The Problem With Advice and What to Do Differently

Problem with advice

I know you are just trying to be helpful

Everyone has an opinion. Giving advice about how to live life feels good. For those few minutes, we become an expert at something. And we are reassured that in at least one area of our life, we have it under better control than someone else. Unfortunately that is the problem of advice–we feel better while the hurting person is left in rough shape.

My life went to hell

Since my life went to hell five years ago, I’ve gotten lots of advice. In those short span of years, I became widowed, remarried quickly, and am now divorced. Sometimes it feels like I’m people’s personal charity case. Oh, I know it’s all a form of love and care — that my loved ones don’t want to see life dish me more pain. I get it. Totally.

I get the most comments on my love life. I can’t imagine what it was like to witness my first marriage end with the death of my husband. My in-laws lost a son and brother. My own family lost a family member and saw their daughter/sister lose all the familiarity of her life. And the clients in my private counseling practice lost their therapist.

With one diagnosis, my whole world came apart.

Everyone lost, especially me.

Use of silence for protection

And then it seemed like my world had righted itself. It appeared I had met and married the man of my dreams.

For two years, however, I hid the truth something was terribly wrong. My new husband was a serial cheater who lived a duplicitous life. I knew if I shared what was going on, there would be an onslaught of outrage. Calls for me to leave him before I was ready. So I said nothing.

People’s intense love for me kept me silent. I felt muzzled and unable to tell the truth. I didn’t have the energy to fight two fronts — my troubled marriage and my well-meaning and opinionated social support system. So, I said nothing until it was over.

Lots of questions

Now, I’m looking into the future with lots of questions. And I’m coping with my new reality.

And it is this: I’m entirely on my own and by myself.

Since last summer I’ve been living alone. For the first time since I married at the age of 21, there’s no one in my life. My bed is left the way I made it in the morning. My dishes from last night still sit on my kitchen counter. The toilet seat is always down now.

My whole world is comprised of me.

I’m also self-employed, which, of course, means I work from home. So every day, I set my own schedule for my team of one — me! If I don’t make an effort to connect (now online or by video chat), it’s easy for me to see no one else for days.

Living my worst fear

Here’s a secret I’ve been keeping to myself — I’m living my worst fear.

This reality has been what I’ve dreaded. I’ve rarely talked about it. It has sounded too weak to admit out loud, so I’ve kept it to myself. I’ve nursed it privately.

Near the end of my last marriage, I finally found the courage to bring this fear up to my therapist for all of one session. I don’t remember what she said, but I could tell she didn’t understand.

Few people find themselves utterly alone, where they live by themselves and are self-employed with no coworkers. Currently single households account for 28% of the US population, and 33% of the US workforce are self-employed. The number of singles working for themselves is a much smaller unreported number. Thus, I’m in a unique position.

I remember how I mentally checked out as I sat across from my therapist on that beige couch in her small home office. As I heard her advice, I knew she wasn’t getting it. She didn’t understand the profound isolation I’d face if I left my troubled marriage. I never brought up the subject again.

That’s how much I feared this reality. It was that painful.

I’m coping

So far, I’m coping with living alone, and it hasn’t been as bad as I feared. On the other hand, I can’t imagine another 20 to 30 years of this. I hope that won’t be the case. That I’ll build a community of friends here — a new family. But I also would love to be in a new relationship.

The type of advice I hear

Here’s the kind of advice I hear if I bring any of this up:

“It’s important not to rush healing, Kerry. You need to wait before you get involved with someone new,” others say.

“How long?” I ask.

“You’ll know,” they reply.

“Know what? What will I know?” I ask.

“You’ll just know — when you’re ready,” they say as a knowing smile spreads across their face.

“Well, I feel ready now,” I reply, feeling frustrated with their cryptic message.

The experts on grief respond, “If you’ve asked when you’ll be ready, then it’s too soon!” Those who advise the newly divorced chime in with, “It’s important to wait one year for every four years of marriage.”

“To what end?” I ask.

“To give yourself time to heal,” the grief experts reply. The divorce gurus say, “Until you are okay with being on your own, and you’ve figured out the part you played in the marriage’s failure.”

I shake my head in confusion in response to the comments of the grief group. To the divorce gurus, I stifle replying that it’s hard to be at fault for a marriage built on a well-crafted lie. If I was to blame for anything in that second relationship, it was for staying too long.

We all want to be helpful, but here’s the problem with advice

All the advice-giving makes sense, though. I get it because I do it too.

It’s hard to remember, whenever I feel that familiar pull to be helpful, to ask myself, “Will this piece of advice make this person’s life better or worse?” Then I need to follow it up with, “Will my suggestion encourage further openness or emotional withdrawal?” I feel such a desire to help that it’s almost a compulsion. I want to make life better for my hurting family or friend.

Then it hits me.

It’s never been about me feeling better, but rather about my loved one feeling heard.

It will get better for me

As far as me — I wish there were easy answers to my current situation. That I could snap my fingers and have an instant new “tribe.” You and I both know that will take time and effort. I need to slowly create a new life for myself here in my new hometown. My current situation will change and most likely for the better.

After all, I’m a survivor. I always have been — that hasn’t changed.

In the meantime, you want to help me?

What to help?

The most helpful thing you can do is:

  • Let me know you’re not going anywhere. You are here to stay.
  • Remain patient as you hear me retell my same old stories as I try to get my feet back underneath me.
  • And, let me know you won’t stop caring, as demonstrated by your patient listening.

And with you by my side, I know I’ll make my way towards a better future.

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