Pagan Leadership: Community Building, Facilitation, and Personal Growth

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Unsolicited Advice

There's a plague out there. Unsolicited advice--or, advice you didn't ask for--is often the first thing that comes out of someone's mouth when you talk about anything bad going on with you. And here's the thing--you probably do it too; I sure know that I do, and I struggle not to. It's an issue of leadership because it's an issue of communication and boundaries, and it also crosses over into pastoral counseling as well. It's certainly an issue that can impact how we function together within communities.

Unasked-for advice happens on autopilot, and here's how it usually plays out. 

Over the past years I've posted on my Facebook a couple of times about my struggles with some specific health issues, including my struggles with chronic acne. (I've posted about this on my Patheos Pagan blog and will link that as soon as it's live.) The comments fill up with, "Oh, have you tried ____ medication?" "How about this essential oil?" "You know what I did was ____."

Nowhere in my original post did I say, "Can you give me advice on what to do?" In fact, sometimes in my original post I said, "I'm not looking for advice, I'm just checking in about why I'm dealing with a lot of anxiety right now."

The advice comes rolling in anyways. 

I know people mean well, but that doesn't mean that the posting of advice doesn't cause me further anxiety, to the point that I don't want to tell anyone about anything real happening in my life because it seems to just lead to a spew of advice I wasn't asking for.

If I were asking for advice, I'd be sure to first post my 25 years of medically relevant information of my struggle with acne...or whatever issue is that I'm facing. I'd post about my years of taking various antibiotics, the topical treatments, the Accutane, the gluten and dairy issues, the Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, and the rest of it. 

There's a tremendous value to just listening to someone in crisis, to asking them what they need, instead of making assumptions for them and offering up advice. In spiritual communities, this is particularly valuable. 

Why Is Advice Frustrating?

Here are some specific reasons why unasked-for might be frustrating.

  • It makes assumptions. It assumes that I somehow haven't tried XYZ. There are a number of ways this can be particularly patronizing, too.
  • Advice often assumes privilege.What I mean by this is, much of the unasked-for advice I've been offered suggests things that I can't afford to do. "You should do ABC medical thing." "You should hire a lawyer."
  • It can be judgmental. Some advice goes beyond suggesting something to say, "Why haven't you done DEF? That's irresponsible of you."
  • It invades our personal boundaries. It prioritizes the needs and wants of the advice-giver vs. the person having a problem.
  • It's often not actually helpful. What if we just actually asked people what they wanted and needed in that moment? Sometimes, people just need to vent. Other times, people need actual concrete help. Sometimes the advice just increases the anxiety of the person in crisis.


I've written a general overview on boundaries, and I've addressed it in the newly-released Pagan Leadership Anthology as well as my book The Leader Within. The basic idea is that you have edges, everyone has an edge where they end, and the rest of the world begins. Put simply, our edges end at our skin. If you touch me without my permission, you're violating my bodily boundaries.

The same, however, goes with thoughts, ideas, and emotions. When we offer up advice without being asked, we're beginning to press on those boundaries, those edges. When someone comes up to me at a Pagan event and hugs me from behind without my permission, I'm not going to be happy with that, even if I know them and like them. It makes an assumption for what I'm ok with. Similarly, offering up advice without being asked--and without knowing the full scope of the problem, for that matter--makes an assumption.

Think of unsolicited advice like an unsolicited physical touch.

In this case, the advice prioritizes the emotional needs of the advice-giver, vs. the person who is going through a difficult time. Advice is very often more about the advice-giver wanting to feel helpful, whether or not they are being helpful. Often, the person having the actual problem has to stop dealing with their own emotional process of grief, sadness, anger, or whatever emotion, in order to help comfort (or at least deal with) the person who is insistently trying to be helpful.

There's a great diagram out there about how the person trying to be helpful should never be putting more emotional load on the person in crisis. 

Poor boundaries are when we project our own wants and needs and desires onto someone else and don't ask their permission. If you're offering advice, think about it from that perspective. Is the advice actually helpful? Was it solicited? Or is it more about you feeling better or wanting someone to "fix" their lives in a way you approve of? 

Worse, are you thinking of the person in crisis as an extension of yourself? Are you basing your own self image on your ability to help them, or the choices they make? 

Just because someone's in crisis doesn't mean that you can somehow rescue them. If you are identifying as the "rescuer" (or as the teacher, the guru, the fixer) that may be more about your own wants and needs than it is about the actual person who needs help.

Advice and Privilege

When I was in a car accident a couple of years ago, I posted on my Facebook about what I'd gone through. A large percentage of the comments were, "Go to the hospital!" or, "Get a lawyer and sue those jerks!" All I could think was, "I wish I had the money to go to the hospital. I wish I had the money to hire a lawyer."

"Their insurance will pay for it, you weren't at fault," some said. Well--that's great, but I'm not going to risk racking up several thousands of dollars of medical debt to get an ambulance ride and get checked out. I knew I wasn't at fault, but I couldn't prove it.

