Please Refrain From “Counseling” Strangers on the Internet

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I’d say that over the past few years, I’ve managed to cull people who I consider a detriment to my life. I enjoy discussions a lot, and I don’t mind having what I believe or perceive challenged, but I’ve jettisoned people who were more about conflict in my life than a mutual exchange of ideas. I did the same thing with groups I participate in. Most of them are a particular fandom or other narrow focus. There are people that I don’t need to deal with in my life and I choose not to subject myself to them.

One of the types that seems to be pervasive in every group is the self-appointed counselor. You know the type – they have to come in and offer advice and counseling, even when it’s not warranted. There are several people like this I tolerated for a while, because otherwise their friendship was good for me. One finally figured out to back off. Another, who had been a long-time friend in real-life, decided to sever the friendship because I would not change my life to follow her (unasked for) advice and counseling.

In one of my groups this morning, we were having a discussion around an online article by The Atlantic about Family Estrangements. It’s an issue I’ve been on both sides of. Most of the comments I was seeing were from adult children who felt they had every right to sever contact with their parents, mostly over their corruption by Faux News and devotion to Trump as well as racism, homophobia, etc. Having chosen at one point to disengage with my mother-in-law when she could not stop bad-mouthing my father-in-law in front of my children, I understand the decision to sever contact with toxic people.

However, it’s not always that simple. Sometimes families are estranged and there’s no clue why. As I related some specifics to stop the discussion from being one-sided, one person decided to start counseling me. It was not asked for. Even in the comments following my comment, we were talking about the dynamics in relationships. This person decided to start giving me advice on my situation.

I replied with “thank you, counselor, but I am not looking for therapy. I am merely bringing up a different angle for the discussion.” I have no idea if the person was a counselor or not. A quick glance at her profile didn’t seem to indicate that she was, but even if she was, that’s not the place to start counseling someone – it was a discussion of a particular news article and subject. Even the OP had been telling people to go back and read my comments because it did bring up a different angle.

Of course, the poster who wanted to give me advice immediately got her hackles up and responded in a nasty way. Let’s see, she gives unwarranted advice and when that’s pointed out to her, instead of just apologizing and moving on, she gets nasty about it. Why?

Why would anyone in this situation expect to be treated with kid gloves? It’s a discussion, not a therapy situation. Your qualifications to counsel someone are not evident, and even if they were, this is not the place to do it. I think people like this have a sense of self-importance and don’t like someone telling them that they don’t want their help. They’re looking for attention and the rush that comes from the instant gratification of saying “I helped someone on the internet today” than actually helping someone. It’s all about the pat on the back. That’s why when they get pushback, they can’t handle it and get nasty.

We’ve all done it. There are times in discussions where I’ve gotten a slap back and I just said, okay, and moved on. My ego may be bruised but it’s nothing I won’t recover from. There’s no reason to lash out because someone tells you your counseling and advice isn’t warranted. If anything, when someone does that, it tells me that the person isn’t any kind of licensed counselor or therapist and shouldn’t be saying anything at all.

Sometimes when I post things, it’s just to vent. There’s not much that can be done, but I just need to vent, and knowing that other people are going through the same thing really helps. If there is advice to be had, I’m going to take it from my friends or people who do really know me – not some stranger on the internet, and especially when it hasn’t been asked for. I’m in plenty of groups where people ask for advice at times – that’s different than a discussion of a topic. I’ve asked for advice in dealing with issues related to my dog and been helped out quite a bit, as well as with other things. If people aren’t asking for advice, don’t offer any – it’s as simple as that. If there’s something that really concerns you, you can message them. They’re not under any obligation to answer you, though.

In the end, it’s just better to not try to counsel someone on the internet unless they’ve specifically asked for advice. It’s great to commiserate with someone and if they want to they might open up more. However, to approach a stranger on the internet with the idea that you’re going to “fix” them or their situation is the height of hubris on your part. You know nothing of the background except the little snippet you were given as part of a discussion. People who act like that shouldn’t be surprised when they are rebuffed, even if they did have the best of intentions.

11 replies »

  1. Yes, there’s a fine line between commiserate and counsel. I’ve caught myself doing it (or coming close) and pulled back. Even with my husband I’ve told him that when it comes to me and my brothers, to keep his comments to himself. I have chosen not to communicate with one of my brothers and I don’t need to be told to “forgive” him or that his own kids need to “grow up” and accept him and his new significant other. We all have our reasons and all are very valid

    • In this case, the person started with questions that she thought I should be asking myself about a situation. Like I said, with no background at all and I wasn’t about to start justifying it to her or a therapy session in the comments. I’ve been on both sides of this particular topic and I know it’s not as cut and dried as others were making it out to be in this comment section.

      I would certainly think your husband would understand the situation with your brothers, being your spouse and all. He’s not some random stranger on the internet. And he should still respect your boundaries, even when you just need to vent.

      • He has never understood the dynamics of my family and thinks we should be like his family who talk on phone for an hour every week. It’s mostly about his elderly bedridden mom. I remind him the dynamics often change once parents pass away.

  2. I couldn’t agree more – I actually try not to give advice even when I am asked for it – in my experience people never follow it anyway; better to coach people into working out for themselves what they want to do – but again, only if they want it. I am also very careful who i ask for advice from – my own mother, whom I adored, was hopeless. When I first got married and things got a bit difficult, i asked her for help. Get a divorce she said. Not what I wanted to hear at all. I wanted to be told things would get better. Luckily I didn’t listen to her and things did get better. We are happier than ever after 42 years. But I never asked her for advice again. And she didn’t offer it!

    • Yes, and you’ll see people ask for advice. Hell, I do it plenty of the time. I have a set of friends that when they say something, I consider it. Otherwise, if it’s something specific I go to people who know about it – such as when my dog is acting in a way I don’t understand.

      I had the opposite issue with my mother, but we had a 40 year age gap and things changed a lot in that time – more than I think it has in the last 40 years.

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