Errybody’s Got an Opinion

Alright, look. Humaning is hard. And one of the things that makes it hard is other humans who are also trying to human and also finding humaning hard. So we’re all bumbling around, trying to figure out how to live in a way that is effective, fulfilling, and reduces risk. And we all have our own unique learning histories that inform our worldview and opinions about best practices, best strategies, and best techniques. And the result of that whole process is that a whole lot of people give a whole lot of unsolicited advice.

More often than not, unsolicited advice doesn’t feel good to the person receiving it. And where it can sting the most is when it’s about how you take care of another living being–whether that’s your elderly parents, your children, or your pets.

If you have people in your life who are giving you unsolicited advice about your pets and it feels really uncomfortable to you, that feeling is valid.


Let me say that again:

If you have people in your life who are giving you unsolicited advice about your pets and it feels really uncomfortable to you, that feeling is valid.


You are not being overly sensitive.

You are not being stubborn.

You are not being resistant to new information.

You are experiencing a reasonable reaction to violence being done to you.

That might sound like hyperbole, but it isn’t. Non-violent communication, or NVC, is an approach to communication that seeks to reduce violence and harm through compassion in our use of language. Like any communication style, it is an imperfect system and has its pros and cons, but one of the things I really love about it is the focus on providing agency for everyone in a conversation. As such, one of the core tenets of NVC is that unsolicited advice does violence by bullying someone into doing what we believe is best.

While the idea of unsolicited advice being a type of bullying may (or may not!) be debatable, NVC is not alone in its stance against unsolicited advice. As far as I can tell from the sheer number of research papers on the topic that pop up in a Google Scholar search, from the multiple articles by psychologists and social workers about it online, and from the conversations I’ve had with my mentors and therapists over the years, there’s pretty broad consensus among mental health professionals that unsolicited advice is, at best, a violation of boundaries.

So what do you do when someone is giving you unwanted advice about your pet and how you’re caring for them? I’ve found that the first step in learning how to respond to any behavior is understanding it.


Setting Boundaries

In her article “Unsolicited Advice: What It Is and How To Avoid It”, Dr. Sharon Martin made this helpful list of why we humans like to do this so much:

  • We want to be helpful.
  • We want to get someone to do what we want or what we think is right.
  • We think we have the answers, that we know more than others.
  • We’re excited about a new idea, product, or service and we want to share it.
  • We want to reduce our own anxiety. Sometimes we’re really worried about a loved one and we feel powerless. We don’t know what else to do, so we give unsolicited advice to calm our anxiety, to feel like we’re doing something.

When we realize that most of the motivations for this behavior come from a good place, it’s easier to maintain a compassionate boundary with them.

That said, a compassionate boundary doesn’t mean a squishy one. The best way to show kindness to yourself and the person giving you the unwanted advice is to be clear and direct about your boundaries.

Dr. Martin goes on to give some examples of what this looks like in her article, but I’ll also share some of my go-to responses as well: 

“Thank you, but I’m working with a team of professionals who are helping me with this right now, so I’m not looking for advice.”

“I’m glad that works for you, but I’m doing [xyz] because [reasons]. You do what works for you and I’ll do what works for me.”

“I’m not going to have this conversation with you. Let’s move on to something else.”

As an aside, I have noticed that on social media, people are even more prone to not only giving unsolicited advice, but continuing to violate those boundaries even after I’ve clearly communicated what I am and am not looking for in a conversation. So I have found that I’ve had to spell out my boundaries and the contingencies even more bluntly than I would have to do in an in-person conversation. This is what this has looked like:

“I am going to share this story about an event that happened with my pets, but I am going to say up front that I am not looking for advice. This is a boundary that I am setting. To be clear, the boundary is: after reading my story, do not give me advice. I’m just sharing this story because I’m sharing my life with my loved ones. But any advice in this thread will get deleted, and if you persist or get mad that I deleted your comments, I will unfriend you on this platform. With that boundary being set, here’s what happened.”

If, after you’ve set those boundaries, the person continues to escalate instead of honoring your boundaries, then we’ve got a little more work to do. Let me describe my process.


