Categorized | Self-Development

What kind of advice are you looking for?

"Many seek advice, few profit from it." Publius Syrus (42 BC)

All of us ask advice for our problems, looking for the magic bullet that will guide us in the right direction, or help us to find the right solution to our problem. Most people want concrete advice that will help them to solve the details of their problem. In fact, most people consider advice to be specific suggestions about what they should do. Feedback that challenges our view of the problem, or asks us to examine our motivations require that we reflect more deeply.  This, may make us uncomfortable. You may have thought you were merely asking a friend for some quick feedback, only to get a “stop and think first” response.  This kind of advice can be threatening to hear, and tempting to quickly discard, as it asks you to “stop and think”, rather than suggests things you can do to solve your problem.

For me, helpful advice is the kind that directs me to look within first. I remember telling a friend that I wanted to confront a family member about an issue.  I was angry and wanted to give it to this family member, and good.  When I asked my friend about it, she asked me what I hoped would come by confronting this person.  As I thought about it, I realized that my true intention was for this person to feel bad and to change. I didn’t like admitting this, but it was true.  When I acknowledged this to my friend, she asked me if I thought that result was likely to happen.  Was this family member likely to be open to my feedback and change?  It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was extremely unlikely that they’d respond in this way.

After thinking more about it, I decided not to confront my family member.  I’m thankful that I took my friend’s advice and took an honest look in the mirror at my motivation before acting.  My friend’s advice was not instructing me to “go do this,” but rather her advice was to take a look at my motivation and intentions in wanting to confront my family member.  Sometimes “go do this” advice is the right thing to suggest, but I believe “stop and think first” advice is more often helpful, especially at first.

I’m glad that my friend got me to stop and think about my true intentions.  If I’d gone ahead and acted without thinking, I risked hurting my family member and also frustrating myself.  It wouldn’t have been helpful to either one of us.

In order to profit from advice, you have to first look at yourself in the mirror.  You have to honestly evaluate what you hope to get out of a situation and your reasons for wanting to act.  When we’re defensive, this prevents us from taking an honest look in the mirror.  It can be difficult to accurately assess feedback that we receive, when we’re threatened.  And let’s face it, it’s threatening to receive feedback that we don’t want to hear.  You may feel criticized or think that someone is making you out to be the “bad guy”, so that you feel too threatened to consider what is being said to you.

It’s much easier on our self-esteem to get feedback that mirrors what we want to hear. For example, my friend Steve recently told me that he was seething with anger.  I asked him what he meant.  Steve said that a number of people had offered him unsolicited personal feedback with the intention to assist him in his personal growth.  Steve didn’t tell me what the exact feedback was, but he was wary of their true intentions, and did not feel like they were genuinely trying to help him.  Steve reacted defensively and rejected the feedback, because he felt like they were just being critical of him.

Were these “helping people” truly trying to help my friend out of the goodness of their hearts?  Or were they taking out some axe to grind upon the grindstone of my friend?  You will want to feel confident that someone giving you advice is truly trying to help you.  When you’re doubtful that an advice-giver truly has you’re your best interests in mind, you’ll be understandably suspicious.  Many of us believe we see clearly another person’s shortcomings, and we offer feedback and unsolicited advice to help them out, or to direct them upon the “correct” path.  However, sometimes we fool ourselves into believing we’re merely trying to help, when actually we’re trying to work something out from within ourselves.  Whatever we don’t own within ourselves, we project out onto other people.  This means that whatever aspect of ourselves we don’t acknowledge as true about us, we disown and place onto someone else as if it were the other person’s issue.

The best use of feedback is assistance to more fully know ourselves.  All of us have parts of ourselves that we try to forget about, pushing them out of awareness.  The most helpful feedback for me rarely involves receiving advice about what to do.  What helps me most is when a supportive friend holds a metaphorical mirror up for me to see what’s truly me, so that I can own it and see that it’s me.  A friend that is being honest with himself and knows himself well is best able to offer me an accurate look at myself.  That is, a friend who sees most of them self can help me to see myself more clearly.  A friend whose motivation is primarily to help me, not primarily to work out some issue of their own is the friend most prepared to assist me in taking an honest look in the mirror.

The most beneficial part of my training as a psychologist has been my own personal therapy.  Many aspects of my training were helpful, but nothing even close to as helpful as my therapy.  In therapy I came to face myself, and to address what I found.  I came to see more and more clearly what my issues are, as well as my motivations and intentions.  And I realized that I had many blind spots!  The more clearly I come to know myself, the more clearly I can see my clients.  The more I hold onto blind spots, the more blindly I see my clients.

When I first began practicing as a psychologist in training, I can remember being provoked by many clients that were involved in some kind of control struggle.  In some cases, they were attempting to control someone else, and in other cases, someone else was successfully controlling them.  I remember being angered by these clients.  And in retrospect, my feedback to these clients about how to stop the control had less to do with their concerns, and more to do with me and my control issue.  After I got into my own therapy and addressed my own feelings about being controlled, then I became more able to own what’s me, and thus more able to help my clients with their issues.  I had to acknowledge my own control issue before I could help anyone else with their control struggle.

