This was originally published on The Mighty, and I am posting it here with their permission. See the original article here: “Learning To Filter Unsolicited Advice as Someone With Chronic Illness” and also cross-posted on Yahoo News here.
When I first dealt with Graves’ disease in April 2017, and then when I developed post-concussion syndrome in January 2018 (that’s still going strong), I received an ever-changing set of problems that require adaptions. One of these was the unexpected amount of unsolicited advice given by people in all levels of my social world.
From what I’ve heard, most people with any kind of health trouble will receive unsolicited advice. I guess it was my turn to see what this reality feels like.
At the beginning, I was eager to try everything offered to me.
It started with diet.
The naturopath says try cutting gluten out of my diet? Sure! Eliminate dairy, decrease added sugars, decrease processed foods? Yea, sure, sounds reasonable. But then I was recommended to cut out nightshade vegetables, and told to follow the autoimmune protocol diet. I was being told to cut out canola oil and sunflower oil. I was switched from iodized salt to sea salt. I was told I should drink copious amounts of bone broth and kombucha. I was encouraged to eat hormone-free meats raised without antibiotics, only non-GMO products, and the most organic options I could find. Most forms of soy were also off the table.
I had panic attacks over food choices, and I was spending triple the money I normally would on grocery bills. I was crushed under the weight of responsibility for my wellness. I felt that every bite of “wrong” food could mean never overcoming a potentially solvable health problem. There were tears, there was anxiety, and I was terribly bored with the food available. When people asked me why I was so restrictive in my food, I couldn’t even really explain because there were too many reasons and rules to keep track of.
I felt that every bite of “wrong” food could mean never overcoming a potentially solvable health problem.
Luckily these panic attacks slowly evolved into a realization that there is just too much advice for this anxious soul to follow, and the stress of it might be worse than the potentially inflammatory food entering my body. This was a very important lesson. It involved understanding myself and choosing what to do based on who I know myself to be.
It doesn’t mean I rejected every bit of advice I received, but it meant I needed to learn to filter advice better.
I kept some food advice that I felt I could follow, and gently shelved the rest at the back of my mind. This is how I treat all health tips handed to me now.
As this filtering of advice involves a lot of interactions with people, enacting it has meant that I need to figure out how to respond to the people who offer it. It’s been difficult, especially as someone who is sensitive but also tries hard to keep relationships smooth.
I’ve had people kindly offer advice in a gentle way, acknowledging that I may not follow it for my own reasons, and they won’t judge me for it. I’ve also had people offer advice in a tone that implies I am doing myself a disservice if I don’t immediately follow their advice. That’s a bit hard to handle. And there are plenty of people in the middle who boldly offer advice I may not be in the mood to hear, but they also don’t have any kind of judgment towards me if I don’t follow it, so I really feel no right to be angry at them.
To cope with all levels of advice, this is what I’ve come up with so far.
First I ask myself, does this person seem to care about my well-being? Generally I can say that yes, they want me to be well, and the advice they offer is for the betterment of my health. This helps me orient how I continue to deal with their advice. Any initial anger, defensiveness or frustration is lessened when I remember the person is saying this because they care about me.
Is this a professional health care provider? If they are, I will put their advice higher on my list of options. That’s a value I hold, trusting medical professionals, and I think it’s important to remember what I value. Others may have become distrustful of the medical field, and I understand where they’re coming from, but I more seriously consider the ideas of medical professionals.
Will this person be receptive to an explanation that I can only act on a few bits of advice at a time? (Or even no advice sometimes?) If they aren’t receptive, I will probably silently let them continue to advise, and leave the conversation as soon as I can. I have only so much energy; I can’t use it all up on convincing well-meaning folks that I’ll only be filing their advice away with a lot of other advice.
After all of that, I can go home in my introverted style and consider what I want to try next. I can look at my budget, what is covered through work, how much I can handle in a given week, how much energy I have at that time and my motivation level. Eventually, I’ll also have to judge if I really need to try more things, or if adjusting to a new normal is my best option. These are all personal things nobody else can really decide for me, as they don’t know as much as I do about myself.
Right now, this is where I’m at. But this is how I respond to my own health diagnosis, my own life circumstances and my own personal mental wellness. If someone else has a brain injury or Graves’ disease, or other health struggles, they will respond in the way that is best for them. Maybe they’ll reject all advice. Maybe later I’ll reject all advice too.
I’ve learned so far that advice feels best when offered out of care for my well-being, and with hesitancy and openness to it being turned down. And on my end, it’s important for me to know what I value, where I’m at, and how much energy I have for new therapies, and let those filter out the opinions others offer me.
I can’t change how others approach me, but I can change how I respond. (I can also change how I approach others in the future if or when I choose to offer them advice!)