“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.”
Shake a stick, wiggle a nose, or a toe, shake your booty — or for the conventionally-minded just raise your hand if you have ever:
◊ had someone you should have been able to trust whitewash over someone else’s bad manners, behavior, words or actions when you were trying to process your hurt?
◊ been told in essence “he/she had good intentions or meant well. Appreciate the heart and let the hurt go.”?
◊ been explicitly or implicitly told that your hurt or complaint is a result of sinful pride, overactive imagination, ingratitude, your own gullibility, resistance to authority or your general incompetence at life and social situations?
◊ had someone try to guilt or denigrate you, publicly or privately, and call into question your judgment and decision-making skills just because you politely decline to take their advice, even though it directly contradicts what GOD has directed you to do?
◊ been overwhelmed by unsolicited and unneeded or redundant advice and opinion?
◊ been ignored by someone 99% of the time until they suddenly decide you are in dire need of their direction to “fix” you?
Keep reading …
Not sure if there is a name for it, but especially in Christian circles, we tend to dish out a lot of unhelpful advice to hurting people dealing with relational difficulties in the name of forgiveness, peace, teachability, and love. All good things in and of themselves, but when misused to oversimplify complex issues and ignore the negative emotional and practical ramifications of treating everything with spiritualized platitudes, the subtle shaming does more harm than good. It bushwhacks people where they most expect to feel safe and thus betrays their trust at the most fundamental level. At the same time, it maintains a high degree of plausible deniability and preserves the perpetrator’s public image of themselves as a “good person.”
A recent Facebook post posed the question as to why the poster (who wishes to remain anonymous) and her husband seem to have a plethora of “advisors” more than willing to offer unsolicited and uninvited critical “advice and opinion.” Our subsequent interchange brought out several truths about why this happens — and hold onto your seats because this is not a simplistic feel-good list that excuses every motivation, conscious or unconscious, as “good intentions.”
It is a standard cliche to say something on the order of “at least they care” to justify and minimize it, but honestly, that is not always the case. Even when it is, a plethora of “good intentions” and redundant “advice” is exquisitely smothering, distressing and unhelpful after the gadzillionth echo. No matter what people claim or believe about themselves (and want you to buy into) or how stellar their public reputation and image, toxic wears many disguises and “good intentions” are not in the wardrobe.
People don’t like feeling helpless when confronted with foreign experiences and when forced to, quickly develop diarrhea of the tongue because they don’t know what to say so they just parrot every cliche in the book assuming no one else has ever told me this or that if only I (fill in the blank), it will be the magic solution and all my problems (or perceived problems, because what they think the problem is isn’t usually the real problem) will vanish overnight. (spoiler alert: they don’t!)
People want instant solutions, but even if I am doing all the right things and progressing steadily toward resolution, it can be a long process. Holes that were decades in the making, take time to crawl out of and fill in. But if my problems don’t instantaneously dissolve and disappear, people assume I am doing something wrong and need their advice, even when I really, really don’t.
When life gets messy, it gets to a point where there are only so many things that can be done and once I’ve planted all the right seeds, I have to be patient and wait for them to come to fruition because harvest does not come as soon as you plant. So repeating the same advice ad infinitum by a long succession of people who are sure they are the first ones to proffer that idea and that I must not have tried X or I wouldn’t (still) be in this situation, is just patently annoying, even when I try to keep smiling and offering grace.
Unsolicited advice and opinion bombs have been most intense when I was a first-time mom, when I was losing weight, during our escape from DV and extended transition to a new normal; and now as a single mom. I don’t claim to know everything and never need nor will take anyone’s advice about anything. But so many situations either have so many options and ways that no matter what I choose, someone or several will be sure I should do it their way. They are sure their help is my only chance at salvation and expect undying gratitude and instant conformance to their so-called “expert guidance.”
Being “different” is threatening to some people and they will try to make me fit into their box or the “role” they have assigned me. However, what works for them might not work for me and that’s OK. I have to be secure in my own choices, and go with it or all the conflicting advice will drive me batty. I need to actively reject their assumptions that I am ignorant, defective or mentally and emotionally stunted or unschooled in real life and practicality.