The more of me that I own and see clearly, the more whole I become.  Maybe this is what it means to be “holy”.  The more of me that I disown and try to forget about, the more of me that I project out onto others.  In fact anything within me that is not owned, I will put onto others.  My friend did not believe these people were trying to help him see and own more of himself.  It’s possible that he was being defensive in the face of honest, helpful feedback.  It’s also possible that these people were trying to forget about part of themselves and putting into onto my friend’s face.

My good friends know that I want them to tell me the truth.  Yes, I want to feel supported and encouraged, but I hope my friends also know that I don’t want this support at the expense of truth.  In fact, if I have a blind spot, I rely on my friends to help me to see it.

I remember a time when I felt overwhelmed with too much work.  I didn’t feel able to accomplish all that my boss was asking me to do.  I was angry and planned to confront him on giving me too much work, and to ask for a reduction of workload.  I thought my boss was doing this to me, making me overworked.  Fortunately, I sat down with a good friend first, and told him what I planned to say.  He told me that I came across demanding and blaming my boss.

At first I felt defensive, and wanted to protest his feedback.  I’m thankful that I decided to give myself some time and consider my friend’s feedback.  After thinking about it, I realized that he was right.  I planned to approach my boss in a manner that was likely to anger him and put him on his heels.  I did blame my boss for my problem.  I realized that I wasn’t taking much responsibility for my dilemma.  I decided to make use of my friend’s feedback and took a different approach to my boss.  I told him that I felt overwhelmed with my job duties, that I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and that I’d like his support in decreasing my workload to a more manageable level.  My boss readily agreed.  I doubt I would have received the same response if I’d confronted my boss without consulting my friend.  My friend helped me to take a good look in the mirror, linger there long enough to see clearly, and then make use of what I saw.  You see, I only profited from the feedback by taking a lingering look in the mirror and carefully considering what I saw.

Let’s look at a common example- depression.  Addressing depression without addressing the cause is like taking Advil for a fever.  What does Advil do?  It lowers the fever, but without addressing the cause of the fever.  I’m not a medical person, but I’ve been told that infections cause fevers.  In order to fully address a fever, the infection must be confronted.  Likewise, to fully address a psychological problem like depression, the cause must be discovered and addressed.  So why do people get depressed?  It’s been my experience that people get depressed for many reasons.  Some get depressed because they’re lonely.  Some get depressed when they lose someone dear to them.  Others get depressed because they allow themselves to be controlled, and don’t know how to stop it.  Some are depressed due to the judgment they place on themselves.  And still others get depressed because they hold onto grudges they can’t or won’t let go of.  There are probably still other reasons people get depressed that aren’t coming to mind right now, but the point is that there are many causes of depression.  So what kind of advice can we profit from?  The kind of advice that points us to look within, and discover the true cause of our suffering is the kind we benefit from.  When we’re depressed or anxious, we need the kind of feedback that helps us to see what’s causing our depression or anxiety.  Only by looking within, can we find the origin of our troubles, and know where to begin our healing process.

 A few years ago an acquaintance told me that he was depressed.  To protect his privacy, I’ll call him Sam.  His depression was keeping him from doing well in his career.  Sam had the kind of job that required him to actively go after work.  Being depressed, he lacked the energy to be assertive and go after the work.  So he asked me what he should do about his depression.  I told Sam that I first had a question for him: Do you want to merely be less depressed?  Or do you want to figure out why you’re depressed and address the root of the problem?  Sam said he only wanted to be less depressed.  I felt disappointed with Sam’s answer, but I respected his choice.  I told him how he might quickly lessen his depression, while ignoring the cause.  I’ve seen Sam more recently, and he still seems depressed to me.

I understand people wanting to get relief from their suffering, whether it be depression or anxiety or some difficult relationship situation.  It’s tempting to merely look for the magic bullet that gives us something to do to take away the bad feelings.  However, if all we do is take away the bad feelings, they will likely come back.

My experience has been that only by addressing the cause of my suffering will I truly feel better, more than just relief for a few hours.  It’s by looking within, and discovering the cause of our depression or relationship problem that we can address the cause.  The kind of advice that I find helpful is having the kind of friends that point me to the root of my problems.  “Stop and think first” advice points me to look at my motivation for confronting a family member, or feedback on how I’m coming across to I boss that I’m asking to lessen my workload, or help in seeing that I need to address a control issue.  I suggest finding the kind of friends that will both be supportive and tell you the truth about yourself.  So start by asking for the “stop and listen” advice, and afterwards look for the “go and do this” advice.  I think you’ll find this order of advice more helpful.  This kind of advice is worth its weight in gold.

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About Dr. Mark MacMillin

Dr. Mark MacMillin published his first novel in the Fall of 2009, entitled Granting Thomas: A Journey Beyond Adolescence. Granting Thomas is a psychological novel about transformation and coming of age. He is currently working on his second novel. Dr. MacMillin graduated from UCLA with his B.A. in psychology, and then completed his Doctor of Psychology degree from Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University. He is currently on faculty and is the clinic director at Argosy Univeristy. He is in private practice in Newport Beach, and has been since 2001. Dr. MacMillin supervises graduate students at the Biola Counseling Center. Dr. MacMillin incorporates Attachment Theory and Psychoneurobiology into his teaching, supervision and practice. Dr. MacMillin has also received extensive training in integrating faith and psychotherapy.

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