Tag Archives: Boundaries

Why Unsolicited Advice Is a Terrible Idea

Yes, I appreciate the irony in writing a blog post about unsolicited advice that could be read as unsolicited advice.

I’ve been playing around with the idea of never giving anyone any advice that they haven’t asked me for, though, and I thought it would make a great topic for a post here while I’m adjusting to the idea of keeping my mouth shut until or unless I’m asked for my opinion.

Perhaps someday I’ll revisit this topic once I have more to say about it? For now, let’s talk about why giving people advice they haven’t asked for is a terrible idea.

 You Don’t Have All of the Facts

Everyone has private parts of their lives that are only shared with very few people or maybe even no one else at all. It could be as simple as a soothing bedtime ritual or as complex as an uncommon hobby that they only discuss with others who have also devoted their free time to perfecting the art of underwater basket weaving.

The parts of someone’s life that others see  almost certainly don’t give a full picture of who they are or how complex their problems – or their perceived problems –  really are.

Sometimes what looks like a banana isn’t actually a banana after all. (Also, I love this picture in and of itself. Isn’t it interesting?)

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

I’ve seen this happen multiple times with various friends of mine who are living with serious, longterm mental or physical health problems.

No sooner do they mention having a particularly bad day or dealing with a troublesome, new symptom than someone else will jump in with a half-dozen suggestions for how they should fix their disease once and for all.

Yes, they’ve tried all of those cures already. No, that random Internet article isn’t going to magically fix deep-seated health problems that have been bothering them for decades and that have been treated by multiple doctors and other healthcare professions over the years.

I’ve only ever had this happen to me briefly once or twice, and even that made me irrationally angry. I can’t imagine what my friends who must deal with possibly well-meaning but ultimately wrong and judgemental assumptions about their bodies over and over again go through.

What works for one person can fail miserably for another even if they’re both dealing with similar circumstances or diseases.

 It Doesn’t Work

Advice is only useful when the person receiving it is open to the idea of changing. It’s not like a vaccine that will protect someone from dangerous diseases regardless of what thoughts flutter through their minds while their immune systems are learning how to recognize and destroy inactivated polio germs.

One has to be ready to accept what the advice-giver is saying in order for it to have any hope at all of working. Changing your personality, habits, and/or current situation is such a difficult task that there’s no other way of going about it. Anyone who isn’t motivated to keep going even if they don’t see any results right away is almost certainly going to give up long before any of the work they might have put into their current personal project has had any chance at all to fix things.

Unwanted advice also doesn’t work well for adult relationships in general. When someone who isn’t in an official place of authority over me tries to control what I do or how I live, I feel annoyed and confused. If they continue to do it over a long period of time despite being asked to stop, I slowly begin to share less about my life with them.

Not only does unsolicited advice not work in the short term, it makes me much less willing to listen six months or a year from now if they have something else to say to me.

Rather than prompting me to change whatever it is they think I’m doing wrong, what this kind of interaction teaches me is that they’re not a safe person to confide in. I will often start spending less time with them and guarding myself when I do see them. Their intentions may have been noble, but the results of their poor boundaries are going to be the exact opposite of what they might have hoped for.

Some Lessons Have to be Learned the Hard Way

Not everyone is willing to take the experiences of others as the ultimate truth.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have the urge to warn other people about certain types of mistakes I’ve made in the past, but you can’t live someone else’s life for them.

Sometimes they have to find out for themselves that something is a terrible idea regardless of whether it takes thirty seconds or thirty years between their decision and reaping the consequence of it.

The only thing the rest of us can do in the meantime is to respect their boundaries and hope that they’ll learn their lesson as quickly and easily as possible.

Why You Don’t Have to Respect Your Elders

This post was originally published in October of 2011.

Respect your elders!

We’ve all heard this.

But why should anyone be afforded more (or less) respect because of something as out of our control as the date and time we entered this world?

If I told you Bob is 60 years old and Susanna is 15 could you tell me which one of these people is kinder? more compassionate? wiser? more loving?

