Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

What You Should Know About Advice-Givers

Don’t assume that someone offering you advice is doing so just for your sake.

Some people show greater interest in solving your problems than they do their own. In such cases, what might these self-appointed, habitual advice-givers be revealing about themselves? Actually, much more than you may have realized.

What the chronic advice-giver’s suggestions—often gratuitous and unsolicited—typically betray is a powerful need to prove to themselves that they could deal with your difficulties better than you could ever be expected to. And also that the depth and breadth of their intelligence, knowledge and comprehension indicates a still more general superiority over you. Assuming that this strong impulse to give you unsought advice is something you’ve also seem them demonstrate with others, such behavior hints at a person whose ego demands perpetual reassurance: That it needs to be regularly reminded that it’s exceptional—somehow of a higher “rank” or “order” than the one who’s receiving the advice.

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Consider that if, deep down, inveterate advice-givers view their worth on the basis of how well they compare to others, they must remain (however unconsciously) in eternal competition with you. One way they can claim interpersonal victory—or gain the relational “upper hand”— is through, authoritatively, providing you with advice. Such individuals, firmly entrenched in the ego-gratifying habit of telling others what they should do, rarely can wait to be asked for their opinion. Routinely anxious to declare that they know something you don’t, they’re apt to offer suggestions or solutions prematurely. Not that their remedies aren’t generally well-intentioned. But there’s still a certain element of righteous self-satisfaction in how these opinions are volunteered. Which is why you might harbor vague, uneasy suspicions that what they’re proposing may somehow be meant as much for themselves as for you.

If you don’t particularly like their advice (and haven’t requested it anyway), you may still need to respond to them with considerable care. For since, below the surface, they’re much less self-confident than you might imagine, they could easily become upset or offended if they feel you haven’t taken them seriously (as perhaps their parents didn’t when they were growing up). So you may be left in the undesirable position of having, graciously, to thank them for their unwanted suggestions, even as you regretfully decline them. And—ironically—they may actually care much less about whether you accept their advice than that you value or validate it. Once again, you need to remember that their sometimes annoying habit of “taking control” of your decision-making process relates more to their underlying insecurity and self-doubt than it does to any simple arrogance, audacity, or conceit.

Their rather tenuous self-esteem and -respect—as well as their belief that they really matter and are important to others—may well hinge on your willingness to take pains to confirm the legitimacy of what they’re saying. So, hopefully, you can do this, despite the fact that their advice may not be suitable to your present situation, or even reflect your values. Consequently, unless you place little worth on the relationship, it makes sense to be sympathetic and accommodating toward their dependency-based need for (ego-boosting) reassurance.

Otherwise, you may find yourself going back and forth with them indefinitely—debating the pro's and con's of what they’re needing to convince you of. For if, unbeknownst to you, their positive self-regard is at stake, you can hardly expect them to forgo their viewpoint readily. Which is, again, why it’s crucial to keep in mind that most often they don’t require that you agree with them—just that you let them know that, despite its not quite fitting your circumstances, what they’re saying makes good sense to you.

Finally, I’d like to introduce a “corollary” to the points I’ve been making. There are some ethical considerations here, so please note that what I’m describing isn’t anything I’d particularly recommend: Namely, that it might be fairly easy to exploit the advice-giver’s hidden agenda to “dominate” you, or assume superiority over you. That is, if you specifically ask them for advice, help, or guidance on something, they may be happy to actually “take on” the background research necessary for you to make the most informed decision. Or if you ask them to recommend how best to complete a task, they might even offer to do it for you. For that would enable them to demonstrate—both to you and themselves—their admiral ability to handle the job. (And, unquestionably, they do feed on praise!)

. . . And, by all means, avoid sarcasm (!)

In these instances, the advice-giver is granted a position of higher authority and, in this privileged role of “consultant,” experiences substantial ego gratification. As I mentioned earlier, the driving, largely unconscious impetus behind the advice-giver’s at times problematic habit is for them to assuage deep, never-resolved feelings of gnawing self-doubt. So in any given situation, the challenge is to find healthy ways of reassuring them of their essential competence . . . but without actually taking advantage of them—or feeling that they’re somehow taking advantage of you.

Ditto

NOTE: If you think that others might find this post useful or interesting, please consider sending them the link. And if you’d like to review other relational/self-help posts I’ve done, please click here.

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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