I don’t want my friends’ opinions on my life. Not because I think I know anything about life, but because I don’t believe my twenty-something friends know anything about life either. Can’t we all just agree none of us know anything about anything? Advice, while usually offered with good intentions, in my experience is often the furthest thing from helpful.
I was lying in bed at 11:00 am on a Sunday morning when one of my best friends decided to give me some “tough love advice.” Well, she called it “tough love.” I called it “taking a sledgehammer to my self-esteem”. It started off innocently enough, with her asking me how my date had gone the night before. She had a habit of hounding me for every single detail of every date. I thought it was sweet that she was so interested in my life.
Then she sent me six consecutive text messages outlining why she thought the guy I was seeing was going to lose interest in me, and it suddenly didn’t seem so sweet anymore.
I was right about her being interested in my life, one would have to be, to have given so much thought to all the things I should be doing differently. She even included quotes from her boyfriend, whom she had taken the liberty of consulting on the topic, as she thought I might find a male perspective useful. His words of wisdom were “you need to step up your sex appeal.” To this day, I remain baffled as to why she thought asking her boyfriend to weigh in on my sex appeal was a good idea.
Her words were condescending, they were incredibly hurtful, and they were completely unsolicited. It had a lasting impact on both our friendship and my self-confidence. I became hesitant to share anything with her, as I was afraid of receiving more judgemental advice. I also became convinced that no guy would ever want a relationship with me; after all, even my best friend didn’t think I could keep anyone interested for more than five minutes. Her attempt at offering me guidance had seriously backfired.
After that I vowed not to give my friends advice, and believe they should do the same. This resolution was initially brought on by the fact that my friend’s recommendations resulted in a great deal of crying on my part, and I didn’t want to make anyone else feel that terrible.
However, I eventually came to conclusion that my friends and I shouldn’t be giving each other advice because we’re really not qualified to do so. My friend’s opinions on my dating life were just that – opinions. My friend was not a dating expert, and she wasn’t an expert on my life either. Yes, we spent a great deal of time together and yes, she did know me extremely well, but she still wasn’t me. Regardless of how close someone is with you, they are a different person from you. They have different priorities and different values and they view the world through a different lens than you.
A few weeks ago another friend of mine told me she was considering confessing her feelings to the person she had been secretly pining after. My internal reaction was “Oh my god, don’t do that!” This is due to my shy nature and fear of rejection, not because that’s actually what’s best for my friend. My friend is more of a “carpe diem” type of girl who thinks having no regrets is more important than maintaining your pride. In which case, she should probably go for it, and I should bite my tongue and not let my personal outlook dictate how someone else should live their life.
I understand the urge to give the people in your life advice, I find myself tempted too. We love our friends, and often we just sincerely want to help. But I firmly believe that I’m a better friend for keeping my mouth shut, and I’ve developed a few basic rules to keep me in check when it comes to advice giving.
First, I ask myself if my friend wants my opinion. I’ve found that when people are talking about a problem, they usually just want someone to listen. They’re not expecting you to offer a solution, and they’re not seeking your thoughts on the matter. The worst kind of advice of all is the unsolicited kind, so if they don’t ask for it, don’t give it.
Secondly, if a friend does explicitly ask what they should do in a situation, I answer the question with a question. I say, “What do you want to do?” and when they respond, I say “Do that”. It’s really quite amazing how well this works. When someone’s feeling overwhelmed by expectations or being pressured to act a certain way, being told to do what they want or what they think is best, can seem like a radical solution.
And if all else fails, I tell them what I would do if I was in their situation. That’s the best you can ever offer in terms of advice. For example, if a friend was to ask me if they should quit their job because they really hate it, I would say, “Well, if I were in your position, I wouldn’t quit a job without another one lined up, because I don’t like uncertainty, and it would stress me out to have no income for an indefinite period of time”.
This way, I’ve only said what I would do; I haven’t told them what they should do. I’ve also identified my priorities and reasons for why I would act that way. If their priorities match up with mine, and they find my answer helpful, that’s great. If not, then no harm done.
Obviously, there are exceptions to this. If I was genuinely concerned about someone’s health or well-being, I would speak up, and I would hope my friends would do the same for me. And my aversion to advice, doesn’t apply to minor day-to-day decisions. I still consult my friends on whether I should wear heels or flats when we go out, and I definitely needed a second opinion before I bought a baroque inspired sweater with naked baby cherubs on it.
If I wanted instructions on how to live my life, I’d open a magazine, or buy a self-help book. There are plenty of sources out there telling women how they should behave; I don’t need or want that from the people close to me. I want friends who are supportive, who are good listeners, and who will drink wine with me when I’m sad because the guy I was seeing lost interest in me, not friends who lecture me on all the things I’m doing wrong.