Once upon a time, when western people lived in communities and had a vague idea of what was going on in each other’s lives, perhaps unsolicited advice worked. At least the knowledge of local resources would have been relevant, and knowledge of the context helpful. Express any kind of difficulty in any area of your life on social media and a bunch of self proclaimed well meaning people will pile in and tell you what to do about it.
I have learned, the hard way, that if I just want people to cut me some slack and send me pictures of kittens, it is best to be vague about the problem and specific about the kittens. Well meaning advice from people who do not know my history, circumstances or hopes is at best, usually useless. Often it’s also demoralising, and counterproductive. The more aggressively/enthusiastically it’s pushed, the more uncomfortable it becomes.
Back in the imaginary village, my pretend people do not say ‘oh, you need to get more and less exercise, become a vegan, eat more red meat, drink more water, drink less water, sleep more, get out more, be more positive, be more realistic, get a proper job…’ Instead they say ‘want to come over for tea?’ or ‘I could look after your kids for an evening.’ In fairness, out here in the real world those things still happen. Online, if you are suffering, people will tell you (sometimes order you) to fix yourself and it’s a lot rarer to get actual offers of real help.
I do find it helpful when people share their stories. Not least there is no dogma, necessarily in ‘this is what happened to me’. There can be the relief of empathy and understanding, and some clues about what to do, or not do. I’ve yet to find a situation in which there is one solution that totally works for everyone. Problems are complex, answers, and even the degree of answer available, can vary a lot. What looks like a good outcome for one person can be totally intolerable to another.
The thing about dishing out advice (and I know this only too well because I’m doing it) is that it feels like you’ve done something useful. Dying of cancer? Never mind that I know nothing… have some advice. Heartbroken? Have some advice. Ill with a mystery thing that is wrecking your life? Advice. Abuse victim? Advice. Those things are scary. We don’t want them happening to us. We want to believe that we know how to avoid and overcome those things, especially if we don’t. We want to feel useful, powerful, on top of it. We give unsolicited, uninformed advice all too often not because it has any chance of helping the person hearing it, but so as to feel like we did something, and to tell ourselves that we do not have to fear this happening to us.
So here’s my bit of unsolicited advice for today: It is ok to be uncomfortable in the face of suffering. It is ok not to know what to do. Often ‘here if you need me’ is of far more real value than anything you’ve read online that offers an impossible cure to an intractable problem. And pictures of kittens.