How Not To Give Good Advice

I’ve been on a run of books lately that all deal with heartbreak and grief. In one a man flies aimlessly around the world for two years, unable to come to terms with the loss of his beloved. In another, an otherwise staid headmaster takes off his clothes and walks naked through a snowy Central Park, in what turns out to be the last of a series of hallucinations produced by an unhinged mind. In a third, we don’t know what happened, only that there was an ominous silence in the story for six years. I’m not sure if the gods of literature are trying to make me feel better or worse about my son, who is still often lost and lacking direction after his brush with heartbreak. The novels are all in agreement, however, about the state of mourning love: the mourner needs people and pushes them away, he wants to do things but cannot summon the energy, there is a blank absence of purpose and nothing makes much sense. Many people give well-meant but infuriating advice, larded with the usual platitudes.

The latter has been me, it seems, lately. Honestly, you’d think I’d never dealt with a troubled student before in my life. For four years, I calmly accepted whatever the students threw at me in terms of personal problems and I barely flinched. I felt great compassion, usually, for their struggles and a firm, steady belief that they would get past them and find their way again. In fact, I was generally convinced that what they were doing in their personal wilderness would turn out to be very valuable in the long run. As painful as their experiences might be, it was quite likely they were losing comfortable illusions that really didn’t do them any good, and getting closer to the inconvenient truth of who they were. In other words, they were growing up.

But when it’s my son who’s miserable, it feels completely different. Here I am, instantly exhorting him to buck up and feel better, to try something new and take a chance, all things that frankly you have to be feeling strong to even comtemplate doing. Forget taking the time it takes to heal, I want him back up on his feet right now, or yesterday, ideally. We fell out on the phone at the start of the week because he was expressing a feeling that he had no future, and I was instantly trying to point out how ridiculous such a statement was, coming from a 19-year-old. And I really should know better! If I had forgotten that we calculate the future by taking a snapshot of the past, I should remember at least that when we feel properly miserable, the only way forward is one day at a time, or a half-day on the bleak stretches.

What becomes very clear to me is that when we say ‘Buck up’, we are really saying, please take your pain out of the public view because it is causing me discomfort. And we’re also saying, a little bit, I am superior, because if it were me, I would recover quicker and easier than you are doing; I wouldn’t make such a fuss. Things, in other words, that are designed to make us feel better, and have nothing to do with the person who’s sad. The nicest interpretation of the buck-up is that sometimes we have to hold a positive image of the other person’s strengths while they have temporarily lost access to it. And sometimes we can remind them of all the possibilities and opportunities that they still possess. But the main thing that study support taught me – and which I seem daily to forget – is that healing emotions and minds is exactly like healing physical ailments. If you’ve broken a leg, you can’t just get up and walk on it, there’s a process to be gone through. If you’ve broken a heart, there’s all sorts of feelings that can’t be accessed until the time is right for them.

But this is much easier to accept when you are not invested in the life and happiness of the person who suffers. I am caught by my longing for my son to feel happy again, because I love him and I hate the fact he’s sad. I would do anything to make him better. In fact, the one saving grace of late is that when I have clumsily counselled him and he has got mad at me, it does seem to relieve some of his feelings. I find this reassuring – I can mess up and yet somehow this turns out to be okay! When I’m feeling sensible, I do realise this is the extent of my possible involvement, as the most powerful thing he can do is to rescue himself. In the meantime, I have plenty of novels reminding me of this, though once I’ve finished the one I’m reading, I may look for something with jokes. It seems there’s only so much good advice that anyone can take.

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39 thoughts on “How Not To Give Good Advice

  1. That was beautiful and all too true. Sometimes I think mothering is so much more about times like you describe than what we did when they were babies.

    I am thrilled with your Shiny New Books and busy adding to what I want to read. I do hope, though, that you will include some global books. I have so many exciting and excellent ones. And they are not as hard to obtain as I had imagined. I am not pushing you to include my reviews. I find it difficult to write well about the really good ones. But I have lots to suggest you read and write about.

