Hold Your Tongue and Offer Your Heart Instead

Hold Your Tongue and Offer Your Heart Instead
How You Can REALLY Help

When my mom was dying of cancer, I occasionally got messages from well-meaning people who wanted to offer what they thought was valuable information about how mom could cure her cancer. Eat raw food, take more vitamin C, stop drinking milk – all of those suggestions and more showed up in my inbox.

After Mom died, I got messages from other well-meaning people who thought they knew how I should deal with my grief. One person even reprimanded me for sharing my grief as openly as I did on my blog. She thought that I, as a public person, had an obligation to my readers to write with more positivity. She was also afraid that I would ‘attract’ more bad things in my life if I prolonged the grief and didn’t think more positive thoughts.

I had the same reaction every time unsolicited advice showed up – I bristled. When I’m feeling emotionally grounded, I can brush off those things that don’t feel helpful, but when I’m vulnerable, as I was then, I tend to bristle.

Good Intentions, Bad Impact

The advice didn’t have the intended impact. It made me feel small and judged. It made me feel like others knew how to ‘do grief’ or ‘fix cancer’ or even support my mother better than I did.

Giving unsolicited advice can make the recipient feel judgement, small and isolated. Photo by Oliver Ragfelt

I worked through those reactions, and then I wrote a blog post called ‘My heart is broken, but please don’t try to fix it.’ Grief, after all, is not something that can be ‘fixed’ with platitudes and second-hand advice. It’s a journey we all must take in our own way. And I wasn’t about to quit talking about it, even when the Law of Attraction was waved in front of me, like a red flag at a race track. My grief was an honouring of the relationship I had with Mom, not an invitation to the Universe to send more bad things my way. (I got a similar reprimand when I shared about my marriage ending.)

Recently, I shared an article called ‘Don’t tell cancer patients what they could be doing to cure themselves’ on social media, and several people shared their own stories of how people responded to their cancer, MS, or other chronic illnesses. One person even heard that their cancer was an invitation for them to repent of their sins. It seems there’s always someone with an answer to every ailment. (I heard something similar when my third pregnancy suddenly went wrong – that it might be a judgement of some kind – or at least God trying to get my attention.)

Why Advice Doesn’t Help

Does unsolicited advice ever help fix a problem? I can’t think of a single time that it has. For the most part, I think that all of us do the same thing when we’re feeling vulnerable and someone tells us how to fix our problem – we bristle. And then we reject the advice.

Don’t try to fix me, just hear me, see me, hold me; so I can fix myself. Photo by Artem Kovalev

Because even if the advice is really good, it feels like violence. It feels like judgement. It feels like shame. It feels like someone is telling us that they’d be so much better at handling our problems than we are.

Talking at someone with cancer about what they should do, rather than being with them in a morass with no easy answers, is not you helping them. It is you unfairly shaming them for having failed at self-help, which isn’t even a thing. – Steven W. Thrasher

The Power in Holding Your Tongue

Perhaps you’re one of those people who can’t resist offering unsolicited advice. I feel your pain – I’m often that person too. I have to bite my tongue sometimes in the face of someone else’s struggle. It can be SO HARD to sit with the messiness and not offer something that we’re SO SURE could be the answer to the problem.
But unsolicited advice isn’t really about the person we’re offering it to – it’s about US. It’s about our own need to be the hero, to be the fixer, to be useful. We prop up our own self-esteem by being the person with the solutions. Fixing other people’s problems, even when they don’t ask us to, is also about our discomfort with being in the messiness and leaving things unresolved. If we can offer a solution that fixes another person’s problem, then we can live in an illusion that the world makes sense – that A+B=C, that every question has an answer, every illness has a cure, and everything broken can be fixed.

It’s not about us, it’s about THEM. We must bite our tongues, be present and listen. Photo by Kristina Flour

Recently, I interviewed Grace Quantock, who lives with disability and chronic illness, for The Helpers’ Circle. Grace shared a story of a raw food party she went to, where, one by one, people who discovered she had a chronic illness sat with her and pried into her eating habits, trying to find out how faithfully she followed a raw food diet. Each of these people was trying to find the one thing she was doing ‘wrong’ so that they could protect themselves from what she was dealing with. They were so certain that a raw food diet was the answer that her illness was incongruent. If she was doing something wrong, then they could return to their illusion.

Parker Palmer shared a story of how people were eager to try to find a solution for him when he was going through his first experience of clinical depression. Well-meaning people told him to spend more time outdoors, while others tried to boost his self-esteem. The advice backfired – leaving him more depressed than he was before.

Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through. – Parker Palmer

Being OK with NOT Fixing

It feels so much easier to offer a fix and then walk away with our illusion of a world that makes sense, than it does to sit in the messiness and be a witness. But what your friend really needs is not your answer – they need your presence. They need you to show up and hold space.

They need you to hold your tongue and offer your heart instead.

The next time you’re tempted to offer advice that wasn’t asked for, take a deep breath and exhale slowly. While you do, ask yourself what your friend REALLY needs and give them that instead. Even silence is better than the wrong words.