In fact, my car had been totaled but I had no way to prove that the other driver took an illegal left when I had a green light going straight through the intersection. There were no cameras, and none of the other 20 cars at the intersection witnessed what color the light was. My car was worth perhaps $3500 (Bluebook) but nevertheless, people kept on advising me to get a lawyer and sue the people with the Lexus SUV that totaled my old minivan. "You can find a lawyer that will do it for a percentage," some insisted. "You don't have to pay up front."

Which isn't true, not for damages that small. They don't want to bother with such a small claim. I did talk to several lawyer friends about my case, and they all advised me that I was unlikely to win a lawsuit without any concrete evidence.

The point is, often the well-meaning advice just stresses out the person going through a difficult time, which isn't what you want to do, right?

Instead, you might consider asking specific questions, and give them an out. "Do you want any advice on dealing with the legal system? I was in an accident and had to deal with some of this. If not, that's ok." If you have specific expertise that might help the person--maybe you are a lawyer, for instance, and you could help them with their case--you might tell them that you're happy to assist if you can and that they can message you if they want, but don't dive into problem solving until you've been invited. For someone going through a trauma, it's best to offer a concrete "out." What I mean by that is, "Contact me if you'd like to talk in more depth," or, "I'm happy to help if I can, but if not that's ok."

If all you're going to tell someone is what they "should" do, consider what kind of privilege you're assuming. Not everyone has health insurance. Not everyone can afford a lawyer. If your advice begins with, "If you just..." or, "You should..." consider first what that person's going through and what options they may or not have and whether your advice is just going to frustrate them by offering up options it's impossible for them to explore. That might be because of finances, or circumstance. I live in a rural area so when my car was totaled, I couldn't drive to a lawyer's office, I couldn't drive to the grocery store, to the health clinic...and there weren't any viable jobs within walking distance. A lot of the advice just made me feel worse, particularly when I had to tell the person, "I'm sorry, that's not viable for me," and then they'd get offended and I'd have to deal with them being offended with me. (Note how none of that reduces my stress level while dealing with a crisis.)

It's worth pointing out that poverty exacerbates any life problem and limits the person's options. That's a tangent into social justice, but it's pretty relevant when offering advice. Don't assume the person in crisis has the same means that you do.

And beneath it all, don't assume you have the right answers. Maybe you're a mentor, teacher, or leader for this person. Maybe not. It's worth asking the question if, in this instance, that's the role you need to hold or if you just need to hold space for them.


Certainly not everyone having a bad day and talking about their problems has an anxiety disorder. However, anyone going through a rough time is likely to deal with anxiety, and anyone dealing with a life crisis or trauma is bound to. I struggle with anxiety and depression, and I have a ton of amazing coping mechanisms. The problem is that when people start offering me advice--particularly advice that is judgmental, or advice that is something I can't financially afford to do--that does ratchet up my anxiety.

A lot of my anxiety is rooted in guilt and shame, and it's not to say that my own personal shame is your problem. However, if you're trying to offer help (which is why most people offer advice) you might consider that someone dealing with anxiety might find your version of "help" to not be helpful.

Even if we're not talking about someone with an anxiety disorder, you might consider how your advice could be unwelcome. 

I've frequently been in the position of talking about a challenging situation and having people heap advice on me, but not actually offering to help with any of it. Maybe I'm posting about my anxiety about dealing with my taxes, or about my fears that I won't sell enough artwork to keep afloat, or my difficulties with being an independent author. Posting links where I could promote my work, or telling me about how I can learn how to do my taxes with various online resources, or posting jobs where I could make side money, might seem helpful, but all it does is give me more work to do when I'm already maxxed out. 

You might consider this. If you're trying to be helpful, are you willing to actually help? Sending someone along some advice is one thing. And, maybe it's helpful. But sometimes, people that are in over their head need actual physical help. Does someone need a ride to the doctor? Do they need a health advocate to go to the clinic with them? Do they need someone to teach them how to do their taxes? Do they need someone to help them write a resume? There are dozens of stressors that come up in our lives, and they stack up fast. Each one on its own may not be a problem, but when crisis hits, every problem might seem insurmountable. 

Is this friend or community member someone that you care about enough to actually do something? If the answer is no, then just acknowledge that to yourself, but don't add stress to their lives by telling them what they "should" be doing. Again, this is just about discernment, about considering the impact of your words and actions.

Advice and Fixing

One of the core pieces of advice is the assumption that we need to be fixed, or that we're looking to be fixed. And typically when I am talking to someone about my problems, or posting about it on social media or on a blog, I'm not looking for anyone to tell me how to fix my problems. Often, I'm sharing part of my personal and spiritual path because I hope it might be of benefit to others. Sometimes I'm just writing about something that's difficult that I'm going through because I want to be heard, to know I'm not alone.

At many Reclaiming tradition events, and at the retreat center where I did my leadership training, we had a few foundational agreements that really help in situations like this. One agreement was for no crosstalk, and the other was for self responsibility. No crosstalk typically means no side conversations and no interrupting someone who is speaking. Self responsibility means that we're not going to go hug someone who is crying, not without their express permission.

The two agreements cross over in that we were expressly asked to not offer feedback or give advice unless we'd been expressly asked to do so. 

