Why I’ve Stopped Giving And Asking For Advice
As I grow older, I've become more comfortable saying "I don’t know."
I love asking for advice, almost as much as I love giving it. I used to be pretty convinced I had a singular talent for it, and that misplaced confidence only grew when I was hired to write an advice column for money. Part of it is just that I love to hear myself talk — to notice how I explain a problem differently depending on my audience, the tones I adopt and words I choose to best convey the issue at hand. The interchange of advice is always a matter of presentation, though I forget that at least half the time.
I love when someone I’m asking for advice tells me they’ve gone through the exact same thing I have, and I even love when, as they continue talking, it becomes clear that it’s not the same thing at all. I love hearing advice I wanted to hear, because then I feel right. But I also like hearing advice I don’t agree with, because then I get to feel right and superior, which are two of my favorite feelings to have.
Recently, though, both the acts of giving and getting advice have left me feeling slightly uneasy. Things that well-meaning people have said to me burrow into my skull like worms, wriggling around there for days until they are knocked out by the next piece of supposedly sage wisdom. Left too long in my worrier’s brain, suggestions so easily become maxims, and generalizations start sounding like facts. I worry more now, too, about doing to others what I know their advice can do to me.
There are a few things I could ascribe this shift to: One is simply that I have grown up, and so have the people I know and care for, and with that growth has only come more awareness of the irregularity and irrationality of human behavior. Another is that I am, for the first time in my life, in a real relationship. And then there is the fact that the person I am in a relationship with is a woman, whom I met shortly after coming out at the age of 28, surprising most people I know, including me.
If I can go 28 years through life not really knowing something so essential to my self, how much can I really be expected to know about anything?
And so I think: If I can go 28 years through life not really knowing something so essential to my self, how much can I really be expected to know about anything? And if nobody who knows me well had any idea either, how can I expect them to know anything else about me?
This recognition of imperfection in myself and my loved ones has been difficult to accept — as a lifetime disciplinarian and boringly well-behaved person, I would have preferred if everything really were black and white. But it has also been a gift to my anxious, neurotic brain. No longer do I view my friends as necessarily more omniscient than I am simply because they are not me. It is not that I no longer see my friends as smart or empathetic; rather, it is that I feel more able to see them as human.
Now, too, it is easier for me to look backward at my younger self and recognize the liberal doses of self-righteousness and naïveté that accompanied much of my own well-meaning advice. (A tendency that, in part, inspired the know-it-all advice columnist character Harriet in my book, Dear Emma.) For most of my life I was a girl with zero relationship experience whose favorite advice was “Dump him.” It was because I thought there was nobody alive good enough for my friends, and because so many boyfriends are truly useless, but it was also because I wanted the friend in question to spend less time with the boyfriend and more with me, and because I wanted to feel that aloneness was normal, even virtuous. Everyone has an agenda — be it self-preservation, pacifying reassurance, or simple shit-stirring. Most people give advice they just hope is true.
For most of my life I was a girl with zero relationship experience whose favorite advice was “Dump him.”
When I ask for advice, it is usually because I want someone to tell me that I am OK, that my relationship is OK, that everything will work out the way I want it to. It is extremely difficult for me to trust my gut, particularly when I know for a fact that my gut — confused by anxiety — is so frequently full of shit. I would prefer to rely on someone else, anyone else. But though I feel pacified when I do get advice I hoped to hear, I’m increasingly aware that that contentment does not last. No feeling is a permanent one, and nobody really knows what will happen to me. Including me.
This is not a promise that I will stop trying to find out. Talking to other women about our relationships and our work and our lives is essential to my being, my favorite thing to do, the way I feel closest to others. Giving and getting advice is part of that, but it doesn’t have to be all of it, or even most of it. There is also sharing, commiserating, debating, and good old talking shit; there is venting without hoping or asking for anything in return.
So while I may never give up advice entirely (nor am I sure that’s even possible), I am attempting to cut back. I try to save most of my various concerns for my weekly therapy appointment; incidentally, I’m over most of the things I planned to bring up in therapy by the time that appointment arrives. I have also fully, and finally, abandoned astrology — which, after all, is not even based on anyone’s earthly experience, but only on the month you happened to be born in and the way the galaxy was arranged around you then.
Soon after I started dating my girlfriend, she made me take this online compatibility test based on our birthdays. I’m not going to link to it, because I want to spare you. What the test told us was that we were a good match for love, but a bad one for marriage.
“This is horrible news,” I told her. “Why did you do this to me. I will never forget it.”
“It’s an online quiz!” she said, laughing. “It’s supposed to just be, like, for fun.”
But it was not just “fun.” Not for me. I freaked out, slightly, and texted the quiz to two good friends, both of whom have serious boyfriends (my apologies to them both) in order to compare their results against mine. Both said they were good matches for marriage, but not for love. Never mind that this does not make very much sense, and should at least call into question the veracity of an already very dubious romance metric we found on a shitty-ass website: That result rattled around my brain for weeks and weeks.
The result had also foretold — daringly — that my girlfriend and I would get on each other’s nerves, and, consequently, any time either of us annoyed the other, I took it not as an inevitable component of any relationship between two humans, but as evidence. I’d think: This is it. This is a sign. We might love each other now, but someday we won’t, and that quiz will be proved right.
I do not know what will happen to you, either.
Now, though, I know that if we do not stay together, it will not mean that the quiz was “right,” or that there was some crucial piece of advice I could have heeded to prevent a breakup. It will only mean that our relationship met one of the two possible outcomes of all relationships: it ends, or it doesn’t. All I know is that months and months have gone by and here we are, still together.
I do not know what will happen to me, and I do not know what will happen in my relationship. I do not know what will happen to you, either. I have started saying “I don’t know” so much more freely that, somewhat ironically, it annoys my girlfriend. But to me it has become something of a mantra. I don’t know. I don’t know. IDK. Sometimes all the not knowing drives me crazy, but it’s going to be OK. At least, I think it will be.
Katie Heaney is a senior editor at BuzzFeed and the author of popular memoir Never Have I Ever. She lives in Brooklyn.
To learn more about Dear Emma, click here.