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Are You Overwhelmed By Unsolicited Health Advice?

Most people with a long-term illness have an extra struggle to deal with: the onslaught of well-intentioned suggestions.

“You should try ___.” Yoga, intermittent fasting, my sister’s naturopath, ozone therapy, Tai Chi, stem cell replacement, Buddhist meditation, IV antibiotics, and on and on and on…

Having an illness can mean that people assume you want advice on how to heal. I could wallpaper my room with the variety of suggestions I’ve gotten. If you have been on the receiving end, you know it’s often stressful, but it’s hard to define why — especially to the people giving the suggestions. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this phenomenon because in addition to being sick, I am also a therapist for people with chronic illness.

If you feel annoyed by all the ideas you get, you are not alone! Every person I asked said they felt cranky and defensive in response to most helpful suggestions. Below, I have listed some reasons why it can be a pain in the neck to listen to people who are “just trying to help.”

4 reasons why “helpful suggestions” might not be helpful:

1. It’s distracting to hear too many ideas.

Doctor’s protocols and healing regimens can be tricky to follow. We have to put our heart into it and do our best, in order to see if it’s going to work.  It’s hard to do that when people are constantly suggesting new things

2. It’s overwhelming, and there simply isn’t the time and money to try every idea.

Most of us with illness face a stressful shortage of money, and suggestions can seem like another thing to worry about paying for.  Also, hearing about too many ideas can leave us constantly in doubt that we are following the right ones.

3. It discounts our own knowledge and wisdom.

Illness can be like a part-time job, and after months and years, we become experts. It’s insulting when people talk to us like they know more about our condition than we do.

4. It’s not just what they say, it’s how they say it.

When people really insist that their suggestion is the best, it can feel like they are saying, “You are foolish and you don’t know what is good for you.”  When people quickly blurt out ideas right after we first tell them about our illness, it can make us regret having shared. And it can make us feel like it’s not OK to name our illness out loud. When people give us suggestions at our workplace, it can make us feel mildly reprimanded. Like we are being told, “You better fix that, because an illness doesn’t belong in this situation.” When friends and family come out with suggestions just when we are mentioning a difficult episode, it can come across like they don’t want to hear the truth about our lives. It can make us feel like we can’t be ourselves, even with our loved ones.

Now, there are some people who just enjoy telling others what to do, but I don’t think that explains the huge volume of suggestions.  In truth, those helpful ideas usually come from people who care about us, whether a little or a lot. So, why does it happen so often?

Here is why I think so many people jump to offering unsolicited “fixes” for our problems: I think it’s an unconscious way to try to get control over a subject that scares them. Namely, disease, suffering or loss. I think some people get triggered because they haven’t come to terms with their own relationship to illness, and so ours can be challenging and destabilizing for them. And when someone feels uneasy, giving a suggestion helps them grasp back on to a feeling of certainty. Always having an answer is one way of convincing themselves that there is always an easy solution. 

Then, there are other people who have a hard time dealing with our illnesses because they care about us so much. It can be excruciating sometimes to witness people you love go through pain or difficulty. Giving suggestions can be a way of easing their frustration with themselves, the frustration they feel because they can’t fix all our problems.

How do I know so much about why people give suggestions? Because I have made all these mistakes myself. Not so much now, but before I got sick, I gave out suggestions to others for all the reasons I mentioned. And I thought I was just trying to help. The point I am trying to make here is that illness is truly a difficult subject, and everyone deserves some compassion. We don’t have to be a dumping ground for other’s unsolved personal issues, but at the same time, we can sympathize with the deeper cause of other people’s discomfort.

So, what do we say in response when someone is giving us a suggestion and we aren’t in the mood to hear it? Here are some thoughts from my clients and friends:

“I have learned to say thanks and just leave it at that.”

“I told my best friend that it was frustrating. She spread the word around to my other friends and asked them not to overwhelm me with stuff.”

“I try to take a breath and pause before I reply; then I can respond more skillfully.”

“I told my mom that she was distracting me from my doctor’s orders, and she got embarrassed. She hadn’t even realized what she was doing. Now, Mom asks me if I’m ‘in the market for new ideas’ before she offers something.”

What I ask my own friends to do is to start their suggestion with some intro like, “You probably already know about this,” or “You are already doing so much to take care of yourself, but I just heard of…”  By beginning a suggestion with a reference to my present self-care, I feel acknowledged and seen. That helps me to listen to their idea without feeling pressure to try it.

Even more importantly, my friends have learned to stop and listen when I tell them about being sick, without rushing in to try to fix me.  That takes a lot of strength and trust because it hasn’t been easy for them to witness all my ups and downs. But it works both ways, because they know they can come to me with their problems and talk without me rushing to try to fix it for them. I think that is what real friendship is about: just being there for the other person. I wish everyone could have relationships like that.

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