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Questionable Counsel

“If I Were You...” and More Bad Advice

Think of all the people in your life that are on the wrong track. They’re in the wrong career, relationship, or friendship. They’re focusing on the wrong things, behaving poorly towards others, or just generally messing up their lives or the lives of those around them. If only they would listen to reason. Listen to you.

Let’s look at how language reveals your assumptions about others’ situations, and how you can find a healthier, more constructive approach:

1. “If I were you…” This statement assumes that you both have the same realities. You may be formulating advice based on what is best for you with respect to your priorities, values, and beliefs. Furthermore, personal circumstances such as limitations in time, financial, physical, emotional, or intellectual resources may also limit one’s ability to achieve a goal. Instead, be open to and non-judgmental of others’ differing priorities and circumstances. Find compassion for their struggles and challenges, even if you don’t understand them. Explore ways to be supportive in ways that feels both helpful to them and good to you.

2. “Just do it.”  This assumes you both have the same skills and abilities. A goal may be easy for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s within reach for others. Even the advice of “just work harder” assumes that they have the energy to give to a difficult and discouraging task. Instead, focus on your own strengths, interests, and growth opportunities instead of someone else’s challenges. Where in your life, are you not pursuing your own interests and developing your talents?

3. “Get over it.” This statement assumes you both have the same fears and insecurities. If someone else is stuck in anger, sadness, or paralysis, don’t judge. You likely do the same thing for your own reasons and in your own ways. Instead, give them the space or support to work through it, just like you would hope they would do for you. Collaborate to determine if there is something that you can do to support them through their challenges. Reflect on where you might be stuck in your own life.

4. “I don’t want you to make the mistakes I made.” Okay, there are some things that are a bad idea by pretty much any reasonable person’s yardstick. However, sometimes we just have to learn from our own mistakes. Think back to your own life when others told you what you should or should not do. Did you follow their advice? Did you want to? Were you able to? When we overprotect others, they fail to learn from their mistakes and will probably keep repeating them. Nagging or blaming is only likely to make the situation worse. Instead, unless the person is a minor, don’t push it. Find your compassion and patience and avoid trying to solve their problems. Frankly, change happens when one’s current situation becomes unbearable.

In addition, following the advice of another without question potentially has long-term consequences in terms of who assumes responsibility for the decision’s outcome, and their ability to make authentic, independent decisions in the future. Finally, our beliefs tend to become our reality. In this case, believing that someone is on the wrong track will have us behave in ways that foster that outcome.

The truth is, we cannot know what is best for others, especially if a challenge presents a needed lesson. Instead, to help our loved ones do the right thing, we should focus on our own problems and lessons, while modeling our own peace, wisdom, growth, and humanity.


Over the past twenty-five years in higher education as a teacher, coach, and a faculty and student development professional, Dr. Susanna Wu-Pong Calvert has taught and counseled hundreds of students and faculty members on interpersonal relationships and personal development. She is the founder of Foundation for Family and Community and Healing.
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