I thought writing this post might be a nice twist on the usual “giving advice” posts out there (including all of my own). While there is so much good advice being handed out to us, there are also some pieces of advice, which while may be very well-intentioned, aren’t actually very helpful. In this blog post I will look back on the pieces of advice I’m glad I didn’t take, as well as explore other pieces of advice I’ve come across where I’ve questioned their usefulness.
1. “Just cheer up” – Not only does, “Just cheer up”, not help, it can also make you feel guilty and ashamed for feeling sad. There is nothing wrong with feeling sad as it is an innate human emotion; we cannot just switch it off. There is often a misconception that mindfulness is about getting rid of our negative emotions, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Mindfulness is about embracing all emotions – positive and negative – in a non-judgmental, compassionate space. When we resist certain emotions it only makes them stronger, so the advice to “just cheer up” when you’re feeling down is really, really not useful. Instead, try and accept the times when you’re feeling sad/angry/frustrated/depressed, and fully embrace this emotion with as much loving kindness as you can muster. And if you are the person tempted to give the advice to “just cheer up”, or have done this in the past, instead, try and just be there for them; offer them a listening ear and be the person they can turn to when they need the extra support.
2. “It could be worse” – Being told “it could be worse” doesn’t usually make you feel better. If anything, it likely adds feelings of guilt to your already negative emotions, as you’re now thinking about how selfish it is to feel this way when so many people have it worse than you. But your feelings are always valid, so even if you’ve been in worse situations yourself or you know others who are – it still doesn’t take away how you feel. One of my favourite quotes ever to statements like these is:
3. “You shouldn’t feel sad/nervous/vulnerable as you practise mindfulness” – It amazes me again and again how many times people are surprised by the fact that even though they have gone through so much in their life, both mentally and physically, and have come out so much stronger because of it, they can still feel nervous about something trivial like starting a new job. Because being skilled at mindfulness, or having a tough mental attitude, doesn’t make you invincible; enabling you to just waltz through life and be confident in everything. It’s still completely natural to feel nervous about things: like starting a new job or going on a first date.
4. “Just let it go” – Although deep down this advice is very beneficial, never when someone has said to me “just let it go” when I’m feeling stressed or worried about something have I then just thought, “Of course, why didn’t I think of that, I should just let it go!” Yep, it’s never worked. This is advice that runs a lot deeper and needs a lot more time, so uttering those three words to someone when something is on their mind is really not very useful.
The reason this piece of advice isn’t always helpful is that before you can let it go, you need to accept and acknowledge whatever is going on first. If we’re upset about something, we’re not just going to be able to let our sadness go. Again, it comes back to this idea of resisting our negative emotions: if I tell you not to think of pink elephants, you will immediately think of pink elephants. But, what we can do is acknowledge how we are feeling, accept this emotion for what it is, and through this acceptance, we can learn to let it go.
If it’s a situation or scenario rather than emotion you’re trying to let go, then it’s helpful to see the problem for what is it; question whether or not you can do something about it, and if you can’t, recognise it’s important to move on as thinking about it won’t help. So in this case, instead of telling someone else to “let it go”, it’s probably more useful to ask them first, “can you do anything about it?”.
5. “You control your thoughts” – You don’t control your thoughts, because if we could control our thoughts, we would all only choose the happy thoughts and get rid of the negative! This idea what we all control our thoughts is completely unrealistic and promotes a stigma around mental health that people who suffer from depression or anxiety are choosing to have it, which is very wrong. But, what you can control is how you perceive and react to your thoughts. So we aren’t completely powerless when it comes to our thoughts. We can consciously question the negative thoughts that arrive such as “I’m so stupid” and realise that it isn’t true, and therefore, not let the thought control you, because thoughts do not equal facts. And if you catch yourself when you have these negative thoughts enough time, over time you can slowly change your thought pattern so you may reach a point where these intrusive thoughts no longer have a hold or sway over you, which is amazing!
6. “What’s the big deal?” – Don’t assume that just because you may not see a big deal in something, your opinion and view on the matter is therefore correct. It may not be a big deal to you, but it might be a big deal to them, and they shouldn’t have to justify why it is a big deal. Although some thoughts and feelings may seem irrational on the surface, there is always a reason for them. Even if other people in the same situation don’t feel the same as you, that’s because we’re all different, and depending on our body and brain chemistry and our previous life experiences, we’re all going to react differently to the same situation. So bear this in mind the next time you’re tempted to ask someone, “What’s the big deal?”.
7. “You just need to try…” – It doesn’t matter what this is referring to – your physical health, your wellbeing, your lifestyle choices – everyone is different and what works for one person is probably unlikely to work for someone else. There is always a “no size fits all” when it comes to both our mental and physical wellbeing, so please do bear this in mind before trying to advise someone else. If you’re unsure whether to suggest something to someone or not, then maybe only suggest it if they come to you looking for advice.
8. “It’s all okay in the end. If it’s not the end, it’s not okay” – This saying is a very mixed and often, confusing message. It’s a nice message to remember during times of suffering as it reminds you that you won’t feel this way forever, and that good times will come (both of which are very true and important). But it’s confusing because there is no “end” to suffering, just as there is no end to negative thoughts or negative emotions. There is no end in life except death. There might be the end to old chapters or the end of relationships, but if you’re waiting for the end of your suffering, then you’ll be waiting your whole life! Things fall apart, then they come together, and then they fall apart again, then they come together again. It is a continuous up and down cycle rather than one big curve leading upwards.
9. “Don’t give up” – Some things aren’t meant to be, and therefore, giving up is 100% the right thing to do. You might change your mind, realise it’s no longer the right thing for you to do, or you might simply be wasting your time – there are many reasons why sometimes you should give up on something. Of course, it doesn’t mean you should, therefore, give up on everything – a lot of things require for you to not give up and persist. But it is worth bearing in mind that walking away can often be the best thing to do.
The honest fact is, most people aren’t usually looking for advice, they’re usually looking for someone to talk to. So maybe next time you feel tempted to give someone advice, maybe just sit with them and listen to what they have to say. And if someone gives you advice which you feel is unhelpful, remember you don’t have to listen or take it on board; you can just thank them, and move on. Remember, most advice is well-intentioned and people don’t mean to hurt you, but if it does get to a point where someone close to you keeps saying unhelpful things, then it might be worth trying to calmly sit down and talk to them and explain.
Are there any words or sayings that have stuck with you that you also didn’t take? I’d love to hear if there are or if you’ve been offered any of the same, not-so-helpful advice as me over the years.
Metta, E xx