As a person with a disability and a chronic illness, unsolicited advice from strangers is a major irritant. From being told to “try yoga,” to hardcore proselytizing from vegans who believe that “dietary restrictions aren’t real,” strangers ignore the idea that they shouldn’t interfere with the intimate health choices of others.This unwanted advice can come from an innocent but ignorant do-gooder who thinks they’re just helping someone else, or someone trying to educate about about the great benefits of one of their lifestyle choices, or someone trying to make a sale for their multi-level marketing business.
The thing is, this intrusive advice isn’t just a minor annoyance to those of us with disabilities, it’s actually much worse than that. Unsolicited medical and lifestyle advice is ableist, invalidating, and emotionally taxing, and it needs to stop.
The Three Tiers Of Unsolicited Advice
I have encountered three specific tiers of unsolicited medical and lifestyle advice from strangers:
Have you tried X? It is pretty much a universal experience that someone with an illness or disability will receive unsolicited advice about their lifestyle, and most likely from someone who knows little to nothing about their medical history. This is such a common occurrence for those of us with inflammatory bowel diseases that it shows up on pretty much every list of what not to say to people with IBD. “Have you tried this diet, this supplement, yoga, this book?”
I cannot speak for all medical conditions, but Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis are highly individualized diseases, with trigger foods that are different for everyone. Something that one “crohnie” can eat may put another one in the hospital. Someone with one condition may benefit from yoga, while another person may be put in pain. Just because your cousin’s best friend’s mom “cured” her condition with a specific supplement, or essential oils, or by reading the advice of a specific book, doesn’t mean that this tip will work for us. And while we know that you’re just trying to help, this advice forces us to disclose intimate details of our health with strangers who know nothing of our individual medical situation, and to talk about whether or not we’ve tried what they’re recommending. It’s uncomfortable and frustrating.
Buy my product! Sometimes, unsolicited advice comes with strings attached, and those strings are attached to a multi-level marketing business, aka pyramid scheme. Products sold by health and wellness consultants often come with dubious “alternative” medical claims, and some of those consultants see a disabled person’s illness as an opening to make a sale. This is particularly cruel because it sees a person’s suffering as a business opportunity and preys on a person’s discomfort and desperation for relief. I have been told to try adding specific pyramid-scheme nutritional products into my diet to improve my Crohn’s. Who told me this? A neighbor who happened to be a consultant for that particular company. In this case, it isn’t just about providing well-meaning but naive advice, it’s about making a buck off another person’s circumstances.
Have you tried going vegan? Possibly the most intrusive, emotionally taxing, and invalidating experience is being questioned by those who are adamant proponents of their lifestyle choices. This most frequently comes from people on specific diets, such as paleo or veganism.
Very recently, I was confronted by a vegan who claimed that my Crohn’s Disease could be healed through veganism. For context, I have been out of remission for a year and am running out of treatment options. The only medications left for me to try are a class of medications that nearly killed me from infection complications, and all other medications have at this point failed. My case sounds very complex, right? Well, not according to a hardcore vegan. If I had just given veganism a shot, I could have not only ended my suffering, but I would stop animals from suffering from my choices. According to her, “dietary restrictions aren’t real.”
This is perhaps the most toxic level of unwanted advice, as this level of committed advisor won’t take no for an answer, won’t listen to your “excuses,” and genuinely doesn’t believe that your medical condition is as serious as you say. It doesn’t matter that fruits and vegetables have put me in the hospital numerous times, I just didn’t give myself enough time to adjust. Any rebuttals that a disease requires real medication and that diet won’t cure me will be ignored, because they know better. If you only read their alternative sources untainted by the medical establishment, you would know this.
Why is this so harmful?
You may be thinking, “These people sound irritating, sure, but why are you making such a big fuss? They’re just trying to help!”
Of course, I get that they’re trying to help, and in some cases, it really is just a pet peeve that I’ll politely accept or decline and move on. But the thing is that constant unsolicited advice, questioning, and imploring to try something different becomes very invalidating. You don’t just hear a helpful tip to try, you hear that you aren’t trying hard enough, that using medication to treat your condition means that you’re giving up or aren’t willing to seek out a non-medicinal alternative. You hear that all of the work that you and your doctors have done, the tests, the procedures, the trial and error of different combinations of medications and treatments aren’t enough, and that you need to try a different path. You hear that if you did give these suggestions a shot in the past, you didn’t try long or hard enough, you weren’t following it correctly, or you bailed and took “the easy way out.”
It is frustrating to constantly hear the message that not only are you not trying hard enough to improve your own health, but that you and your doctors are not the most knowledgeable about your medical and lifestyle needs. A stranger or acquaintance took it upon themselves to say that they know more about your condition from a bit of Googling and a few books than your doctor with their experience and education, and you with your everyday, lived experience of actually having the medical condition. It is emotionally damaging to not only hear that you aren’t living with your disease correctly, but to always have to educate others on why their unsolicited advice is unwanted and harmful. Unfortunately, they usually just they reply that you’re overreacting and become offended that you won’t take their suggestion. This only adds to the emotional pain, and very often, the physical pain of a medical condition that can be triggered by stressful situations.
My message is this: please, please do not give advice when it is not specifically requested. If someone wants information about your lifestyle, your choice, or your product, they will ask you and they will do the research. If you do give advice and somebody says that they aren’t interested or asks you to stop, just respect their wishes. Nobody should be coerced into trying something they don’t want to try, and if you push forward with your advice, not only would they not listen, but they may become stressed, hurt, and invalidated by your inability to respect their wishes.
Trust that disabled and chronically ill people and their medical teams are the most knowledgeable about their own health and their medical and lifestyle needs. Trust that they will seek out you or the proper sources if they’re interested in what you have to offer. And out of respect for disabled and chronically ill people everywhere, please stop forcing your unsolicited advice upon those who don’t want it.