Some people are just really, really sold on “their way” or eager to prove their “expertise” because they are “great and wise” in their own eyes, but insecure about themselves and want or expect constant props, recognition and adulation from me to perpetually shore up their desired reputation and shaky self-confidence. Their whole identity is in being recognized as an “expert” in (fill in the blank) and feel the need to constantly share advice and “correct my deviance” to prove to themselves and everyone else that they are who they think they are and want me to believe they are.
When my experience is outside anything someone can personally relate to, they are uncomfortable when confronted with it. Especially if they feel or assume (usually wrongly) that I expect them to get personally involved in solutions; or they feel guilty because they know they should or could be of practical help but they don’t want to.
Many people are afraid that getting involved or having a real relationship with me is a sucking black hole of neediness. Cultural conditioning based on media coverage of worst-case scenarios, and not an accurate assessment of my specific situation, character, personal responsibility, work ethic and resourcefulness fuels faulty assumptions, Christianese platitudes and empty promises to “pray for you” as a shield (because it sounds like the right thing to say, not because they actually think of me for one second after they make their escape from our encounter).
As Abram told the king of Sodom, he wouldn’t take even a thread from him for fear that he would say, “I made Abram rich.” Some people really want to write themselves into my story so they can take credit for any future success I might have and are determined that I believe as they do that I would be nothing without them, that any success I have is because of their advice and influence. It is a bid for power and control over me, a means to manipulate me if I take their advice or if they even think and presume to claim that their advice was what “made” me. Consciously or unconsciously, it is a means to obligate and oppress my own independent development, thought and function.
Some people spiritualize it and try to make it an issue of spiritual leadership and authority over my life. They presume to be the voice of GOD in my life and assume that I am incapable of hearing from GOD on my own. They want me to believe that they know better than I what GOD’s will and direction is for my life and demonize me when I disagree and won’t play along. They assume that if what GOD has clearly told or directed me is different than what they think I should do (and attribute to “GOD’s will”), I am wrong at best. Likely they will reflect their own tactic back on me and accuse me of stubborn pride or that I am the one trying to force my own will on GOD because I presume to communicate with GOD without going through them.
Opinions are free and everyone has one and some people feel their major role in life and contribution to the world is to make sure everyone around them knows their opinion about everything. They leave a trail of unsolicited advice behind them as they navigate life without stopping to see if it was really needed or relevant because they feel the need to assert their presence wherever they go whether they know what they are talking about or not.
It’s a way of getting and keeping attention on themselves—and in many cases, they fail to realize that their uninformed opinions and false claims of “expertise” only make them look foolish and make them a laughing stock among those who actually know the topic of which they speak; and an annoyance to everyone else who knows they can’t possibly be a master of everything under the sun, that real life isn’t made up of easy pat answers for complex problems, and really just wants to carry on an adult conversation without being constantly interrupted and dismissed as “uneducated” by an ego centrist who can’t let anyone else be right about anything.
My FB friend adds another possibility: Success breeds envy. High achievers can invite “wishful judgment,” to use her words. I would add that it is not only visible success that can provoke certain personalities to try to bring me down. Sometimes it can just be that I am more successful or talented at something than they are and they actually have a low opinion of me for whatever reason (although they would never admit it, that would be “unchristian.”) and think I don’t deserve it. They feel life is unfair at giving me what they wish they had so they either engage in passive-aggressive retaliation, or they dismiss the skill or success as trivial, unimportant and lacking in any real value in an attempt to raise themselves by poking holes in my balloon.
So what to do about it when I can’t change someone else’s behavior?
- Be discreet about who I share the nitty-gritty details of my life with. Not everyone who should be safe or presents themselves that way, actually is.
- If I can safely remove the unsafe or toxic person, I do it. If it is family or colleagues, that are not easily removable, limiting contact and steeling myself for planned/expected contact times may be the best I can do.
