The holidays are a time when many families get together with the unspoken hope that they can achieve a happy family holiday.
These holidays are also a prime time for helpful relatives to give free advice.
“You should get a boyfriend. You’re running out of time to get married, you know.”
“Those kids of yours just need some good, firm discipline. That’ll straighten them out.”
“You just need to decide on a career. You’re not getting any younger.”
“You’re going to have to learn how to get along with your mother. She loves you.”
“Why did you drop out of school? You just need to apply yourself more.”
Do any of these sound familiar?
The common themes of unhelpful advice
There are some common themes in these unhelpful pieces of advice. Whenever I hear the words, “just” or “just need to,” or “just have to learn to,” or “you should (or shouldn’t),” I remember that these words are a cover-up. They cover up the fact that finding a boyfriend, disciplining the kids, deciding on a career, getting along with my mother, or applying myself at school are intensely demanding and difficult achievements.
The word “just” sets off the biggest alarm bell for me because it minimizes what it would take to achieve these things. It suggests that they are easy to do and there is something wrong with me that I have not been able to achieve them.
Why do relatives love to give advice?
Giving advice helps minimizes anxiety in the person who is giving the advice. Relatives often claim they are giving you advice because they love you and care about you.
But it is more likely that your relative has been taken over by an anxious part that has been triggered in them. This takeover is unconscious and most people are not aware it is happening to them. Old hurts, unless they are processed and healed, can cause us to do things that are damaging to relationships, like giving unwanted advice. Giving advice discharges anxiety and makes the advice-giver feel better.
Counterwill is common response
Many of us respond to this advice with resistance and anger. This can be because our ‘counterwill’ has been activated. Counterwill is the natural instinct to ignore or disobey the advice of someone we do not feel attached to. It forms in us at about age 2 when the toddler learns to say “no.” Its function is protective—it ensures the toddler does not take orders from someone outside their village of attachment.
Between the ages of 5 and 7, if all goes well, the brain matures and integrates and we can hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. If our development has gone smoothly, we are able to think to ourselves, “I am furious at Aunt Alice for interfering in my life,” AND “She’s old and doesn’t get me and I don’t want to ruin dinner for her and others.”
How to respond to unwanted advice
If you encounter relatives giving unhelpful advice to you over the holidays, here are some steps you can take:
- Describe the situation to yourself. (E.g., Aunt Alice is giving me unhelpful advice.) This keeps your pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of your brain, online. Strong emotions can shut down the thinking brain.
- Feel the feeling you get in response to the unhelpful advice—likely anger. Feel where it is in your body.
- Excuse yourself to the bathroom, focus on the feeling in your body, and air-box for as long as you can. Air-boxing is moving around and throwing punches at the air, like a boxer might. This helps release the physical charge of the anger so we are not in its grip.
- When you have finished air-boxing, notice one small thing in your surroundings that you like or that you appreciate or that creates a tiny spark of joy in you.
- Return to the relative and say one of the following sentences. Don’t defend yourself. Just say one of these four sentences in response to anything the relative says. (Notice you are not agreeing with anything your relative has said.)
“Thank you for your caring.”
“I appreciate your thinking about me.”
“You could be right.”
“Thank you. I’ll consider that.”
Memorize these statements before the holidays so you can say them even when you are furious. Practice in the mirror until you can repeat them with sincerity, love, and kindness.
Appreciate the intention to help
The fact of the matter is that relatives usually think they are helping us because they love us, but they have been taken over by an anxious part in them. You can appreciate the fact that their intention is to help you.
The best kind of advice
If you are one of the advice-giving relatives, remember that the best free advice you can give is silence, along with a warm heart, soft eyes, and a gentle voice.
If you need help responding to relatives’ advice, or if you are an advice-giving relative who would like to stop, book a free 15-minute appointment with me to get a jump-start on your happy family holiday. Or book a full hour to be fully prepared for the holidays. (Note that I offer flexible rates for clients who do not have extended health benefits.)
At Naturmend, your mental health is as important to us as your physical health. Doctors know that stress, addictions, marital problems, and challenges with your children can all have an effect on your physical health. The chemicals in your body that are activated by problems in your life can take their toll on you. Naturmend has two mental health clinicians to help you feel better emotionally, thus improving your physical health.
Our registered clinical counsellor Lucinda Flavelle specializes in parent consulting and coaching, individual psychotherapy, and couples counselling. As a result of therapy, you will find yourself relieved of the burdens you were carrying, confident in your new way of being, and with a renewed sense of optimism and purpose about your life.