When Friendly Advice Becomes Boundary-Busting Bossiness


One of the fundamental responsibilities of parents (human and otherwise) is to teach their children to thrive in life. In the savannah, among lions, it’s called survival. In society, it’s called success.

But when you’re an Adult Survivor of a Damaged Past (ASDP), you likely learned success and survival secrets from parents and other influential adults who were from damaged pasts themselves. Some of their advice was probably faulty, at least in some areas. So you grew up with some flawed ideas about being an adult that you are now discovering might be counterproductive to your own success. Now that you’re an adult, you welcome other people’s advice and feedback to replace some of the dysfunctional lessons you received as a child.

The healthier we become as we build a life of our own, the more receptive we are for healthier advice on how we can fulfill our own potential for career performance, success, and happiness. As we seek out new opinions and insights, we eventually find that we have to learn yet another new skill – how to be open to other people’s opinions, while keeping our boundaries.

Why? Some people subconsciously – or even consciously – conclude that if we are asking them for their advice, feedback, opinions, they get to boss us around in any and all other aspects of our lives. The price of their wisdom, they believe, is our complete, abject obedience. And before we know it, we find ourselves in another relationship where we are under the control of someone else. Not everyone is going to be like this, but you will run into this dynamic at least once. And it can be confusing, disappointing, and, in some cases, downright infuriating.

The giving and taking of advice can be a tricky thing – a delicate dance where both partners are always seeking balance and solid footing. And now and then, a boundary gets stepped on. It happens to everyone, not just ASDPs.

If you’re tired of experiencing various forms of this control cycle, you might be open to this advice:

Ask Yourself: “Whose Property is This?”  

If any form of advice from anyone – no matter how respectfully offered – ruffles your feathers, the problem might be the subconscious meaning you attach to the experience of being given advice. This experience may invoke an emotional trigger.  If you grew up in a childhood where an influential adult delivered life lessons in such a way that you were made to feel bad, unworthy, or stupid, today you might have a strong negative reaction to a suggestion as benign as, “Hey, there’s a parking spot right over there.”

If you have a consistently negative reaction to any advice, this might indicate to you that it’s your “property.” (“Property” is an expression coined by codependency expert and author, Melody Beattie, to describe areas of conflict that belong to you versus areas of conflict that belong to the other person. We’ll dive into this concept in further blog posts.)  Which is, in itself, good news.

Knowledge is power, and now you have the power to neutralize this reaction. Maybe through therapy. Maybe through mindfulness practice. Maybe just practicing the conscious habit of saying to yourself, “Oh hello, Gut Reaction From the Past. This has nothing to do with the moment at hand. Thanks for your input, but I’ve got this now.”

Ask Yourself: Do I Feel that I Have the Freedom to Say, “No, Thanks” to the Boundary Buster?

We all have the freedom to say, “No thanks,” to any unwanted advice. The question here is do you feel that you have the freedom to say no without suffering some emotional punishment?

You’ve done your honest gut check, and, yup, you’ve correctly concluded that it’s the other person’s property. Okay. How bad is it? How bad is it likely to become? Under the best of circumstances, you can say to the other exactly what you might say to yourself, “Thanks for your input, but I’ve got this now.” And then the two of you focus on something else.

Under the worst of circumstances, you might have to call the relationship to an end.  You will know that time has probably come when your advisor repeatedly tries to make you feel bad, stupid or crazy (or even disobedient) for reserving the right to make up your own mind for the final decision.

Otherwise, Assume the Boundary Buster Means Well. 

Most people really do mean well. They want the best for you, and they can see where their insight or experience might support you in making a wise choice. They respect the fact that it’s up to you to decide whether or not to take their input.

Still, they have a clunky way of offering suggestions. Maybe they forget to ask for permission to weigh in with their opinion, and they just deliver it on your head like dropping heavy cargo on a dock. Or their advice is just plain wrong for you. Or you welcome their advice on one particular subject, and that subject only. And they forget that.

You like and care about them as true friends, despite this annoying trait. And you don’t want to hurt their feelings. “Thanks for your input, but I’ve got this,” spoken gently should send them the signal to back away. To soften the sting, you might quickly change the subject back to the topic that really is their expertise and ask them for their thoughts on it. This reassures them you value and respect them and their Zone of Genius.

Save Your Work-Related Mentoring Needs for Work-Related Mentors.

You’re wise to reserve your professional questions and uncertainties for mentors who have achieved their own success in specifically those areas. For instance, you may have personal friends with great furniture-arranging skills. But if they’re consistently struggling financially, they’re not the ones to talk to about salary negotiations.

Save your career, professional, and workplace feedback questions for your professional mentors. They don’t need to hear about your ASDP past to give you great advice on how to perform at your best at work. You will be left feeling over-exposed in the workplace, where you want to be respected as competent. Not only are you signaling that your own boundaries are porous, but you’re also invading theirs.

The giving and taking of advice can be a tricky thing – a delicate dance where both partners are always seeking balance and solid footing. And now and then, a boundary gets stepped on. It happens to everyone, not just ASDPs.

Just remember, you’re not alone in this feeling. That’s my last piece of advice for you here.

I hope you’ll take it. But it’s okay if you don’t.

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© 2019 Susan J. Schmitt


Bio: Susan J. Schmitt Winchester is the Senior Vice President, Chief HR Officer for Applied Materials, in Santa Clara, CA.  This article was written based on the principles from her forthcoming book, Healing at Work: The Adult Survivor’s Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve (with Martha I. Finney). Contact Susan here.

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