell back, “My tire has a flat you asshole!”
This leads us to the seventh reason. Experiences of unsolicited advice frequently happen so quickly or are so overwhelming that the receiver may not have the clarity of thought to respond how they would like. This inaction can lead to feelings of anger or disappointment in ourselves.
For example, I’ve sat with myself many times and wondered, “Well why didn’t I just tell him I wasn’t in a place to hear any advice?” or “I wish I had just left the situation.”
So what do we do with the anger? First, if we can calmly respond in the moment in a way that honors our feelings and thoughts, we do so.
Second, if it is unsafe to do so or we are overwhelmed in the moment, we can sit with these feelings later. We can take the time to understand why we felt angry and honor that it is OK to feel angry. We can then brainstorm how we would like to respond next time (if possible).
Once we have honored and thought through the anger, we can let it move through our body by expressing it. We can do this through art or movement (you can read more about this process here).
The most important component in this process is to acknowledge that the anger we are feeling is appropriate. By honoring the anger, we honor that we are not to blame for another’s inappropriate unsolicited advice.
Receiving unsolicited advice can be overwhelming - and I work with women on just that thing. I provide therapy for highly intelligent women with overwhelming emotions and thoughts.