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Why do we hate being told what to do? Let me tell you.

Everyone is quick to give out advice but why do we hate being told what to do? Let me tell you. It is hard enough having real girlfriends as a grown-up – when one of them – or someone in your family – tries to tell you what to do and how to feel, why do you get so angry? Turns out it’s normal – and warranted. 

I was doing some research for a client this morning and I came across this term in psychology – psychological reactance. Apparently, there are studies done on this exact phenomenon – The more someone tells you to do something, the less you feel like doing it.  

Think about a 2-year-old. You are trying to tell her to hold your hand while you take a walk. What does she try to do? The exact opposite. 

Psychological reactance makes a lot of sense to me and I can understand it for adults – especially now during the days of social media on top of a global epidemic – the world is full of “experts” telling everyone what to do and how to feel.

Someone tells you on social media that you better get your COVID shot. Someone yells at your neighbor because she doesn’t wear a mask on her walk. Someone sends you a text that you better rethink the way you talk about something. Someone comments on your Instagram that you better drink half of your body weight in water everyday and that is the only way to be healthy. Your mom tells you that you “better get that kid a better winter coat.” It is mentally exhausting and you just want to scream and say, “Stop telling me what to do!” Sound familiar? Why do you think people take breaks from social media? Your mental health depends on it. Unless, you can change the way you think about it.

You are not alone. 

I didn’t know this phenomenon had an official name until today when I started reading about it. But apparently psychological reactance has been widely studied since the mid 196os. There are literally thousands of studies demonstrating this “psychological reactance” effect. Thousands! I am guessing with a number like that, many people deal with this. For example, one study found that students who were encouraged to avoid certain tasks suddenly became excited by them. You tell me NO – oh, now I want to learn more! How very interesting.

COVID and quarantine have not helped us battle psychological reactance. Neither has trying to decide if your kids are going back to school in person. Neither has trying to decide if you should see your parents in person while your weigh the pros and cons. Not only is the government, schools, and store owners (no mask no service) telling us what to do and frankly, how we should feel – our peers, our co-workers, our friends and even our family members are doing the same and it is making us mad. It is leading to depression, way too much wine drinking, gossiping, social comparison, burnout and flat-out feelings of losing your darn mind! 

Know what is even worse? When you see people you love being preachy online saying things that they would not have the courage to say face-to-face to someone.

Know what is even worse than that? When someone sends you a text or a private message telling you that you are “wrong” or that you need schooled in something.

So, why do we innately have negative reactions when others are trying to change our behaviors? 

Here is the psychology behind it:

We feel that our own education, background and experiences offer no value to the critic. We all want to feel heard, understood, respected and loved. When someone is telling us to change something about ourselves we immediately go on the defense because hey, this is who I am. “You may not like it, but I am not changing me” is the thought that goes through our minds. 

We feel criticized. When someone tells us what to do, they’re either telling us to stop what we’re doing or to do start doing something that we’re not doing. So naturally it feels like we’re being criticized, which no one enjoys. It wounds our ego. “If so and so thinks my parenting style is incorrect, I can only imagine what he/she thinks of how I am at my job!”

We innately hate unsolicited advise – especially from people we think have things to learn themselves. It doesn’t feel helpful. In some situations, the advice givers aren’t judging you. But, feeling defensive can make the advice feel like criticism. Other times, the advice giver absolutely is judging you and your feelings are spot-on. It is hard to know the difference especially when you pile on stress and sadness. This is a recipe for disaster. It is even worse when the advice giver is giving you advice on something that you think they are not particularly good at themselves! “Oh really, you think you are better at this than me? I don’t think so.” 

We feel like children. As an adult, we all have the right to be our own boss. When others try to tell us what to do and how to feel, it makes us regress to our childhood when we didn’t earn that luxury yet. Treat me like a child? You might get childish behavior back – avoidance, silent treatment, and even a fight. 

We might already feel inadequate – or we totally disagree with the “advice.”No one wants to feel like they are not smart enough or do something wrong. Even worse, we might totally disagree with the person’s opinion. “Heck, you might think that but I totally see it differently!” The advice might also spike a nerve on something we are already sensitive about. It is like pouring salt on a wound.

We don’t understand how far it will be taken. When someone tells us what to do, we don’t know where they will stop. We have a fear of where something simple will lead to. “If I take her advice now, is she going to start giving me advice on everything? I don’t think so.”

So, what do you do about it?

Be kind. Stop and think before you react – or not react. Social media can be a dangerous place when it comes to feelings being hurt. Plus, everyone is giving advice on everything. Remember, you can not control other people. All you can control is how you react. You can choose not to address it. You can sleep on it for a bit and then address it with the person face-to-face. Don’t text about sensitive subjects. It is the worst and it leads no where productive. 

Take care of yourself. At the end of the day, you have to take care of yourself and not rely on others to boost you up. Get your steps in – walk everyday. Eat real food – like these real food pancakes! Try to get away – even a drive to a new town will boost your mood. 

Don’t tell other people what to do or feel. It is really easy to get offended and blast off a nasty text back or post some emotionally charging story on your Instagram to get back at someone but what does that solve? Nothing. Be the bigger person. If you don’t like something that someone does to you, don’t do it to others. Take a look at your behaviors and see what kind of changes could be made.

Rethink who you interact with. Not only rethink who you spend time with in person, take a look at who you text with, who you interact with online, who you “follow.” Remember – you have a say in every single person you allow into your life. 

Remember that social media is not reality. Get outside. Turn off your phone. Take a long walk and look at the trees and birds and flowers. Get offline often. Look at social media as entertainment and a way to chat with friends. Don’t use it as a source of advice. 

Have tough conversations in person. Remember when you had to call someone or talk to them in person if something was upsetting you? Get back to that place.

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