    • I never thought I’d look back on the time when he was a baby and think how easy that was in comparison! You are quite right – these are the tough mothering times. I’d love to know your recommendations for SNB, and if you’re interested in reviewing for us, please do say! That would be great.

  2. It’s really hard to deal with things when they’re happening to your own family. It’s taken my son about a year to really come to terms with his break up, although I’m not sure that he has completely, and he still hasn’t really decided what direction his life should go in now – and he’s 26! I hope your son heals soon – although I agree it will be gradual – and I think some funny books might certainly help your state of mind a bit! Sending empathy your way!

    • I have found your comments so helpful on this issue, as it’s so reassuring to think we’re not the only ones going through this – even though I wish fervently that neither of us were! I do hope your son finds exactly the right thing for him; sounds like he deserves it. And thank you for assuring me this is a slow process. You’re right I could do with some funny books – that would make a very nice change of pace.

  3. I’m sorry he’s still sad! You’re so right that it’s much easier to let things alone when your own happiness is not so directly invested. I’m curious: is your son someone who finds reading helpful at a time like this — either things that sort of model the process of grief and recovery he’s going through (or perhaps provide a cathartic extreme?) or, to take your own suggestion for yourself, things to make him laugh?

    • Funnily enough, we had just this conversation the other day. He is reading a little bit more but he much prefers film and television to books (alas!). He has been watching a lot of Japanese anime, and we’ve both been watching The Mentalist. I’d be delighted to pass on any good television or film recommendations, though. He will happily watch anything!

  4. The difference between giving advice to your students and to your son is that you can always walk away from the students. You may do so with an aching heart and I’m sure there were many times when you spent hours wondering how they were and whether or not you’d laid before them the right course of action but ultimately you could walk away from them and, as important, if they walked away from you you weren’t going to feel that bad about it. In this situation, the only thing worse than the fact that you neither can nor would ever want to walk away from your son is the possibility that you might do or say something that causes him to walk away from you. No wonder it cause you so much anguish. There is no way I can help, other than saying I feel your pain and sending hugs and cuddles from our end but those I send in abundance.

    • Well you’re quite right – I’m afraid that if I don’t help him, things will get worse because he has so little in the way of a support network in London. And I’m afraid of meddling in case it annoys him too much! With the students I knew there were lots of other pastoral care possibilities for them and I believed vaguely in the existence of helpful friends and family – my poor son doesn’t have very much of any of these extra helpers right now and that does make it tricky. Thank you for the hugs!

  5. The best way I’ve found to support others in their times of difficulty is to divest myself from their outcomes. It is their struggle, their sadness, and their pain, not mine. When my own mother over-involves herself with my struggles and gets upset on my behalf, I find this a double burden: I’m sad, and now I’ve made her sad also. Your best gift to your son might be to not let his sadness become your own. Tell him you love him regardless, you believe in him and his ability to find his way clear, and you are always hopeful for his good health and return to happiness. And then you go on with your own life.

    Best wishes to you both.

    • Oh believe me, I wouldn’t dream of giving him my emotions to deal with on top of his own. I’m glad to have this blog, which is my ‘backstage’, where I can get things off my chest and think things through in private (or at least my kind of private). I certainly tell him all those things, but I do find it very hard not to worry when I’ve put the phone down.

  6. >>>What becomes very clear to me is that when we say ‘Buck up’, we are really saying, please take your pain out of the public view because it is causing me discomfort.

    It’s true. I gave up on things in the “buck up” genre a few years ago and switched over to saying “Poor you! That is awful! Poor you!” and then talking about short-term things. But it is so extremely hard when someone you love is suffering, to know what to say. When you know that the only cure for what ails them is time, it is depressing to be so helpless.

    • See now that is exactly the right response – lots of sympathy and then short-term stuff. I should write that down where I can see it! You’re so right that it’s time that will make the difference, and one does wonder what to do to fill that in useful ways. Once again, I can’t really make any suggestions – it’s much better if he can think of them (and he can’t because he’s sad, and round we go). Thank you for being so understanding and insightful!

  7. It’s so different when you are not invested, isn’t it? The amount of pain that you feel when someone close to you is in pain and you can’t work out how to make it better.

