Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Take my advice... Be wary of giving or receiving unsolicited advice...

Full disclosure here.  Sometimes, I hang out in places I don't belong.  I am intrigued by a lot of different subjects, so I seek out information on everything that interests me.  Though I am not a mom, I do on occasion hang out on Babycenter.com.  There are lots and lots of message boards on Babycenter.  It matters not which one I stumbled across, because this is an issue that can come up on any message board, particularly those that are frequented by busybodies.

I always try to be careful when I offer advice to people.  I have several reasons for not being overly forthcoming with advice.  The first reason has to do with my training as a social worker.  I was taught that despite popular belief, it's not up to mental health workers to offer advice to their clients.  People who work as counselors are actually supposed to offer insight, objectivity, and clarity to their clients' accounts of their problems.  Then, they are supposed to help their clients come to conclusions that will help them make the decisions that will work best for them.  No one is living your life but you.  No one knows what it feels like to be in your shoes.  If you are basically a competent adult, you are the very best person to know what you need.  So a therapist's job is essentially to help you determine what your problems are and what you need to do to fix them.  It's not the therapist's job to tell you how to fix them.

The second reason I try not to offer advice is essentially a selfish one.   I don't want to be held responsible for giving someone bad advice.  I don't want to be the one who is blamed when my bad advice causes someone harm or heartache.  I think people need to be responsible for themselves and make their own decisions. I think they need to own their own mistakes.  If I give someone advice and it goes wrong, it's all too easy for them to point a finger at me.

The third reason I try not to give advice is that I don't think most people are looking for advice.  Have you ever given someone some advice that you thought was top notch and they immediately told you why your advice either wouldn't work or wasn't applicable to their situation?  I think it's an ego thing.  Most people would rather you didn't tell them what they should do, even if they ask you for your opinion.  There are exceptions to this, of course.  But by and large, I think most people who talk about their problems really just want to vent.

Anyway, getting back to the message board posting that prompted this blog entry...  Yesterday, I ran across a post on a Babycenter message board.  The woman who posted it seemed to be at the very end of her rope.  She claimed she wished she'd never had her four children because she suddenly realized what made people feel like "hurting" their kids.  She was stuck alone, in a house in a rural area, with no working telephone, no car, and no adults to talk to.  Her husband goes to graduate school and works two jobs.  Consequently, she does most of the child rearing herself.  One of her kids has autism and another is a baby who doesn't sleep well.  The other two kids are older, but still under age 10.  This mom also claimed she was not feeling well and had never wanted to live out in the woods.  She also claimed to have some fairly serious psychological problems.

Now... it was pretty clear to me and apparently most of the other ladies lurking on the board that this woman was in some distress.  She had apparently posted about her bad home life before.  There were many women offering their opinions and advice.  Just reading the thread reminded me of a feeding frenzy.  Quite a number of posters were very emotional, begging the poster to seek help, expressing their extreme concern for her.  Some were even calling for her to divorce her husband.  

I was a bit flabbergasted by the divorce advice, mainly because no one on the board seemed to know this woman offline.  No one had ever met her husband and heard his side.  In fact, it seemed like an awful lot of these women were jumping on a cacophonous bandwagon, calling for this distressed woman to make a very serious decision that would not only affect her, but also her husband and four innocent children and their extended families.

I asked a couple of friends what they thought.  One person said they understood why the posters were calling for divorce.  She gave me a spiel about how people in abusive marriages can be blind to their predicaments.  I know about that.  My husband's first wife was abusive and he was blind to it.  In fact, when I met him, he thought he had been the abusive one.  Why?  Because his ex wife had told him he was.  She had also told her group of lady friends that he abused her and demanded that he give her a knife that was part of his military uniform for safekeeping.  Instead of putting the knife away, my husband's ex showed it to her friends to strengthen her allegations of abuse.  And then those friends told everyone in their church about the "abuse", which led to the entire church turning their backs on him at a time when he, too, could have used some support.  I have been with my husband for nine years and have never seen any evidence that he's an abusive monster.  In fact, my experiences with him have been quite the opposite.  The closest he might have come to being abusive was withdrawing from her; which, I could hardly fault him for doing.  

My point in relating that little anecdote is to remind people that there are always three sides to every story... his, hers, and the truth.  The ladies on Babycenter responded very emotionally to a woman's apparently very urgent problem.  They offered a lot of emotionally charged and drastic solutions that may have made them feel helpful... and perhaps made the original poster feel loved and appreciated.  Or perhaps their very insistent calls for divorce or separation made the original poster feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed.   

Think about this.  You are a mom alone in the woods with your four young kids.  You have no phone and no access to a car.  You don't work.  Your husband is the sole breadwinner and he's never home because he's busting his ass to make a living.  You want out of the situation-- maybe not the marriage, but definitely the situation.  People are telling you to get a divorce.  Okay... has anyone even stopped to think about what might happen in the event this woman files for divorce?  Dad works two poorly paying jobs and goes to grad school.  Good luck getting a lot of child support.  And if there's not enough child support, that means mom has to work.  That's if he doesn't fight for custody, which he could conceivably win, depending on their actual situation and mom's mental status.  Mom getting a job might not be a bad thing, of course, but it will mean mom will have to pull herself together and arrange for people to help her, at the very least, with her children.  And that's what she probably ought to do anyway, divorce or no divorce.    

This isn't to say that the woman on Babycenter wasn't in an abusive situation.  This is to say that no one on that message board actually knew what the woman's situation truly was.  They only knew what they had read and, more importantly, interpreted, on a fairly anonymous Web site.  And not a single one of them would be around to help pick up the pieces or take some responsibility if their advice turned out to be terrible.  What's even worse about this situation is that one or more of the posters actually called this woman's religious leader on her behalf.         

While it's somewhat alarming to think an adult in this day and age doesn't have a working phone of their own, it did seem lost on some of these ladies that their fellow poster did have access to a computer.  That means that the woman does have a means of communicating with the outside world.  Moreover, this woman apparently has some pretty serious issues that warrant the intervention of someone local and professional who can help her out in person.  Any advice that was given should have been, in my opinion, along those lines, not calls for this woman to end her marriage.  Although statistically speaking, that may very well be what ends up happening.

Anyway... I just wish people would be more careful with advice, both giving it and receiving it.  But people in hell want ice water, right?

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