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Attention, everyone: When Lena Dunham shares her health struggles with the world — most recently the removal of an ovary due to complications from endometriosis — she is not asking for your advice. We’ve all been there: The second you tell people about an illness, or something that made you angry, upset, or even happy, their immediate response is unsolicited words of wisdom. What’s that about?
“A lot of people commented on my last post about being too sick to finish promoting my show by saying my hysterectomy should have fixed it,” Dunham wrote on Instagram alongside a photo of herself after surgery. “That I should get acupuncture and take supplements (I do). That I should see a therapist because it’s clearly psychological (year 25, y’all. These are the fruits!)”
This is something we’ve seen happen to other celebrities, such as Sarah Hyland and Selena Gomez. Admission of a health problem leads directly to strangers on Twitter advising them about a special diet or alternative health treatment that will cure them. But, you have to admit, you sometimes do this too. The drive to dole out cold remedies to your co-workers and self-help reading lists to your recently dumped friends is automatic.
“The highest likelihood that we’ll give advice immediately is when we are talking with somebody who is close to us, or that we feel close to, and they’re experiencing a strong negative emotion,” Eran Magen, adjunct assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and scientific director of the Center for Supportive Relationships, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Magen explains that people give this advice for two reasons. First, when we see someone close to us (or even a favorite celebrity) in pain, the empathic pain we feel is something that’s been scientifically measured.
“I’m hurting when you’re hurting, so I’m trying to solve my pain by solving your pain quickly,” Magen says. “The other reason is that, just culturally, I think we live in a really directive society.”
Magen has observed this phenomenon on popular TV shows. “Whenever anybody’s upset on Jane the Virgin, like 95 percent of the time, the first thing that happens is they get advice,” he says. “Nobody stops and says, ‘Oh, wow, that really sucks,’ and just holds them for a while. … Just being present for somebody’s pain and just being helpful in this way is not modeled.”
And yet, that “being present” is exactly what people are asking for when they express their pain or distress.
“When we’re upset, we really cannot process any kind of new information,” Magen says. “There’s too much noise inside, so first of all, we need to get less upset, and then we can process the information.”
One recent study posited that these instant-advice givers are seeking to assert their power over recipients, but Magen says that he thinks most people are truly trying to be helpful.
New York psychotherapist Chloe Carmichael agrees that people’s motives for giving unsolicited advice are generally good but misguided.
“Sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is demonstrate respect for someone’s ability to use their own knowledge to navigate challenges,” she tells Yahoo. “If you’re searching for a way to be supportive without offering advice, try asking questions such as, ‘What’s the hardest part about your illness?’ ‘Is there any way I can help, such as going with you to a doctor’s visit or preparing a meal, or do you just want someone to listen?’”
This kind of active listening is something you can even do on social media or via text.
“You can write to people in a way that is supportive and holding and not at all directive, not at all advice-giving,” Magen says.
And, not that Dunham has asked for our advice on this matter, but Carmichael has a suggestion for how to react to well-meaning advisers.
“Recognize that you have the power to decline the advice without alienating the person giving it,” she says. “You might say something like, ‘I understand you’re just trying to be helpful, and I do appreciate that, but honestly, the most helpful thing you can do for me right now is [blank].’ How you fill in the blank is up to you.”
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