Should You Take Your Own Advice?

The best advice might be what you say to your younger self.

Posted Jun 18, 2019

Nik MacMillan/Unsplash
Source: Nik MacMillan/Unsplash

It was while my daughter was settled into the passenger seat—essentially trapped for the 15 minutes it would take to get home—that I gave her some advice.

She was feeling lonely and sad thanks to friend drama at school that doesn’t seem to have changed at all since I walked the seventh grade halls roughly a zillion years earlier. Didn’t feel like she was fitting in.

“Just do what feels right to you,” I said.

You know, the thing that allows you to fall asleep instead of worry? Do that thing. Be true to your values, to what’s important to you, even when it’s hard and people are telling you something different.

It’s the same thing I’ve told myself over the years when I missed the cut, chose my cancer treatment, was rejected by editors. When I waited to marry and parented differently. It is what I tell myself now when self-doubt creeps in and I feel lonely and left out and not good enough. Do what feels right to you. Be true to what’s important to you, even when it’s hard.

It’s easier now—a little. It was much more muddled when I was young and afraid.

Then, I didn’t know that I’d create a career by following what felt true, rather than what felt safe. Didn’t realize that my word alone would get me to work and that my husband and friends would love me for my quirks—not because I fit in or follow others. I didn’t know that I would overcome my biggest failures and mistakes by staying close to my values, even though at the time it would have been easier to cave. 

The advice I still tell myself, that I’m still trying to live up to, has shaped my life. Now I share it with my daughter. Maybe it will shape hers too.

What Would You Say?

What advice would you give your younger self? That’s what researchers Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord at Clemson University, wanted to know. So, they asked hundreds of people in two surveys.

Most people said they would give advice about relationships, educational opportunities, and self-worth. Often the advice offered was linked to a breakup or loss, or other pivotal, past event, something they may have regretted and want to do differently next time.

More than half of those surveyed said they now live by their own advice and that it’s helped them to become the person they wanted to be, helped them to become the kind of person they admire.

Taking our own advice then might be a way to boost our wellbeing and leave us feeling better about the lives we are living.

But the advice we give others isn't always as helpful. Often, we give advice to boost our own power and status,  according to research. Not necessarily because the recipient asked for it, or even needs it.

I never thought about it like this. I’m not slow about giving advice—though I’m working on becoming a better listener because I know how obnoxious it can be. But, I never thought it was about power. I only wanted to help. But is there some power imbalance between the helper and the one receiving the help?

Now, when I give a friend my thoughts, I stick close to these guidelines offered by psychologists:

Ask for permission, before advising. Not everyone wants or needs our perspectives. Ask, if your friend would like some advice. They might turn down your offer. But, that's OK. I’d rather deal with the rejection than offend a friend.

Offer, then let go. Nobody is obligated to follow our lead or do it our way. When cleared to share advice, best to give it as a gift. It’s up to the recipient to use (or not use) it in whatever way works for them. We are all on our own path and need the freedom to figure out just how to wander it. Best just to wish the recipient of our advice well, no matter what they do with it.

Maybe the best advice, then, is to not to give it to anyone except our younger selves. Then live close to that. Become the kind of person you admire. Living by that example might be the best way to help others.

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