You want to help someone you love and who is having a rough time.
You have the best of intentions. They don’t know what to do, so you offer advice.
They push back and if they’re in an irritable, sullen mood and they “snap” back at you sometimes using a few choice words. They may answer back with: “You don’t understand,” “You’re so clueless!” or some even more choice words.
What’s going on here?
Why do they push back and even resent you giving advice when they don’t know what to do?
Perhaps they need and want something else before they can listen to unsolicited suggestions.
This doesn’t apply to all situations. However, it may apply to yours or someone you’re trying to help with your advice.
So, suspend your resistance to my suggestion of what else might be happening to cause a loved one to push back against your help. Imagine that you’re a two-week-old baby. You’re powerless, helpless, utterly dependent on others.
According to and adapted (italics added) from BabyCenter.com: “Your mother’s womb was a warm and cozy environment, and it’ll take time for you to adjust to the various sights, sounds and sensations of life outside your mother’s body. Your mother may not be able to detect much of a personality just yet, as you spend your time moving in and out of several different states of sleepiness, quiet alertness, and active alertness.
The only way you know to communicate is by crying, but your mother can communicate with you through her voice and her touch. (You can now recognize your mother’s voice and pick it out among others.)
You probably love to be held, caressed, kissed, stroked, massaged, and carried. You may even make an “ah” sound when you hear your mother’s voice or sees her face, and you’ll be eager to find your mother in a crowd.
The above description describes the ideal and idyllic interaction between you and your mother when you were two weeks old and entirely dependent, reliant and at the mercy of the world around you.
It describes the kind of connection and empathic connection (also referred to as attunement) that you most needed to feel that as Albert Einstein referred to, “You were living in a safe vs. dangerous world.”
If, however, when you were most powerless, helpless, vulnerable and at the mercy of the world, what if the world was not very merciful?
What if instead of being patient, it was impatient; if instead of calmly and reassuringly holding you and waiting until you fell asleep, it yelled at you to “Shut the hell up and go to sleep?”
And what if instead of you calmly and serenely being able to feed on that warmed natural nipple or bottled milk, you were again grabbed and yelled at because you couldn’t fit the nipple in your mouth?
That kind of “advice” given to you with an impatient and irritated tone could make you feel you were doing something wrong, a bad child or a burdensome one.
And what if you unconsciously felt that you didn’t know how or if you were going to survive it, when the person(s) who was supposed to give you the loving, patient, attuned to you (vs. self-focused) care and caring you needed to survive a dangerous world was instead the source of that danger?
Can you imagine that if that experience was what you internalized that you essentially had a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) almost at birth?
Now here is the deal about PTSD that you may not know but everyone who has it agrees with: PTSD is not what they experience or live in their life.
What they live is Re-Traumatization Avoidance. That means that once people survive a devastating and awful trauma that they don’t know how they made it through, they are convinced that they won’t make it through the next time.
In fact, nearly all the symptoms of PTSD — the numbing, the excess drinking and drug use, the social avoidance, the increased startle reflex (when they are suddenly surprised) — are all attempts at avoiding re-feeling the emotions they never felt during the original trauma because they were trying to survive.
Why are they afraid of feeling those feelings? It’s because they are convinced that they’ll never make it through the next time.
What does this have with refusing advice when you’re feeling helpless, powerless and hopeless as an adult? When you’re feeling helpless, powerless and hopeless as an adult it’s reminiscent of how you felt as that two-week-old.
Just as you wanted/needed your parent to come to where you were emotionally and connect emotionally and physically with you instead of yelling at you to go to sleep, you need the same as an adult instead of people giving you advice that helps them feel in control and that they’re helpful.
RELATED STORY: Help yourself by overcoming your resistance to assistance
How can you stop giving advice that your distressed loved one doesn’t want and will resist?
You can give them what they need, which is an emotional connection, by replacing PAG with UEA.
PAG stands for Premature Advice Giving. In other words, interrupting them by jumping in too soon to try to fix how they’re feeling. It may help you feel in control and that you’re helping them, but you may be making them feel worse.
That’s because deep inside you are telling others to stop what they’re doing and feeling — while partially on their way through feeling a feeling they need to fully experience to get over it — and do what you advise. In essence, you’re reactivating in them when as a two-week-old, the world responded to their upset temper with, “Shut up!”
I know you have the best of intentions, but your good intentions are to get them to do things your way, instead of your going to and getting where they’re coming from and empathizing/comforting them, the way the world never did when they were a child.
What will work much better is to replace PAG with UEA. UEA stands for Undivided Empathic Attention.
To do that ask them, to quote Oprah from a prior article, ”What happened to you?” Help them get as much off their chest as possible. Do that by following this sequence:
- Ask “What happened to you?” Keep prompting them to tell you more.
- Follow up with “What did you think/feel when that happened?” (use “think” with a more logical, analytic type person; use “feel” with a more feeling, emotive type person)
- Next, ask “What did it make you want to do exactly when it happened?” This helps them to verbalize impulses–even destructive ones–and by doing so to lessen the chance of their acting upon them.
- Finally, ask “What did you do instead?” This helps them retell the end of this upsetting situation and to model the difference between “wanting to do” something and instead “choosing to do” hopefully something less destructive.
The more you get in the habit of responding to your upset loved ones with UEA instead of PAG, the less alone they will feel, the less clueless you will come across, the less frustrated with you they will feel AND the more likely they will then ask you for and be receptive to you for your advice that this time they’ll follow instead of rejecting.
Dr. Mark Goulston is an award-winning business psychiatrist, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the best-selling author of seven books. His latest, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with Irrational and Irresponsible People in your Life can be found on Amazon. Catch up on Dr. Goulston’s previous articles here.
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