Dealing with unsolicited advice

What to do when people tell you that you shouldn’t leave medicine

So you’ve finally decided that you’re leaving medicine. You’re excited about your future and the prospect of your new beginning, and hopefully you have supporters cheering you on. But then… you encounter the opinionated critic – the person who loudly disagrees with your thinking, and can’t seem to stop themselves from telling you all the ways you’re wrong and what you should be doing instead.

Unsolicited advice can be infuriating.

I’ve been there. In fact, I made it worse for myself by leaving a couple of months before the end of my F2 year, which seemed to give them even more ammunition. They would decry the fact that I was leaving so close to the end, and urge me to “just finish”. 

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but for a career-questioning medic, this kind of advice bombardment can be genuinely distressing. So in this blog, I wanted to look into how to deal with this kind of advice, and give you six strategies to employ if you find yourself in this situation.

unsolicited advice
Infographic by the Disillusioned Medic

why do people feel the need to give unsolicited advice?​

To help protect yourself from the distress of unsolicited advice, it can be really useful to think about the reasons why people feel the need to give it. 

The unwanted advisor may honestly think they know what is best for you. They may be concerned for you, and may believe themselves to be speaking out of a sense of altruism, and be totally unaware of the emotional hurt they cause. 

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

Other darker sides to this uninvited guidance include:

  • Projecting their doubts and fears onto you
  • Emotional dysregulation that is linked to unhappiness in their own life or negative childhood experiences 
  • They may be feeling stuck in medicine and trying to convince themselves to stay. It actually might have nothing to do with you
  • Possible narcissistic tendencies leading to a need for control over their surroundings and others 
  • A sense of jealousy that you are living authentically, and have an exciting future ahead

why does unsolicited advice hurt so much?​

Whilst it may seem trivial, saying out loud that you want to leave medicine is, for many doctors, a huge step. It can be an enormous source of emotional turmoil when you realise you’re in the wrong profession, especially after all the time and energy you’ve already invested into getting this far. 

So once a doctor makes the final decision to leave medicine, they’ve usually already spent months or even years thinking and contemplating this decision. It is not something one takes lightly, so the fact that people speak to you as if you decided on a whim can feel patronising and very frustrating.

It can be especially hurtful if the people giving you grief are the ones you love the most. Of course you care what your family and friends think, and as doctors we may have spent a lot of our lives pleasing people. Your family and friends may have a sense of pride in your job as a doctor, and it can feel strange and foreign to have people disapprove of your life choices.

Photo by Rita Morais on Unsplash

inexpert advice - do they have the relevant experience?​

You wouldn’t get a cardiology opinion from an orthopaedic surgeon, would you?

When someone is giving their counsel on your decision, stop and think about their credentials. Have they lived this experience? What is their expertise in the area?

The majority of medics have never had a job outside of medicine. Many doctors go from high school to medical school, and then go straight into working as a doctor. It can be really difficult to look outside this bubble. 

But contrary to popular belief, there is a whole world outside of medicine that does, in fact, exist. Do your family and friends have any knowledge about quitting medicine? Has your educational supervisor ever had a non-clinical job? When your consultant tells you that businesspeople are mercenary, or that all other industries are unstable, what evidence do they have to back that up? 

Remember that someone who has never walked in your shoes has a limited understanding of your reality. No one truly knows how you are feeling inside. They may not have seen those difficult days that you pushed yourself through. 

In short, when someone tells you what you should do, a good place to start is asking yourself where the advice is coming from

Photo from Pixabay

6 strategies to overcome the slings and arrows of unsolicited advice

1. try not to take it personally ​

As I mentioned before, when someone gives you advice, it can come from their own insecurities and emotional dysregulation. So while it can be really difficult to do this, (and believe me, I know!), try to not take their opinions personally. 

What people say to you reflects more on them and their life choices, than it does on yours.

2. set solid boundaries​

Set your boundary and make it clear that, whilst you appreciate the concern, you don’t need the help. This is really difficult, especially for doctors, as medicine involves so much self-sacrifice and saying yes: the much-needed annual leave that you cancel because of short-staffing.; that extra clinic you reluctantly agree to cover; the quality improvement project you grudgingly get involved in. This constant pushing in various different directions can lead to our boundaries becoming porous. 

These tendencies could even stem from earlier on in your life and the way you were raised. Saying ‘no’ may not be a regular part of your vocabulary. If you’re uncomfortable with setting boundaries, think of ways you can respectfully decline unwanted opinions.

You can try saying in a polite, but firm way “thank you for your input, but I’ve made my decision and it’s not up for discussion. But if I need your advice in future, I will be sure to come to you”. 

Worried you may sound rude and ungrateful? It actually isn’t. You’re an adult who has the prerogative to make decisions about your own life.

3. The Script

When you’re being grilled about your feelings, it can be easy to get emotional and flustered, or speak from a place of defensiveness. This can sometimes make the unwanted advisor redouble their persuasive efforts, because you start to seem unsure of yourself.

To mitigate this, write down concise bullet points about why you are leaving medicine. Then give this spiel to anyone who asks you for your reasons. Keep in mind, however, that you are under no obligation to explain yourself to anyone. And if you want to share the long version of the story, keep it for those who earn your confidence.

4. Grey-rocking

This strategy is for people who try to get a reaction out of you. These kinds of people may refuse to accept your boundaries and script. They may become very unpleasant, and even abusive. In these scenarios, it’s best to try to avoid these conversations if you can, but if that is not possible, you can try grey-rocking. 

Think of a bog-standard grey rock. Pretty boring, right?

This strategy is about emulating that. Make the conversation as lifeless as possible. Respond with things like “mm”, “yeah”, “I don’t know”. Avoid becoming sarcastic, though, as the aim is to not give them the emotional reaction that they want. They will eventually get bored and move on.

5. Remove yourself from toxic situations

If your circumstances are really toxic, get yourself out of the situation. You may even find you have to distance yourself from certain people. If it’s your family, could you maybe find a place of your own? If it’s a colleague, how can you minimise time spent with them?

Medics can become so used to toxic behaviour that we sometimes don’t give ourselves permission to recognise how awful it really makes us feel. We may not even realise how much we don’t deserve that. 

Your feelings are important, and if someone is making you miserable, then that is valid. Give yourself permission to protect yourself from toxic situations.

6. Surround yourself with cheerleaders

Sometimes it can be easy to focus on the negative, so it’s important to find a group of people that will be there for you through this tough time.

Turn to supportive friends, non-judgmental colleagues, and maybe even your career coach. Having space to air your experiences can be extremely helpful, and it’s really nice when someone turns around and says “that advice is BS”.

Trust in your own guidance. As you learn to listen to yourself, you will find your own answers and know that even in the face of uncertainty, you will figure out what to do. Turn up the volume on your own voice, and take hold of the wheel…

Dr Heather Fork – Doctors Crossing

So in summary, the next time someone tries to give you unsolicited advice about leaving medicine, remember: don’t take it personally, set boundaries, write your script, practice grey-rocking, avoid toxic situations and surround yourself with cheerleaders.

I hope that’s been helpful! I used to crumble under unsolicited opinions myself, but nowadays I have a totally different mindset towards it. I tend to take advice only as it empowers me, and I honestly feel a little sorry for the doomsayers and head-shakers I come across – how sad it must be not to see all the possibilities on the horizon…

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