    On a lighter note to do with suffering students, part of my ex’s job is the hauling in of students who are in danger of failing their degrees. It’s always the same ones who seem to be on an academic death wish and unable to get down to any work and their lists of earnest faced excuses can be quite an invention. One very sorry for himself student topped off his list of woes with “… and then my flatmate tried to hack his arm off!”

    • It’s true! 90% of a tutor’s work is taken up by 5% of the students. That is quite the excuse for not being able to work! I remember one tutorial meeting in which we discussed the plight of two students, one of whom had tried to stab the other with a fork. If only they were always so inventive in their work! And yes, you’re so right, it’s not being able to do anything about the person you love’s pain that is itself so painful. You get it.

  8. 1) Leave him be. He’ll come to you if he feels like it. Moms aren’t always the solution; that’s why God gave you mates and pints.
    2) Unless he asks (you specifically), your advice is not needed. If he feels like shit, let him. If he asks what he should do, offer the following: “I dunno, what do you think?” “I dunno. You wanna go get a cheeseburger?” If he absolutely insists on a solution from you, offer him, “I remember what I did; would you like to hear?” That’s it. No more, no less.
    3) It isn’t your problem, so stop approaching him as if it is.
    4) Get on with YOUR life.
    5) If all he does is repeat himself and whine for hours, set the phone down, do some dishes, some dusting, a crossword; just remember to pick up the receiver once in a while and verbally nod as if your listening, “Mmm hmm, yes, of course.” That’s key. It’s okay to abandon him in favor of real-life problems, but he can’t know you’re doing it.
    Oh, and buck up ;)

    • Heh you crack me up – this is ironic, right? In the light of the post and its title? With regard to your first point, though, the main difficulty (or one of them) is that in the split, his girlfriend got to keep their friends. We are both quite aware that if he had easy access to mates then he wouldn’t have to fall back on me for support. I did leave him be for the first two months, but then he told me that he was upset at the way he seemed to always be the one reaching out and no one got in touch with him. So I have got in touch more lately.

      Oh and one teeny thing – he IS part of my life. Not all of it by any means, but an important part. Ask your mum whether she thinks you constitute part of her life and whether she ever worries about you – I’d be curious to know her answer!

  9. Fathering is just as much a challenge as mothering, but it seems that mainly female parents comment on this post. There is certainly something in the first item on “the modernidiot” list to ponder seriously. I personally have always used a few (long suffering no doubt) friends when this sort of thing has happened to me. Lisa Shaw sums it up excellently but I wonder if you are selfish enough to take her good advice though?

    Hugs, P x

    • It’s quite intriguing, after writing a post about how good advice is so often not the best way to comfort someone, that I am on the end of so much good advice here! As I mention to the Modernidiot, he’s rather without a friend base at the moment due to the split and that in itself is causing him a lot of distress. I really wish he had more friends around that he could talk to – as does he! I really hope he is lucky enough to find some new ones soon. Thank you for the encouragement!

      • I offered advice from my own selfish heart; whether it is good I cannot say but it has saved my sanity and probably someone’s life. You’ll understand a little more from my PM. x

      • I think you are being a very good friend – as are all my blog friends here. I think the urge to help each other out in hard times is one of the loveliest parts of human nature, and it seems such a shame that people are so hard to help (me included!). Ever since I began the study support job I’ve been most curious to understand what constitutes good help, and my post was trying to say that even when we know what we ‘ought’ to do, the doing is hard! But that doesn’t devalue the trying, and I do appreciate all attempts to be helpful.

  10. Your post, and what Dark Puss and Lisa Shaw have written, reminds me of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw It’s a short YouTube vid about the difference between empathy and sympathy and I’ve never understood the difference more clearly than from watching it. (Irritating ads precede it, but persevere!) Fundamentally it says exactly what you write, litlove: ‘Please take your pain out of the public view [please take it away from me] because it’s causing me discomfort.’ But it’s exactly that discomfort that – if we feel it with the other person – will help them know they’re not alone and that we know nothing can be done until it can be done.

