A few days ago, I was mulling over a problem that had kept me awake the night before, when my friend Seamus offered to listen and provide some advice.
The nature of the problem was such that I wasn’t sure he would be able to be objective enough to really help me, and I told him so. Which was the start of a lengthy conversation about advice, specifically the quality of advice, that well-intentioned friends and family members often provide.
Seamus and I talked about how, sometimes, you have a problem for which there doesn’t seem to be anyone who could reasonably be expected to offer an objective opinion, either due to their own current circumstances, past experiences, present feelings toward you, general world view, etc. Indeed, every time each of us opens our mouth or strikes a keyboard to offer advice, our words are, however unintentionally, colored by something. Most of us are not really capable of entirely objective advice-giving (although, I should probably add that Seamus comes pretty close).
Since that conversation with Seamus, I have been contemplating the ways in which we seek out advice. Most often it seems that we seek only targeted advice — that advice which will most firmly support our current beliefs. This might mean finding those friends who will “take our side” in an argument or conflict, or it could mean seeking out those who believe as we do and so will validate our point of view.
The blogging world is particularly guilty of this, in my opinion. What is frequently appreciated as “support” is arguably more accurately described as affirmation or validation. “Support” connotes a general concern for a person’s well-being; not simply a validation of their position on a particular matter. I think most of us would agree that a truly good friend is one who “supports” us, but doesn’t always validate us. That truth doesn’t seem to hold as true in the cyber world. It would seem that here, dissension is somewhat akin to betrayal, which strikes me as very odd, to be honest, given that the anonymity afforded us here would suggest the potential for greater honesty rather than less.
Seeking advice from only those who will support our current belief structure not only undermines our positive personal growth, but — to me, at least — begins to resemble co-dependency. Not in the addiction-related sense, but in the sense that it encourages or enables that which is not good for us. Surrounding ourselves with people who validate our negative thoughts, anger, or fears is the simplest means of ensuring that those aspects of ourselves stick around.
Not too long ago, I had a friend accuse me of not being supportive of her new relationship. From her perspective, because I was pointing out aspects of their relationship that I felt might be of concern to her later, I was not adequately supporting her happiness and the potential she saw in the relationship. I seriously considered her accusation, but decided that, given a do-over, I would do the same thing again. To me, being a loyal friend does not include being a Yes-Girl. When asked, I will offer my most honest advice and not be offended or hurt if it is disregarded. But I will not lie to or placate anyone I love with false advice.
Nobody likes hearing the tough stuff — sometimes the truth really stings, for sure. Validation feels so much better. And I think that most of us tend to engage in this kind of collective co-dependency when we are most lost or hurt or frightened. But that is precisely when we most need honesty and support, rather than simple validation.
I’m not talking about the brutal kind of advice that comes off feeling vaguely condescending or smarmy or self-serving. I’m talking about sincere, heartfelt counsel intended to point out a new perspective or nudge us in a better, healthier direction. Even if we chose not to follow such advice, the consideration of it can only serve us well, requiring us to examine our commitment to our current path, and whether that path is leading us toward our ultimate goals… or away from them.
During our conversation, Seamus reminded me that, as grown-ups, we have the luxury of receiving and considering advice, its source, and the filter(s) through which it was delivered. Then we get to do with it what we want. We are permitted to examine the possible colorations that influenced the advice-giver and factor those into our determination of the advice’s value. Indeed, not all advice is created equal; nor do we need to treat it so.
This reminded me of a conversation I had recently with my friend Katrina, who got very angry with me because of some time I had spent with James. I listened carefully to her concerns; given that she is patently incapable of any meanness of any kind, her fury resembles that of an angry bee buzzing around, threatening to sting, rather than anything hurtful or unkind. Her feelings on my choices did not change my mind, but I was extraordinarily grateful that we have the kind of friendship that allows her to speak her mind clearly to me and apparently without hesitation. Of course, it would have been nice to have had her validation, but her concern for my well-being is so much more valuable to me. I will gladly suffer my friends’ approbation when it stems from their sincere love for me and desire for my happiness. And, to be truthful, given that I am frequently the bearer of unwelcome advice, it would be terribly hypocritical of me to not receive and consider hers in kind. But, I am permitted to hear her out and then do precisely what I want to do. It’s my prerogative and one that I freely exercise. And I expect my friends to do the same.
Indeed, about a year ago, when Katrina asked my opinion about flying off for a romantic weekend with an old flame, I implored her not to go, explaining that I thought she needed to get a better sense of where he was trying to go with the relationship first. She ignored me and bought her ticket (which is, of course, what we would all probably do), and from that moment, I was her cheerleader. If she was jumping in after hearing my advice, well then I wasn’t there to rain on her parade, but to hope right alongside her that she and her guy found their happy ending. And when the happy ending crashed and burned? I didn’t feel the slightest pleasure in being vindicated… only grief and sadness alongside her own. Because the point wasn’t whether she took my advice; it was only ever whether she was happy.
I guess the bottom line is that advice is only as good as its source, and different sources are valuable at different times. But validation isn’t always support, and dissension isn’t always disloyalty. Hearing what your friends and family have to say, and then listening to your spirit for guidance is still the best approach for any of us, I think. Because, after all, it is only us who has to truly live with the outcome.
Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame. ~ Erica Jong