Yes, sometimes people do grow wiser with age but it isn’t an automatic process.

I’ve known “Bobs” (both male and female) who lived the same year over and over again, never applying lessons learned from one day to the next. There have also been “Susannas” who tumble out of childhood with more wisdom and common sense than most people three or four times their age.

Story Time

Drew and I spent a week visiting my parents and siblings a few summers ago when our nephew, Aiden, was a toddler. At the end of the visit I asked for a hug. He said no. Our last visit had been when Aiden was an infant and it was completely understandable that he’d be a little shy. These things happen when families are geographically scattered.

I also couldn’t imagine pushing this issue simply because I happened to be a couple of decades older. Being a child doesn’t mean that one has to do everything adults want. Yes, there are times when Aiden’s parents made and make decisions that he isn’t developmentally ready to take responsibility for yet but even a toddler is still his or her own person.

And a funny thing happened a few minutes later: he leaned over and gave me a hug after all.


…is for everyone: the Prime Minister, the homeless person sitting on the corner, your 88 year old grandmother and your two year old son or daughter all deserve a basic level of respect simply because they are fellow human beings.

It makes no sense to withhold this basic respect (or dribble out more of it) based on how old someone is or what has happened in their life so far.

…is earned. But, yes, respect is also something we can earn more of based on what we do and how we treat others.

Someone who is courteous, kind and generous is almost always going to be more respected and well-liked by those around them than someone who who is rude, selfish and cruel.

…cannot be demanded. In fact, demanding that someone respect you (outside of a rare handful of situations) is one of the fastest ways to lose it. It would be like walking up to a significant other, close family member or friend and saying, “I demand that you love me!”

Whatever emotions or behaviours that are dredged up may give the appearance of love or respect but you can never attract the real thing through force.

Am I saying that we should disrespect our elders?


But don’t let something as out of our control as age determine who deserves your respect.

The Third Option: A Response to Take Nothing Personally

This post was originally published on February 10, 2014. I will have a fresh topic for my readers on Monday!

Feed the real hunger, which is a plea for understanding. It’s their cry for help. The question is how we answer the cry. It starts with compassion. I’m not talking about pity, or pop psychologizing someone in the heat of their rage. That will make it worse. I’m talking about genuinely feeling compassion for the other person, and hearing their pain.

From Take Nothing Personally.

I strongly recommend reading the entire post I linked to above. It’s short and has an extremely powerful message.

By no means should this blog post be construed as a criticism of “Take Nothing Personally.”  I’ve seen how genuine compassion can transform people that you’d never imagine would be capable of such great change, but I would argue that there’s a third option other than responding with anger or compassion.

Compassion-LogoTake a step back.

Not every battle has your name on it. Not every person you meet will be willing to (or capable of) changing. Sometimes the kindest and most compassionate thing you can do is stop trying to fix someone who hasn’t reached a place in his or her life yet when they’re ready to take that step.

I’m not saying that we should completely cut off people who cry out for help through their anger, abrasiveness, or overwhelming desire to control others. Life isn’t always that black and white.

But you can turn the dial down. Call once a week instead of every day, or visit a few times a year instead of twice a month. There are many ways to set limits, and doing so can be really good for your mental health. Some relationships work better with a little distance.

The beautiful thing about steps is that they’re flexible and reversible. The limits you set today might be completely unnecessary tomorrow. Or they might need to be drawn in tighter in order to keep the relationship as healthy as possible.

By all means practice compassion, but remember that it can be used in a wide variety of ways and from any distance.

People Aren’t Projects

Originally posted on March 11, 2013. 

“Let’s go talk to the street preachers!” Drew teased this past weekend. I raised my eyebrow and glanced over at him, trying not to roll my eyes.

Muslim, Jewish or Christian, street evangelists in Toronto share the same goal: to convert you. Certain groups loudly berate (female) strangers they think are too scantily clad. A handful are mentally ill, arguing with people who aren’t really there or exhibiting disorganized thought patterns if you listen to what they have to say. Others are quite friendly and knowledgable, especially if you can get them to discuss something other than religion.