    • This is it exactly – it hurts until it doesn’t stop hurting and there’s not much to be done but acknowledge that. I find I’m not very good at walking away from the conversation and letting the
      aftermath of that empathy drop away from me. It stays with me in ways I don’t quite understand, or know what to do with. But I really do want to help, and if that’s the way to do it, then I certainly will stick with it. Thank you for the link!

  11. This resonates so very keenly for us as we grieve the end of a thirty something child’s marriage. The impulse to fix things is so intense as you describe. And only today we agreed that we fled as though we were dealing with emotional concussion ourselves. The problems had been masked by incredibly civilised behaviour and the dissolution so sudden to us feels like a collision with a bus

    Again your writing touches on something so painfully relevant and throws a warm and healing light. Hope some of the wonderful comments here from others offer the same for you

    • Thank you for your lovely comment, Queenofthepark. My heart goes out to you, as your situation sounds so redolent of my own. Gosh it’s tough, isn’t it? I appreciate your solidarity enormously, and I love your line about emotional concussion. That is SO perfect. Hugs to you – we’ll all get through this in time, and let’s cross our fingers it won’t be TOO much time!

  12. I didn’t comment before as I couldn’t think of anything constructive to say at the time, but having seen some of the conversations and your comment about his girlfriend getting to keep most of the friends… When I split from my ex, I was, in addition to being sad/cross with him, also very angry with the woman whom I had thought to be my best friend for choosing him, and cutting herself off from me completely. As I have done, he will make new friends in time. And you’ll always be there for him when he needs you.

    • This is exactly what my son is going through, I think. He feels betrayed by his old friends – and really it is a bit daft of them. Standing outside of it, I can say good riddance to the people who don’t stand by us, but it doesn’t feel like that at all on the other side. I am so glad you have made new and better friends (including your SNB mates!). It’s just such a shame these things have to be gone through at all.

  13. I read this one in the 90’s I believe so my thoughts about it are a bit lost in the past. However, I also found her to be very brave to tell her story and am also amazed that so few criticized her father but said she was terrible to write the book. On another note, I hope the young people coming home from the pubs will find another way to amuse themselves.

    • I thought she was a very brave writer to tackle the subject too, and the criticisms amazed me. Thank you for your kind words – gosh, I really hope so too!

  14. I suspect one of the most difficult things in this life is to have a person you love dearly suffering and not be able to make them better and I imagine it is especially hard when that person is one’s own child. We feel so helpless don’t we? My best friend and her husband are on the verge of divorce and my friend seems so resigned to it and so sad and there is nothing I can do to help but lend and ear and by sympathetic and it breaks my heart.

    Definitely, you need to find some uplifting reading where people fall in love happily ever after or some other impossibly wonderful thing happens.

    • See this is why you are one of my best blog friends – I need uplifting books, why didn’t I think of that? A bit of impossibly wonderful would go down a treat. I am SO sorry for your best friend and her husband. Divorce is the pits. And yes that’s exactly how I feel – I long to help but it’s really hard to find a way. I’m sure that just being there for your friend will mean the world to her (and I do hope in time my son will feel similarly about his parents!).

  15. I am in awe of all the good advice you’ve received in the comments here. I have no good advice to offer, but I very much understand how painful and frustrating it is for you to watch your son suffering and not be able to mend it. As someone with a mother who, though lovely, is ALWAYS full of good advice on all aspects of my life, I can assure you that even when someone is telling you a variant on the ‘buck up’ or a platitude, you do know that it’s because they care and that does make you feel a bit better. Nothing is wasted. :)

    • Helen, you always bring a smile to my face, no matter what the circumstances! You are a gem. I will tell myself that the next time (and undoubtedly there will be a next time) when I give unwelcome good advice! :)

  16. I think it’s the hardest thing to leave yourself out of any kind of advice you give. I think I’m often the most empathic when I just say nothing, only listen.

    • It is really hard, isn’t it? I think it’s impossible not to translate what you hear into your own experience – but recollected in tranquility as they say, and so very far away from what someone is suffering in the moment. I really must remember to keep more quiet!

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