Could Your 'Advice' Actually Be You Projecting Unhelpful Opinions?

Receiving and giving advice is the key to a successful life. When executed with tact and willingness, everyone gains something from the exchange of guidance. Those who receive advice find answers to their issues. Those who give advice also feel good thinking they have helped those who are going through the same challenge they experienced. However, when the exchange is not done well, it can make both parties feel bad.  

Many of us see the act of giving advice as simply passing on our precious thoughts and we think that those on the receiving end should just soak them up. The often-sad reality is that one person's treasure might be another's trash. We tend to think that we're giving good advice, but what we're actually doing — or what the advice receiver is thinking — is that we're just unloading our projections that don't help them in any way. 

A blurry line exists between advising and projecting. Cambridge Dictionary defines projecting as "the act of imagining that someone else feels a particular emotion or wants something when in fact it is you who feels this way." Giving advice is when you hold up the mirror for the beneficiary to see their blind spots, while projecting is you holding up the mirror for the person to see yourself in it. Here's how to know if you're actually giving advice or projecting unhelpful opinions.   

How to tell if we're projecting

Although projection may take many various forms, when offering advice, you can tell you are projecting when your "advice" is purely centered on your own experience and not the interlocutor's. 

For instance, your friend is seeking your advice for her interracial relationship because you used to be in one and she's seeing someone from a different race. But you had a nasty break-up and you're still bitter about it. Instead of pointing out the pros and cons of an interracial relationship from a neutral perspective and offering advice based on your friend's circumstances, you're projecting negative opinions based on what happened to you and conclude that interracial relationships don't work. Maybe you think you're helping, but you're not. You're just projecting assumptions because you went through a similar situation.  

So, why does this happen? Harley Therapy™ Blog claims that projection results from self-denial, a type of defense mechanism in which we transfer our distressing feelings to other people instead of acknowledging them. People likely to project are those who cannot come to terms with their weaknesses or struggle to reconcile with their life's less-than-ideal aspects. According to psychologist, friendship expert, and "Friendship Rules" co-producer Irene S. Levine (via Well+Good), you're projecting when you're making conclusions without hearing the whole story because you think you've been there or when you're offering the same cookie-cutter advice to other people as well. This cognitive bias cannot yield helpful opinions.

How to give good advice

So, how do we give good advice? One aspect of giving good advice, according to Psychology Today, is to only offer solicited advice. Giving unsolicited advice can make you come across as critical and arrogant. When you're giving unsolicited advice, even with the best of intentions, you're telling the other person that you don't believe in their ability to know and do what's good for them. 

If someone seeks you out for advice, prioritize active listening and hold your tongue until they're done explaining their situation. Not everyone who seeks advice actually wants to hear advice. Many, at times, just want a listening ear, per How Communication Works. Your focus should be on talking through their problems with them and helping them look at their situations from multiple perspectives, not telling them what they should do. To avoid sounding condescending and intrusive, work on the solutions together and present various options from a neutral view rather than insisting on the one you deem the best. 

You can draw on your previous experiences but try to treat them as footnotes (good-to-know) as opposed to facts (need-to-know). Keep in mind that you're only helping with the decision-making process with the limited knowledge that you have on the matter, and if possible, advise the person to seek a second or third opinion. And remember, the advice seeker should be the one making the final decision — not you.