Dear Tissue Issues,
I am so freaking sick of strangers, my mother, my mother’s friends, and acquaintances telling me how to get better. I live with a few autoimmune diseases and related chronic pain. People send me articles about Pilates and accost me in supermarkets to implore me to try CBD. I’m at the point where I’m going to explode the next time some know-it-all tells me to eat vegan or try essential oils. Is there a way to set boundaries around this without being a total jerk? — Fed Up
Dear Fed Up,
If one more person suggests that I try yoga for my chronic pain, I may twist them into a yoga pretzel myself.
I’ve found unsolicited advice to be one of the most insidious parts of having a chronic illness. It’s a frequent topic of complaint among my chronically ill friends… and a frequent annoyance in my own life as well.
And! As painful as it might be, I’m going to suggest we step back and, perhaps through gritted teeth, look at this from the advice giver’s perspective.
In their mind, they’re helping. These misguided “helpers” care about you and worry about your health, so naturally they pass on every snippet of health advice they encounter. They assume if they had a serious illness, they would want to know every possible treatment out there.
But that’s the thing. We know what’s out there. We have doctors, books, friends with the same illness, fingers with which to Google, eyes with which to read! Somehow we have to communicate this to these remedy pushers.
To start, allow me to acknowledge my own hypocrisy.
When my husband’s license plate was stolen recently, I immediately flew into fix-it mode and insisted, “You need to do X, Y, and Z to fix this.” He shut down.
Later, he told me I had hurt him by not trusting that he was going to fix it himself. He knew it was a big deal, he didn’t need me ranting at him. What he needed was me to rub his back, listen, and say, “That sucks.”
Since then, I’ve been more mindful of my reactions in these situations: when I need to act versus when he simply needs me to listen.
For close friends and family, you probably need to have a similar talk. It doesn’t have to be a Huge Thing, though. “Resolving conflict” is a terrifying phrase, evoking visions of long, intense, heated conversations. But it doesn’t have to be!
Keep it light, friendly, and firm. Focus on your needs and perspective. Here are a couple ideas:
Text conflict script
Text from your well-meaning friend: Hey, my friend’s aunt has [condition] and she reversed all her symptoms with a gluten-free vegan diet. I’m gonna send you some info from her!
You: Hey Well-Meaning Friend! I know you’re looking out for me, but I get unsolicited advice about my health daily, and it’s not actually useful. I have amazing doctors and a solid support system. You can trust that I’m taking care of my own health. In the future, please don’t send me info about [condition] unless I specifically ask. There are much more fun things to talk about! Thank you for understanding.
IRL scary scripts
Friend: So I read about this new [your condition] treatment and —
You: Friend, I’m sorry but I have to interrupt you. I keep getting unsolicited advice and it’s starting to get to me. I would rather focus on having fun with you — not on my illness! Believe me, I’m looking into treatments all the time. So please, no treatment talk or advice unless I ask first. Sound good?
And those pesky strangers at the store? There’s a script for that, too:
Stranger: Why do you use a cane? You know, my sister-in-law’s hairdresser’s dog sitter’s ex-husband’s ex-stepdaughter’s boyfriend says —
You: Excuse me, but I need to be going. Have a good day!
There’s also the classic response to invasive questions: “Why do you ask?” That tends to make people flustered because they realize, whoops, their question was invasive and inappropriate, and they’re unable to justify it.
Yes, it’s awkward and weird telling yourself off in the mirror, but it’s also awkward and weird to have to deal with unsolicited advice. So be prepared for next time! Feel free to edit these scripts so they feel like your own.
Remember, you’re entitled to boundaries and privacy around your health.
You don’t owe anyone personal health information. If you get pushback when setting these boundaries, tell them an internet advice columnist gave you permission not to answer annoying personal questions.
Let me know how it goes!
Ash Fisher is a writer and comedian living in Portland, Oregon. The light of her life is her corgi Vincent. Learn more about her on her website.