Why We Must Accept The Hard Truth: We Can't Control Other People's Decisions
I'm often asked about whether or not someone should offer their partner, friend, family member, or adult child advice. My response is always the same: "Have they asked you for advice?"
Of course, their answer is always "no." If they had been asked to give advice, they would not be asking me if they should offer it.
In my younger days, when I was arrogant enough to think I knew what was right for others, I would give unsolicited advice all the time, too. I remember an incident when I clearly knew that a relationship a friend of mine was going into wasn't going to work out, and he was going to get hurt. I strongly advised him not to go into the relationship, even though he hadn't asked me for my input. Later, when the relationship didn't work and he was hurting, he didn't feel like he could come to me for help or comfort. Not only did he resist my help, but he stopped being my friend because of my un-asked-for advice.
I used to always think when I offered advice I was being caring, but obviously others didn't agree. They generally got defensive, or argued with me and went into resistance, or left the friendship. I could not understand why they didn't want my great wisdom!
Over the years, I finally began to understand that my imposing viewpoints weren't being interpreted as sharing wisdom, and my care was instead being viewed as an attempt to control.
When it comes to unsolicited advice, there's often a divide between our intention and our effect.
When I ask people why they want to offer their advice, their answer is generally about wanting the person to change because they are harming themselves and others. When I ask if they have previously expressed their concern, the answer is generally that they have, numerous times. When I ask why they want to offer advice again, they say they hope this time the person will hear them and change.
These people obviously care, but they don't realize that offering unsolicited advice is rarely experienced as caring. Instead, it's often experienced as invasive because the agenda is to get the other person to change rather than trying to understand why they are making the choices they are making.
In my experience, if you've never offered this particular piece of advice before, you can try once. But if the person isn't available, then offering it again will now likely be experienced as directly ignoring their agency and attempting to control their decisions or feelings. Even if we might love the person we are trying to advise, our desire to advise without being asked is a means of stripping them of their power and pulling them further away from their deep inner self that likely already knows what the right thing to do is.
You can let this person know that you love them and that watching them harm themselves or others is heartbreaking for you, but that's all you can do. If the other person doesn't care about themselves or about you, then telling them again is likely only going to cause more resistance. I know it seems caring to let them know they are harming themselves, but they likely already know this, and you telling them isn't going to get them to change.
Ultimately, we are helpless over others' choices—and we need to accept that.
When you care about someone, it's very painful to watch them harming themselves or others in some way. But oftentimes, our need to thrust "advice" on them stems less from trying to help that person and more from wanting control of what's happening around us.
When we finally accept our helplessness over others' choices, then we are not only free to take loving care of ourselves, but we also let go of the hope of trying to control them—of trying to get them to change, which is a huge waste of energy. It's fine to control what we can control, which is our own choices, but trying to control what we can't control is exhausting.
I know how hard it is to accept that we have no control over what others do to themselves or to others. Helplessness over others' choices is one of the hardest feelings to feel. Often, we try to avoid this feeling, not only with giving unwanted advice but also with anger or blame. Facing the reality of our lack of control over others will take conscious time, effort, and mindfulness over what we're really experiencing in these moments. So be very kind, gentle, and compassionate with yourself as you learn to accept this feeling and this reality.
If watching someone self-destruct is too painful for you, then you might need to create some distance from that person. You don't have the choice to make them change, no matter how much you care about them, but you do have the choice to be around them or not.
I know how challenging it is to watch someone you love killing themselves with alcohol, drugs, or junk food or to watch them losing their job or their relationship due to their anger and various ways they are abandoning themselves. Many times I have to swallow my words and walk away, putting my hands on my heart and comforting myself through my heartbreak and my helplessness over them.
Then, when the bad thing I knew would happen happens—they have a heart attack, get cancer, lose their job or their relationship, are drowning in anxiety or depression even with medication, or their children are in trouble—that's when I can come, cry with them, and offer whatever support I can. At the same time as I'm helping them grieve, so, too, am I continuing to comfort myself through my grief by again reminding myself of my powerlessness over others and the outcomes of their decisions.
These days, I never offer advice unless I'm asked for it. My clients come to me because they want help, and they are open to what I have to offer them—but even with them, I ask first before I offer advice. Most of the time, I don't give advice even when they ask but rather help them come to their own truths, because now I know that I can't know what's right for another person. Now I train them to trust their own inner knowing about what is right for them. I often ask my clients to imagine an older, wiser part of themselves—their higher self—and ask this part what is in their highest good. They are often quite surprised when they receive answers that bring them relief.
Instead of trying to impose unrequested advice on them directly, we offer others a great gift when we encourage them to tune into their feelings and their intuition—their inner knowing—about a situation. Not only are we allowing them to come to healthy realizations on their own, but we're also allowing ourselves to relinquish responsibility for their actions. We transfer that responsibility from ourselves over to the one person who does know exactly what they should do: the individual themselves.
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