Honestly? I miss those days. I miss being around people who knew the value in just sitting and listening while I was spilling my guts. They weren't going to judge me or offer platitudes or advice or tell me how to fix my life. They were just going to sit there and witness, be with me while I went through this thing.

I was able to trust those folks in a way I don't really trust any more. These days, I'm pretty well assured if I talk about a challenge in my life, someone's going to try and offer advice. It's pretty easy for me to drop into problem solving mode--it's how I escape having actual feelings about things. I've talked to plenty of other folks who do this too.

Let's face it; it's uncomfortable to just sit there while someone cries and talks about how something in their life sucks. But sometimes, that's what the person in pain wants and needs. They just want to feel sad, and grieve, or be angry, and they are trusting you to be there for that, to just let them know they aren't alone and let them feel and purge or whatever it is they need in that moment.

Ask and Listen

Next time someone is checking in with you about a problem they're going through, ask them what they want. Do they just want to be heard? Do they just want to vent? Do they want a hug? Do they want someone to help problem solve? You'd be surprised how many interpersonal conflicts you can avoid just by asking someone what they're looking for, and being willing to sit and listen (even if it squicks you out) without fixing.

We (humans) are just really damn uncomfortable being around people who are grieving. Sometimes--and I say this with all love and compassion--the best thing you can do for someone who is grieving is just shut up. Don't offer advice. Don't try to fix them. Just be there with them, ask them what they need, and let yourself be uncomfortable while they are grieving and feeling.

Ask them what they need. 

Really Unhelpful Advice

The most unhelpful advice isn't so much specific to the issue, like medical advice. It goes into the category of crappy philosophical advice. I really hate the phrase, "Everything happens for a reason."

I get it; this phrase (like most advice) comes from our desire to say something useful, to help people when they're down. But it doesn't really do that. Instead, it's kind of a cosmic victim blaming, and it ties into the whole idea of karma, or the idea that our souls somehow "signed up" to be hurt in this way. 

It's related to what's called the Just World Fallacy. Now--I'm a pantheist and I personally don't believe that there's any god/s looking over me and deciding whether or not I live or die in a car accident. I do believe that, when bad things happen, sometimes I can take what happened and turn it into something good. But that's not why it happened. I went through an abusive relationship and yes, that's given me the ability to write about abuse and reach victims of abuse and help them. Do I think that I was abused "for a reason" so I could do that? NO.

It's a tangent off the original post, but if you're looking to be a more helpful person when it comes to working with people going through a rough time, this article is worth a read. 

Being Actually Helpful

If you get stuck in the habit of offering advice, it's probably because you want to be helpful. And I get it--I do it too. The other day someone was talking to me about a challenging issue they had with some shadow work, and I launched into "teacher mode" talking about my own work with my shadows and struggles I've faced and how I dealt with that. It was in an attempt to help them and I realized, after I'd said a bunch of stuff, that I had gone and done it again. I'd assumed they wanted advice from me, and I hadn't asked. 

It's not to say that we can never offer advice. There are times where I might have a specific experience or expertise in an area that is useful to someone. For instance, if you're looking to go gluten-free, dairy-free, or live simply. Or if you want leadership advice; I've got lots of that! I'm a good problem solver, I'm a graphic designer with strategic marketing experience...I've done a lot of personal growth work and shadow short, I have a lot of skillsets and experiences that might help you with a particular problem. 

I'm committing to getting better about asking before I assume that someone wants my advice. I'm considering the privilege I come from when offering advice, considering my own boundaries, and considering what the person actually needs in that moment. Sometimes, they just need to vent, and I'm ok with that. 

For further reading on the topic:
I have a few articles I've written specifically on the process of giving and receiving feedback as a leader and ritualist, since that's another place we tend to see unsolicited advice as well. The first two posts in the feedback series are below.

Giving and Receiving Effective Feedback Part 1
Giving and Receiving Effective Feedback Part 2



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An artist, author, ritualist, presenter, and spiritual seeker, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and personal growth. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, and Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. She’s a columnist on ritual techniques for Circle Magazine, and her writing also appears in several anthologies. She’s also the author of several fantasy and paranormal romance novels. Her mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations, as well as decorating many walls, shrines, and other spaces. Shauna is passionate about creating rituals, experiences, spaces, stories, and artwork to awaken mythic imagination.  


  • Rick
    Rick Monday, 18 January 2016

    So why do people offer unsolicited advice?

    One reason that you missed, IMO, is probably gender-linked. If you start lamenting about a situation, males in particular automatically switch into problem-solving mode. I really believe it is in the sex-linked chromosomes somewhere. Maybe it is part of our species survival mechanism. "Eeep have problem. Grug fix!" It is why usually men make real bad listeners too, I think.

    The second is compassion. People give advice because they are compassionate. Somehow, what do you want from me? doesn't sound like a compassionate response.

    The third is to shut someone up. Granted, this usually happens when someone does nothing but complain and the listener is sick of it, and sometimes it is followed by "if you don't follow my advice quit your bitchin!"

    The best thing to do is just ask whether advice is wanted though. Hardly ever goes that way, it seems! - Woods

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