Here’s the most distressing piece of unsolicited advice I’ve received to date. It showed up in my Inbox two days after I’d completed a course of radiation for breast cancer. The email was in response to an article I’d written about this new, unexpected turn my life had taken; the article included the fact that, at the time, I was in the middle of a course of radiation treatment. Here’s what the woman said in her email: “I’m sorry to hear you have breast cancer. However, because you’re already chronically ill, do not, under any circumstances, continue with radiation. It will destroy your immune system.”
In the article she’d read, I emphasized that my intention in writing it was to share my experiences in a way that would be helpful others. I didn’t ask for treatment advice, but I received a lot of it, including this email, which had the effect of making me anxious and worried about a treatment I’d just completed.
I know that the woman had good intentions, but I wish that before she’d given me that advice, she’d reflected on a version of the last line from a favorite movie of mine: Gosford Park. It’s spoken by the ladies maid, Mary, as she’s contemplating whether to share some damning information that, while true, could lead to a miscarriage of justice. Deciding against revealing the information, she reflects: “What purpose could it possibly serve?” I often repeat this phrase to myself if I’m uncertain whether what about what I’m about to say would be helpful to the person I’m addressing.
Over the years, I’ve received a lot of unsolicited advice about my health, but I assumed it was because I’ve been diagnosed with a little-understood illness: chronic fatigue syndrome (a.k.a. ME/CFS). I was sure that having an illness that’s so misunderstood and mysterious accounted for all the advice I was getting on how to cure myself, advice that’s ranged from jumping in a cold swimming pool of water every day for six months to swishing oil around in my mouth each morning and then spitting it out (along, supposedly, with any viruses in my body).
But it turns out that unsolicited health advice comes in just as fast and furious when the diagnosis is cancer.
Some readers may welcome advice from others. That’s fine. This piece focuses on those of us who’d rather not be given advice unless we ask for it. It suggests some ways to respond skillfully to that unsolicited advice.
I recognize that the options available to each of us differs depending on our relationship to the advice-giver and to the medium through which the advice is given — for example, in person (where we’re a “captive audience”) versus via an email or even in a public Facebook comment. That said, here are some suggestions:
1. Shove it under the bed (literally or metaphorically). Twenty years ago, my dear friend Anne was in the final stages of cancer. She was a therapist by profession, but she decided to see one herself to help her cope with what was happening.
One of her ongoing difficulties was that almost everyone who came to visit brought her some kind of treatment, whether it be a supplement, a herbal tea, or a crystal to wear around her neck. She told me that sometimes she wanted to scream: “I’m in the hands of good doctors; we’re doing everything we can to keep me alive; I don’t want or need your advice!” But she didn’t because she didn’t want to hurt people who were being kind enough to visit.
When Anne raised this dilemma at a counseling session, her therapist suggested that she smile and say, “Thank you very much,” and put the item down. Then, as soon as the visit was over and the person had left, shove it under her bed. It turned out to be just the advice she needed.
I’ve found this to be a valuable strategy. When I get unsolicited advice via email or a private Facebook message, sometimes I answer by simply saying, “Thanks for thinking of me.” And that’s it; I purposefully don’t address the substance of the advice. I’ve found that if I engage someone on a suggestion that’s clearly off-base for me by responding with something like, “Thanks, but I’m aware of that treatment, and I’m sure it won’t work for me,” it invites the person to continue the dialogue — sometimes to try even harder to convince me that he or she is right. I don’t want to have to defend my treatment decisions; it takes up too much of what precious little energy I have. So, as an act of self-protection and self-compassion, I answer politely, but briefly, and avoid addressing what the person is suggesting that I do. In other words, I metaphorically shove it under the bed.
2. Ignore it. This strategy is often only available when, unlike in the example above with Anne, the unsolicited advice arrives in a non person-to-person interaction — via an email or in a Facebook comment for example. In those circumstances, you can always choose not to respond at all.
I used to answer every single online communication that came my way (and I still do if it’s about my books or other writing). Now, if it’s unsolicited health advice, even though I appreciate that people are trying to help, I admit that I might simply ignore it.
For example, one person told me to forgo all future breast cancer treatments and start eating lemons because acid kills cancer. That’s a piece of unsolicited advice I decided not to respond to. If that person is reading this, please understand that I appreciate that you were thinking of me, but I consulted multiple doctors and spent many hours online doing research before I settled on a treatment plan. It’s better for my peace of mind not to second-guess that plan unless some change in my health requires re-evaluating it.
3. Be honest about how you feel about being given unsolicited advice. This is an especially good option to consider when you’re offered in-person advice from well-meaning family and friends. I’ve been given lots of health advice that’s of no use to me whatsoever. I often just mumble, “Thanks,” but sometimes I muster the courage to say: “I appreciate your attempt to help, but I’d rather talk about something other than my health”; or “I appreciate your suggestion, but my doctor and I already have a treatment plan, and I want to stick to it.”
To my surprise, so far, this response has been well-received. I think I know why. Family and friends who offer unsolicited advice have the best of intentions. Their hearts are in the right place: they’re as frustrated as I am that I’m chronically ill. And so, when I get up the nerve to be honest with them about not wanting unsolicited advice, they’re actually relieved, as if they’d felt obligated to try and help in this way, but have been let off the hook.
Being honest may not always be the best strategy, but I’d keep it in mind as a possibility. Let’s face it, some family and friends can’t resist giving advice or bringing us cures. For them, that “Thank you” followed by shoving it under the bed (metaphorically or literally) works better.
4. Work on accepting that people won’t always behave the way you want them to. This is good advice for everyone, whether chronically ill or not. We can’t control other people’s behavior. Despite our attempts to be honest with family and friends about not wanting advice, as I mentioned above, some may continue to give it. This calls for self-protection in the form of compassion for ourselves. We can gently remind ourselves what a burden it is to have to add to our ongoing pain and illness the work of having to access how to skillfully deal with what others are telling us to do about our health.
Dealing with unsolicited advice also calls for equanimity. This means, first, accepting that people won’t always treat us the way we want them to and, second, having that be OK with us. This is the essence of equanimity — being OK with our life as it is, knowing it won’t always be pleasant, and it won’t always unfold the way we’d like it to.
As for that unsolicited health advice, I received about radiation? I ignored it and, instead, turned my attention to self-compassion and equanimity. That was better use of my time.
Toni Bernhard was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. She is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. She can be found online at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard.
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