1. Emotional Budgeting

First, I do something that I call emotional budgeting. I want to be very clear: this is a term I made up myself. I have no citations to back up this technique, and I am not a mental health expert, so take this with a grain of salt.

What I mean by emotional budgeting is assessing how much of a relationship I actually have with a person and assessing whether the time, energy, and emotional labor I would need to invest into the conversation will yield an actual, meaningful friendship that will ultimately fill my cup. If the answer is yes, then I’ll do the labor of wading into the hard conversation. If not, I let that person go. 

That may sound harsh, but remember that we have finite reserves of time, energy, patience, emotional labor, and authentic connection. And if you spend it on randos who sent you a friend request on social media but with whom you have no real relationship, you won’t have enough reserves to show up and be present for the people in your life who really matter to you.

To be clear, this does not mean that those people do not matter at all. Everyone has intrinsic value and worth. But we cannot have authentic connections with every single person we encounter on the planet. Regardless of what Facebook might have you believe, we did not evolve to have 5000 friends. Cut ties with anyone who is violating your boundaries and approaching your boundary-setting conversation in bad faith so that you have the reserves to be there for the people in your life who show up in good faith.


2. Don’t Steal Their Experience

Second, check in with yourself. Are you internalizing whatever judgments are attached to the unsolicited advice? Are you starting to engage in negative self-talk? Are your thoughts racing? Your heart pounding? Take some deep and even breaths and tell yourself what my therapist told me: what people think and say about you is neither your business nor your concern. Let them think you’re doing it wrong. Let them disapprove of your decisions. That’s their journey, not yours. You’re on your own path. In our podcast episode with Marissa Martin0, I asked her about how to be kind in some complicated scenarios, and her answer is beautiful. But the part of her answer that really stuck with me was when she said, “Don’t steal their experience.” So often, when people are judging, criticizing, or misunderstanding us, we feel the need to control their perception of us. But that isn’t healthy for us or for them. It is just as important for you to learn to let go of the need to control what they think or say about you as it is for them to learn to let go of the need to control what you do.


3. Conversational Consent

Third, have a direct conversation with them about the fact that you set a boundary and they are doubling down on violating it. I find it helpful to talk directly about conversational consent. My conversation usually goes something like this: 

“Do you know what conversational consent is? It’s when everyone involved is able to consent to having a conversation before it happens. This is an important aspect of healthy communication and healthy relationships. And I want to have a healthy relationship with you. So to be clear, I do not consent to having this conversation right now. Can we move on to something else?”

If they continue to press the issue, I will terminate the interaction. On social media that can look like expressly telling them that you’re ending the conversation, turning off comments or notifications, putting them on snooze, or even unfriending or blocking them depending on how harmful their behavior is. In real life, this usually looks like walking away, if at all possible.

Later, when everyone has had a chance to process their emotions and is calmer, we can have a conversation about how to exercise conversational consent. These are some examples of how we at Pet Harmony practice conversational consent:

“I have a crucial conversation I’d like to discuss with you. Is this a good time?”

“How can I support you in this conversation? Do you just need to vent or are you wanting advice?”

“I see you struggling and I’m here for you. There are options out there, and if you’re ever interested in discussing them I’d be happy to do that.”

“I know everyone’s situation is unique, and I can’t really know what you’re going through. That said, I have had [similar situation]. Sharing your life with other species can be really hard sometimes! If you ever want to compare notes and brainstorm based on our shared experiences, let me know!”


4. Seek Help

And of course, if this is an ongoing problem with someone close to you, you may want to seek out a family therapist. It can be really valuable to have an objective third party help you to navigate these tricky interactions!


Now What?

  1. Read the article, “Unsolicited Advice: What It Is and How To Avoid It” by Dr. Sharon Martin to get more tips on how to handle unsolicited advice.
  2. Listen to Episode 32 – Marissa Martino: Cultivating Connections for Behavior Change
  3. If you really do need professional help with your pet, we’re here for you! You can always book a session with someone on our team!