I had dinner last night with a psychological-minded writer who regularly uses her own experience to write utterly delightful books full of good advice-yet was stumbling over a complex relationship problem of her own. Oh, how I related to that!!! So-being an advice columnist-I gave her some advice, but not the kind that you think. I didn't oracularly deliver The Solution to her problem. Instead I suggested how she might find the answer. Because it's how I do it, and I thought that if it works for me, it might work for her. Actually, I think it has considerable utility for everyone.
I write a letter to an advice columnist-who in this case just happens to be myself. It's not the answer that winds up being so fabulous and wonderful; it's the process. The exercise of putting my problem into words intelligible to a third party creates the opening wedge of emotional distance that's so necessary for solving any problem, and especially personal ones. But most of all, I have to state my problem concisely (as if it were to be published). Instead of three pages of he said, she said detail (of which I get plenty from real questioners) a certain level of generalization and abstraction is forced upon me. And that requires some analytical thinking. Et voila! I'm soon into a mode of separating the strands of the issues and seeing things more clearly, if painfully. That doesn't mean I always follow some perfect course of action, as if there were one. What it does mean is that I can know myself better, choose to do what most closely expresses my values-or choose to do nothing at all. Sometimes just defusing the emotional crisis is enough relief, at least for a while. I'm a great believer that once the emotional urgency dissipates, solutions reveal themselves on their own, often in the course of everyday life.
So now I'm sitting here wondering: Did I just put myself out of business as an advice columnist?