When Your Default Advice Could Accidentally Destroy Someone.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 0.603% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

What is a sane default behavior? Which is to say, “What do you do when you don’t know someone that well?”

That question is, when you look at it, about 90% of all advice that’s ever given – “Here’s what you do when you don’t know for sure.” Want to ask someone on a date? Well, here’s what most normal people respond to positively. Need to ask for a raise? Here’s how you can get most bosses to hear you. Want to avoid getting ripped off by a mechanic? These are signs for when you have no idea whether your mechanic is good or not.

The goal is a decent baseline – you know this won’t work in every situation, just most of them.

The problem comes when someone’s misread the baseline. In which case the advice turns sour.

For example, women get treated differently in the workplace. If they’re aggressive, they’re more likely to be seen as bitchy or shrewish, and get treated negatively as a result. Which is not to say advice like “Be aggressive in asking for raises” is bad advice, but it is advice that’s aimed at a specific audience – and it can backfire quickly if you assume that women are basically interchangeable with men.

So you have to be careful. There’s a lot of advice that cloaks itself as “This works most of the time,” and in truth the approach works only in a specific environment. You’ll see dating advice like “People only want sculpted bodies, so lose weight and work out before dragging your flabby bod before anyone else!” – and that’s probably true for the circles these people move in, but there’s plenty of places where you don’t have to be model-quality to get a smooch or two.

But more importantly: Advice only exists as a stand-in until you know someone’s specific preferences.

I say this because some very decent advice given the other day would absolutely wreck me.

Page Turner wrote a solid essay the other day called Don’t Say “We Need to Talk.” Do This Instead. And in it, she mentions some things I agree are good baselines when you need to hash out a conflict with a friend or lover – specifically, don’t ever say “We need to talk” and then go silent. That shit leads to anxiety and, as noted, spicy armpits.

But then she discusses her way of leading up to a tense discussion that needs to be had, and I thought, “Oh, wow, that would play havoc with my mental illness.”

She:

  • Arranged a time to meet in person where we had plenty of time alone to hang out and talk (eliminating the extra stress of my conversation partner having to worry about how they were reacting to bad news in public)
  • Talked for 20 to 30 minutes prior to moving into the heavy news about lighter things, gossip, news, subjects that were easy and carefree.
  • Evaluated my conversation partner’s mental and emotional state during the lighter topics, making sure they seemed like they were in a place where they could handle harder news.
  • After determining they were in a place where they could handle the heavier topics, moved quickly into sharing that news.

I suspect that’s good advice for people in a vacuum, but for me?

That’s a nightmare.

See, I have a brain that’s trying to kill me at all times. Whenever I’m not directly in the presence of someone who’s being nice to me at that moment, my brain gives me all sorts of rationales as to why things are going totally wrong.

It’s so bad that my wife will literally be in the basement sewing, and I’ll have a flash of thought that hearkens back to some conversation we had about me buying the wrong milk, and my brain will say, “She went downstairs because she iso furious about you accidentally getting the 2%, she can’t stand you, you’re a wreck of a human being,” and then – depending on whether I’m in my seasonal affective disorder time of year – “You should probably just off yourself and not bother her any more.”

Now, my wife has learned that if I occasionally stumble downstairs to say “You love me, right?” that it’s just my stupid brain working overtime again in its relentless efforts to exterminate me. But realistically, I have so many stupid thoughts like this that back in the days when I asked her if she loved me every time that I thought I’d screwed up, I burned her out.

So I spend a lot of time self-soothing. “Nonsense,” I say. “She seemed fine when she went downstairs. I’m being foolish, and I don’t need to check in.”

With that in mind, you can see how sitting down with a friend, being talked to for half an hour as I go “Oh, this is nice, all those worries I had were in fact needless” and then BAM big discussion would harm me a lot.

Because the next time I’d be wrapped up in some imaginary slight, I’d go, “Well, my friend seemed happy, surely things are okay” and my brain would rumble out like a bucking steer at the rodeo to thrash around and say, “REMEMBER THAT NICE HALF-HOUR CONVERSATION YOU HAD BEFORE SHE DROPPED THE BOMB? YOU HAVE NO CLUE WHEN PEOPLE ARE MAD AT YOU. THEY’RE PROBABLY HATING YOU RIGHT NOW.”

And then I’m back to texting people at all hours of the day to go “Hey, we’re okay, right? We’re okay now, right? We’re still okay, right?” and that presents its own list of problems.

Likewise, because I have a brain that’s trying to kill me, hiding problems from me even if you don’t think I can handle it is a big no-no. I know people mean well, but hiding problems from me contributes to the internal gaslighting that my mental illness provides. Me, I need to know as soon as you’re ready to talk about it, because otherwise it’ll do lasting damage to me that could lead to self-harm.

And that’s not to say Page didn’t provide good default advice. I realize I’m not wired like other people. I’m agreeing that what she’s saying would probably go over well for most folks, and it would definitely go over better than a text saying “We need to talk.”

But I have dated people who have internalized that idea of “Don’t bring up a serious issue if someone’s in a bad headspace” to the point where even when I told them “Hey, just break the seal and get it over with, I need to fight all my battles at once,” they concealed serious problems from me for weeks or months at a time – weeks or months when I was desperately expending energy convincing myself that I had problems, yes, but my relationship with these people was okay – only to find that whoops, this aspect was also a trainwreck and now my brain won’t ever let me rest because that time I thought things were twitchy with David THEY TOTALLY WERE and REALLY AREN’T THINGS MUCH WORSE THAN YOU KNOW, FERRETT?

That approach, though well-intended, did lasting harm.

Which is why you have to remember: Once you get to know someone well enough, advice is dispensable. Which is not to say you’ll ever know your partners perfectly – I’ve been married to my wife for almost twenty years and we still surprise each other on occasion – but past a certain point, you have to stop listening to “What other people do” and internalize “What this person, right here, right now, needs.”

So maybe that first time you need to have a sit-down talk with somebody, you give them nice conversations for a half hour, scope them out, and then drop the problem when you think they’re ready. That’s not a bad first approach.

But afterwards, you should also ask them, “So was that the way I should have done things?” And move on from that one-size-fits-all advice to something that will nurture and protect this specific person you love.

Message ends.

2 Comments

  1. JMFargo
    Apr 7, 2019

    Oh, wow. Yeah, her advice would likely have ended up with me in HUGE internal arguments that would have killed me if folks did that – I’d never believe that they weren’t angry at me, that something bad couldn’t show up at any second. I believe everyone’s upset with me all the time anyway – my anxiety/depression would take this and RUN WITH IT. Always.

    Which, as you say, isn’t to say it’s bad advice for most people. But I hope nobody ever takes this advice for me in my life.

  2. Raven Black
    Apr 7, 2019

    I don’t have a particularly jerk-to-me brain but someone following that advice would be supremely aggravating to me too. Because I’d notice “hey they are behaving differently than normal”, be suspicious the whole time (correctly!) and then be annoyed with them at the end for not just getting to the point that I (to some extent) knew all along was waiting, lurking. And not only that, but they’ve made me go out of my way to receive this bad news. In my case just fucking text it or email it or something. Whatever gets me the information fastest and with least effort.

    If your plan starts with texting or phoning or something to set up an in-person conversation in a non-public place, and your eventual goal is to tell me something that could have been text or told to me over the phone, WHY IS THERE A PLAN HERE?!!

    I rant this rant based on experience, where someone let me travel 120 miles to their location in order to break up with me in person. Thanks, that was really fucking thoughtful.

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