Giving unsolicited advice can be considered as a boundary violation in itself because helping and supporting others is a very delicate process. It requires a lot of empathy, curiosity and patience whereas walking around and throwing simplistic, blank statements at people is not very helpful.
Moreover, a helpful person’s own motivations might be behind their behavior. Are you doing it to actually help them, or do you have a compulsion to change everyone around you who is different from you and by “helping others” you are managing your own anxiety?
People like to think that they are always being helpful, but sometimes that’s not the case. Here are three pieces of unhelpful advice people give to others who are experiencing an internal struggle.
1. “Just let it go.”
Other variations: “Forget about the past.” “Just move on.”
Simply saying to someone to ignore their past experiences is highly counterproductive. For the most part, we are products of our environment. The way we are and react to our experiences is based on our past experiences.
So if someone says that you shouldn’t try to understand why you feel, act, and think as you do at this moment is leading you away from actually understanding yourself better. That’s the opposite of a helpful approach.
Granted, sometimes people get stuck, intellectually and emotionally, and instead of constructively analyzing their situation they just ruminate, overthink, and feel overwhelmed. So, depending, it can definitely be beneficial to just get up and go do things instead of sitting in your room for months without making any progress. But generally speaking the source of your core problems is in your past, so it’s vital to explore it.
When you understand why you are the way you are and why you have the problems you have, then you can slowly move forward and move on. This process is very complex and multilayered. Simplifying it is unhelpful.
2. “Just be more rational.”
Variations: “Be more logical.” “Make better choices.” “Just improve your behavior.”
Even though there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this statement, it’s not as simple as some make it out to be.
Of course, being more aligned with objective reality and being more rational is highly beneficial. When we feel overwhelmed or have other problems, it’s preferable to use reason and evidence to analyze the situation and make a well-informed, rational decision.
However, most people have problems regulating their emotions or haven’t developed a rational mindset required to do so. So to tell a person like that to “just be more rational” is not very realistic.
In many cases, irrationality is a defense mechanism, so it’s necessary to explore what’s behind it. Even if a person realizes they are not being reasonable, they often can’t just become more logical and rational with a statement. It takes a lot of self-work, studying, and practicing it. It’s not something you can do at the snap of your fingers.
It’s really hard to convince someone that things are actually different than the person feels they are. There’s a reason why a person feels irrational fear or acts against their self-interest. Yes, being more aware of your flawed perspective and changing your thinking and behavioral patterns definitely helps. But telling a person just to do so won’t solve anything substantial.
3. “Just don’t think about it.”
Variations: “Things are not as bad as they seem.” “It’s all in your head.” “But your life is good.” “Just be happy.”
This is a variation of the previous points. It means that perhaps the person is not being realistic, that they are worrying too much, that things are not as they think they are, and that you shouldn’t focus on it so much.
Again, there are definitely situations where a person can take a step back and look at their situation more objectively to get a different perspective on things and stop worrying. Yes, sometimes it’s possible to regulate your emotions by distracting yourself with an activity, and that’s enough to break the thought and emotion pattern. However, people who give such advice tend to make things appear too simplistic and end up dismissing the person’s struggles.
Often the person can’t “just not think about it” because their thoughts are compulsive, they are intrusive, and they are highly involuntary. Their emotions are too overwhelming and too invasive. So “thinking about something else” is not so simple. This is the case even when the person realizes that it’s irrational or that their situation is not as bad as their emotions are telling them.
Psychological and emotional problems are complex. Some people don’t understand or are in denial about it and end up simplifying things. Not only that, when they see others struggling with mental problems they tend to advise them by saying something obviously simplistic like, “Just be happy,” as if a depressed person can just snap their fingers and become happy.
It takes a lot of work to identify the real source of your problems and solve it truly and effectively. Minimizing this can make the struggling person feel even worse, even if it’s unintentional. A better approach is empathy, support, and curiosity.
What other unhelpful advice do people give to others that’s not on the list? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Photo by: Pedro Ribeiro Simões
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.