Heather Plett is the author of The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership, and the co-founder of the Centre for Holding Space.

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2 years ago

Dear Uplifters. Unfortunately, we found a bug on our site (due to a recent system update) which resulted in some author accreditations being hidden. We have fixed the bug and authors (including Heather) are now correctly accredited as they should be. Thank you everyone for alerting us to this, and our sincere apologies to our authors.

With Love

Suzanne Styles
2 years ago

Heather Plett is the author. This should be clearly indicated on this article. Hoping to see this remedied ASAP!

Heather Plett
2 years ago

I am the author of this post and ask that you either attribute it to me, with a link to my website, or remove it from your website.

Ruth Maldonado
5 years ago

Thank you for the insight it’s wonderful, Hold your tongue is even in the bible..

5 years ago

I don’t wholly agree with this.
Some advice it’s meant in a negative judgmental way with no intention to truly help but to show the giver it’s better at something.
But, some advice at times will sound reprimanding because it’s intended as a wake up call, and people simply refuse to take it because they are hard headed.
I have witnessed someone dealing with a serious illness in their family due to a certain behavior that lead to it, and while aware continue to exhibit the same behavior.
Some people are just strong enough to break away from patterns and evolve, and others want to stick by their behaviors no matter what. Some people take longer to evolve than others. The balance on how to pass down important information it’s tricky because it depends on a lot of factors: Ability to deliver message in a way that it will be received by the intended person, ability of the receiver to receive and act upon their own knowledge (many already know what is the right path and simply won’t lift a finger to take the steps) and a lot of other layers that are part of human disposition and interaction.

5 years ago

I agree to a point but not fully as this is exactly what I do except I “plant seeds” instead which helps clients to look at things in a different way? I always always always make myself vulnerable first so they know I’m not judging as I am in the same spot or… been there or share what others have shared with me and pass on the “knowledge”. I leave it up to that person to run with it – or not. It’s their life and it’s all about the perfect time as it’s will take place at the right time for that person.

If you shove the ketchup in their face as they cannot find it in the cupboard…. then they cannot find the mayo!

Khurram Abbasi
5 years ago

Mind blowing . I loved the article points out the treatment of soul

John Mind
5 years ago

Reading this article, I realized a MAJOR flaw in humanity in the way people use to function and think. The want to “let it be” and being a spectator of one’s life doesn’t help, and this WILL leave an imprint in one’s subconscious if he doesn’t take action as the thing is happening.

And the problem is ; we are emotionally attached to things. Now, ofc the transition of changing your beliefs systems can be hard, but once you’ve changed them, there are certain things you wouldn’t even feel to begin with. It’s all about evolution.

5 years ago

After I read your article, I was a shamed, because i’m a person who has a feeling from the inside to always help everyone who is in need.
I myself helps my self to talk about my issues and sometimes I then forget that not everyone needs to talk about them having issues. By now on I wil try to remeber your words and try to be in silence and only listen. Thank you for this reminder ❤️

Alyssa G
5 years ago

This is over thinking it a little though cause that’s going to the alterier motive in our brain “and this is the reason for that” so I disagree I know first-hand when I offer advice it’s always to offer another perspective to help themselves it’s also called human interaction. There is always that one person who give advice in the meanist way for example my Landowner, ” can you stop letting your girls run around in the house past 10pm, I can hear them and it’s better for them if you put them to bed earlier that way you can relax” that shit right there pissed me off (landowner, lives next door to me I live in a triplex (tmi). But it’s just how us humans interact so i agree and disagree

5 years ago

Tonite a young woman I barely know bared her soul saying her father is suicidal & she’s so sad that everyone else in her family is too shamed to admit how bad things are. But, she got really upset when I suggested she seek help from a helpline to protect her dad. She said “I just wanted to be sad & heard.” I am confused if I did the correct thing…& understand she doesn’t want to push her father over the edge by making his situation more public, but think people who threaten suicide need a professional response.

Kris Hughes
6 years ago

I am currently grieving the loss of a partner, have lost my job, have had to put beloved pets down, consider how I’m going to cope without an income, sell my house…..

To most of this post I say “right on!”. I’ve already had plenty of advice that has made me feel terrible, lazy, unworthy, ungrateful — you name it. However, I have appreciated some bits of practical help that I’ve had, and I just thought you could perhaps have mentioned that when you are sick, or grieving or in distress, actual help is a very good thing. It’s great if people check in before they give it, of course, and, yes, recognize that some things cannot be fixed. And when we are dealing with the unfixable, a friend, a witness, a companion, is a wonderful gift.

Michelle Morris
6 years ago

I agree so much with this and it has really helped me to feel less “wrong”, thank you!

6 years ago

In Australia where tick-borne disease is not recognised, I appreciate people offering advice esp. if they know someone suffering the same situation who has found some respite from the pain, etc.

6 years ago

You make some good points, but I have to say that in general people’s offerings are not about THEM. People care, and really do want to help. And sometimes the advice is exactly what is needed. I say be the witness first, really be there for them. And if you feel an opening, then and only then offer solutions that have worked for you.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x

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