After a year or two of living here I began avoiding all of them because people aren’t projects. It’s just as inappropriate to yell at strangers that they’re all going to hell as it is to take advantage of an existing friendship to push the issue.

Evangelism isn’t just a religious phenomenon, though. I’ve seen people use forms of friendship evangelism to convince others to:

  • Eat certain foods
  • Avoid other foods
  • Lose weight
  • Gain weight
  • Own a car
  • Use public transit
  • Get pregnant 
  • Raise your kid my way
  • Switch to reusable shopping bags*
  • Vote only for candidates from party X 

Regardless of whether those around them actually needed advice or had any intention of considering unsolicited input.

Do some of these urges come from a good place? Yes. Wanting other people to experience the same joy you do from a certain experience or decision is completely understandable but adults are responsible for their own lives.

Attempting to transform a friendship into a situation in which one person knows best for another taints every interaction. Am I asking about your latest doctor’s visit because I’m genuinely concerned or because I want you to buy megadoses of a particular vitamin that is sure to fix your incurable disease? Are you wondering for whom I voted in the last provincial election because you are thinking about voting for someone new or so you can make sure I’m not a Pauper?

It comes down to this: debating differences of opinion is healthy. By all means question the why and what of other people’s ideas and identity’s but condensing another human being to where they stand on one issue and then trying to “fix” that part of them doesn’t build trust. It erodes it.

*Yes, I have actually seen so-called grown ups get snippy about this one.

Anger Isn’t a Destination

Picture by  Swantje Hess and Jannis Pohlmann.
Picture by Swantje Hess and Jannis Pohlmann.

There are a lot of things in this world that rightfully stir up anger,  but this isn’t a post about them.

Neither is this a post about not being angry. Sometimes you need to get mad about the injustices in this world. A well-placed rant can be a great way to grab people’s attention and focus it on something that desperately needs to be changed.

By no means do I expect anyone to swallow these emotions and pretend to be happy with the way things are. That’s neither realistic nor emotionally healthy.

What concerns me is when people get stuck in a loop of venting.

Anger isn’t a destination, it’s a tool.

You don’t change the world simply by getting really mad about what’s happening in it.

“Women aren’t meant to be pastors,” someone in a position of authority told me once a very long time ago. “They’re happier working behind the scenes.”

“…but she’s not like you,” a friend said years later. “She’s just bi for the attention. You’re a real bisexual.”

Cue eye roll.

It wasn’t the first or last time I’d heard either of those sentiments. I could have easily explained why those stereotypes were so harmful (and useless) with a grouchy monologue.

I didn’t.

Sometimes anger simmers for so long it crusts over, hardening into a nearly impenetrable shell. I understand why that happens. When you spend your life accidentally running into brick walls you’re eventually going to grow wary of what might be waiting for you around the next bend.

Hating the wall doesn’t make it disappear. The bricks themselves aren’t the problem, it’s how they were cemented together and where they were installed that make them so painful. They could have just as easily been used to make a playhouse, or a deck, or to repair a sidewalk that’s all but crumbled into pieces.

This doesn’t make it ok to build more walls in the middle of the street, of course.  But they’ll come down a lot faster if you start dismantling them than if you wander around complaining about how tall they are.

I’m Happy to Visit, but I Don’t Want to Stay

A while back Drew and I were talking about weekend plans. The thing we were planning on doing required much more travel time than we normally commit to on weekends, and as we discussed it I felt my stomach tense up. I really didn’t want to tie up an entire day with this particular get-together.… Read More

Can People Change?

Barring a serious brain injury could you wake up tomorrow, decide to change your personality and successfully go through with it? There was a time when I thought this was possible but with every passing year I believe more and more strongly that we might be able to change our minds about specific issues – religion,… Read More

How to Apologize When You Don’t Think You Were Wrong

Recently some new readers have found this blog using phrases like, “a person wants to apologize but doesn’t think they were wrong.” I wish we had more details about what’s happening in their lives. Since this didn’t happen here’s are a few questions I recommend asking yourself for future readers who find On the Other… Read More