Listen to yourself!

When facing an important life decision about relationships and other personal issues, it’s often best to consider your own advice first. After all, YOU spend all of your time with yourself, so who’s better suited to know what’s right when handling a difficult situation?

Recently, I spoke with a friend who regretted breaking off a relationship too soon. ‘It’s my own fault,’ she said. She had listened to her friends’ opinions and chose to give them more weight than her own. When she asked my opinion, I just told her to do what she thought was right, and to let it play out. It’s better to make your own mistakes — and maybe even learn from them — than to do what may or may not be the right thing in blind obedience to another.

When following advice, it’s also important to consider the source. I don’t mean this cynically. If someone gives me advice, I generally assume they have my best interests at heart. But it’s important to remember that the advice-giver can only tell you what he or she would do in that situation. There are two problems with that: First, we can’t always know for sure what we’ll do unless we’re in that position. Second, just because I might make a certain decision doesn’t mean you should too.

Be wary if someone takes it upon him- or herself to suggest a specific course of action regarding something important like a job, career or spouse. You don’t have to immediately assume they don’t mean well, but you do have to accept that he or she is, in effect, asking you to renounce your own judgment. There’s a big difference between telling an adult, ‘Do this,’ and just saying, ‘Well, if it were me I’d do this, and here’s why’.’ I prefer advice from people who do the second, not the first.

Sometimes the best role to play in these situations is that of a ‘sounding board.’ Years ago, I talked with a friend about whether I should go to psychotherapy school or law school. Interestingly enough (I will always remember this), she never told me what to do. She just said, ‘It sounds like what you’re really most passionate about is therapy. I don’t hear the passion from you about law school.’ Rather than telling me what to do, she simply fed back what she honestly heard. It registered well with me — and she was right.

One of the biggest causes of anxiety and depression is self-doubt. We spend all of our time with our own mind and then we don’t trust it! The purpose for seeing a psychotherapist or similar professional is not to find someone to tell you what to do. You can get that for free — without appointments or insurance companies. Real help, professional or not, consists of finding someone who will listen carefully to you and offer feedback. You might be saying contradictory things, wanting two things that are incompatible, or you could be at cross-purposes with yourself. Your objective ‘sounding board’ will most probably see this before you do. This is why it’s sometimes good to talk things out and not go it alone. Notice that it’s not the same as someone making your decisions for you.

There’s lots of information out there about how to give or take advice, and some of it is actually good. Uzi Weingarten, an expert on ‘Communicating With Compassion’ recommends three things when giving advice: (1) listen first, (2) ask permission, and (3) offer without insisting. This makes good sense. The advice-giver should care about the advice and about the person to whom he/she is offering it, but there should be no other agenda. In a way, it’s like searching for the truth. ‘Here’s the truth as I see it, and here are the facts and reasoning that back up what I think.’ When advice-givers haven’t thought out their reasoning (or maybe have their own hidden agenda), they’ll try to replace reasoning with pressure and coercion. If you sense that, be suspicious of the ‘advice’ you’re getting!

After all the talk is finished, it’s your responsibility to go off by yourself and ask, ‘What do I think of this? And what do I think of how it was presented to me?’ Yes, this is more work than blindly following another’s real (or alleged) wisdom. But if you want to avoid feelings of anxiety, depression, or just plain old self-doubt, you owe it to yourself to think critically about who’s telling you what to do — and why.

Sometimes it’s not even advice we want or need. Friends and clients often tell me, ‘Thanks for giving words to what I wanted to do in the first place.’ A good listener possesses the skill to briefly and clearly summarize the essential points and then offer a constructive ‘short-cut’ to an effective resolution. A lot of value can be gained from a friend or a professional who knows how to do this well. By NOT telling you what to do, they help clear the path for you to consult your own head — and then pay attention to what it has to offer.