- Choose wisely, my son/daughter, who and what advice to listen to. Proverbs 15:22 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors, they succeed.” Nonetheless, while going it alone is not always wise, neither is the confused babble of much conflicting advice and shaming by those who have their heart set on their own gain, not the LORD’s glory, purpose and calling in my life. There is such a thing as too much advice and if it is causing insecurity, self-doubt, and shame about my own abilities, perceptions, and judgment, or causing emotional conflict or paralysis, it isn’t from Him. Where GOD is there will be peace, not condemnation.
- I find that keeping silent is often the better part of wisdom when dealing with toxically difficult or indifferent, but opinionated people who drop opinion bombs and prance off without a care for the damage they might have done, any real respect or compassion for their victims or thought for their true well-being or desire for ongoing relationship between equals or desire to hear the truth. As Hezekiah told his men to not reply to the mocking message, my pastor says the wisest response to someone who doesn’t want to hear the truth nor be open to the possibility of their own error, is silence—and let GOD handle it.
- Most people will claim a motivation of “good intentions” because no one likes to think ill of themselves. But just cause they think it, doesn’t make it so and doesn’t really help the recipient of said unsolicited advice and unwanted opinion. It’s still annoying, but all I can do is smile, nod, ignore and go back to doing what GOD asked me to do or what works for me in my specific situation.
- Calling these people out is generally ineffective at stopping the behavior because they are usually clueless and so entrenched in their own importance, authority or “good intentions” that they don’t hear me at best and get offended and vindictive at worst. Nor is it the path of “peace with everyone, insofar as it depends on me.” (Romans 12:18).
- I cannot control or change their behavior, but I am in control of my response and how much I let it affect me and get into my head or under my skin. We may not be able to have a deep and meaningful relationship but I don’t need to purposely stir the pot and brew up kettles of bitterness, strife, anger, and antagonism. That’s not the place I want my head and heart to live, no matter what hurtful choices someone else may make. I can protect myself and my kids from being collateral damage or scapegoats without letting negative and difficult people rule my emotions, thoughts, and actions and turn me into something neither I nor GOD want me to be.
Bottom line — I don’t let them live rent-free in my head!
When you oversimplify pat solutions to complex problems, you run the risk of being patronizing and condescending, of devaluing the person and whitewashing the problem, or fixing the problem you want to fix without actually finding out if that is the problem that needs fixing, or if the person actually needs or wants your help. Even if they do, is that the solution that will actually fix things long-term or just a temporary stop-gap that makes you feel good that you did “something” but leaves the person no better off in the long run.
Or your fear and inaction leave them twisting in the wind with no practical help or compassion at all. You may or may not be part of GOD’s solution for them, but assuming no without asking or putting conditions and limits on your involvement that GOD did not actually stipulate will not go well for anyone.
The truth is that no matter how well-meaning, even seemingly good advice may not be wise advice when all is said and done. As my FB friend says, “Only the LORD can give sure guidance, but wise counselors are those who help the inquirer/seeker find answers within themselves, and lead them to the LORD to do so.” When all is said and done, the answer to dealing with difficult people and unsolicited opinions is to make sure the voice you are listening to in moments of decision is GOD’s and not the nosy sheep next door or the wolf in sheep’s clothing, even if they have forgotten they are a wolf and insist that they are your average, ordinary, every day, friendly sheep from the hood. Listen to your instincts. If it feels like shame and condemnation, it is.
But in Christ, there is no condemnation so you know that’s not His voice. He doesn’t change His opinion of you based on your Facebook and Twitter likes or friends and followers count. He doesn’t check your references with everyone at your work and church and family when deciding to “hire” you for His kingdom call. He doesn’t listen to the gossip vine to form his assessment of your “worthiness.” Be the sheep who knows the Shepherd’s voice and go with that no matter what anyone else says, because ultimately, you are only answerable to Him and are only who He says you are and He brooks no disagreement from your naysayers. Believe it, step into it with confidence that He has your back when you walk where He calls you.