Wednesday 21 September 2022

A Few Thoughts on Taking My Own Advice

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with my friend Brynn. I was talking about the piece I was working on at the time; a collection of articles on self-care. She asked, “Do you take your own advice?” I paused before answering. “Sometimes! You know, that’s such a great question. No one has ever asked me that before.” I knew it deserved more than a fleeting response, and resolved to explore it further. This article is my reply to Brynn, and anyone else who’s ever wondered if people who share their wisdom publically ever take their own advice.

What Kind of Advice Are We Talking About?

I’ll start by saying I don’t consider myself in the advice business. I’m wary of offering advice to anyone unless it’s been specifically asked for. For the purpose of this article I’m going to use the term as a shorthand for “ideas, suggestions, wisdom, and guidance.” I’ll focus on the contents of our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder and this blog, because that’s the context in which Brynn asked her question. First published in 2016, High Tide, Low Tide is not a how-to book. Its approach is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Fran and I wrote it hoping the lessons we’d learned and the insights we’d gained would help other people; specifically people wanting to support a friend living with mental illness. As we state in the introduction:

We hope our book will inform and inspire you. There are no steps you have to follow, or things that are guaranteed to work under all circumstances. Illness, especially mental illness, does not work that way. What works is having a framework of trust and commitment, and a menu of approaches, suggestions, and options you and your friend can explore together.

Our blog is an extension of that endeavour, albeit broader in scope and more responsive to events and new ideas. What we share, we believe in. It’s also truthful. I touched on this in a Q&A article titled Write without Fear, Edit without Mercy: Eight Questions for the Honest Blogger. Question five asked “Do You Always Tell the Truth in Your Blogging?”

I choose what I want to blog about, and what I want to share or say on that topic. There may be — and indeed are — things I choose not to write about or include, but if I write it, it’s true.

So, that’s the “advice” I’m taking about. The question remains. Do I take that advice myself? The answer I gave Brynn is still the most honest and accurate: sometimes. There’s a great deal in our book and on our blog which I refer back to and use; some rarely, others much more frequently. There are also things I hardly, if ever, use anymore. There are a few reasons, but the most fundamental is relevance. Everything we’ve shared was true and valid at the time, but situations and people change. We learn new solutions to old problems, and face challenges we’ve not previously faced.

Advice That’s No Longer Relevant

High Tide, Low Tide is based on the first four years of my friendship with Fran. For much of that time she was living through extremes of mania or depression, with suicidal thinking never far below the surface. Distance notwithstanding, I was at her side through it all, supporting her on a day-by-day, often hour-by-hour, basis. I didn’t always get things right, and neither did Fran, but we remained committed to each other and to making our friendship work. Our book was written to share what we learned in our journey together through those times.

Depression and suicidality still raise their heads from time to time, and we remain vigilant for red flag changes in symptoms or behaviour that might herald a return to more serious episodes, but Fran’s health is far more balanced these days. In particular, she’s been free of mania for some time. This was devastatingly traumatic in the early part of our friendship. These are wholly welcome and healthy changes, but they’ve inevitably led to shifts in the balance of our mutually supportive friendship. We no longer meditate together, for example, or read to each other as often as we used to. We still connect every day, but Fran is much less likely to need me outside our regular call times.

The net result is that much of the advice — the ideas and strategies — I learned and used on a regular basis are less relevant than they used to be. The advice itself remains valid, though, and I wouldn’t hesitate to turn to it again should the situation arise.

Bad Advice

The mention of valid advice invites me to consider its opposite: invalid or bad advice. I don’t believe any advice can be completely correct or universally applicable, and it’s certainly possible to employ sound advice inappropriately or out of context. Other people may disagree with my advice, opinions, or suggestions, but I can’t think of anything Fran or I have written that I’d disavow or refute.

I remain open to revising or clarifying what I’ve previously written. Someone recently questioned something I wrote a few years ago in an open letter to my father. I was grateful for the challenge, which led to a new article exploring emotional vulnerability and weakness, but I decided not to withdraw or change the original content.

There have certainly been times when I’ve ignored my own advice or followed it in ways that were clumsy or ineffective. It was important to me and Fran that we included examples of us “getting it wrong” in our book. The last thing we wanted was to give the impression we always knew what to do or say. I’ve shared several such examples on our blog, covering topics such as honesty and openness, codependency, and anger. These “bad examples” can be useful in themselves, reminding me what not to do in the future.

Advice I Still Refer to and Use

Having talked about the advice I no longer use, let’s look at what’s still relevant and useful. The principles of healthy relationships are valid no matter what’s going on for me or the people in my life, and I turn to chapter one of our book (“The Caring Friendship: Key Skills and Attitudes”) to remind myself of the basics. These include trust, openness, honesty, and a commitment to keep the channels of connection open. We’ve added new insights over the years, finding new ways to enhance our friendship, such as spending quiet time together. Everything we’ve learned about growing and maintaining a successful long-distance friendship also remains relevant; not only to me and Fran but also my other friendships.

Our book includes little about my needs beyond my role as a supportive friend. This imbalance initially carried across into our blog, but I’ve begun exploring my wellbeing and mental health in such posts as THIS BOY GETS SAD TOO, Return to Down: How My Baseline Mood Has Slipped from Positive to Low, Flatness and Disinclination, and How International Men’s Day Inspired My First Doctor’s Appointment in 30 Years. I return to them when I’m low, flat, or depressed. They help me gauge where I am compared to where I was when I wrote those articles. I turn to the range of self-care posts I’ve written to remind me of strategies that have helped me in the past.

I’ve recently begun a series of articles collecting posts on themes including self-care, open letters, and pieces written to mark mental health awareness days and events. I wanted to make it easier for people to find related content. They also make it easier for me to locate content I want to refer back to and use in my own life.

As I’ve grown in experience and confidence as a blogger, I’ve begun sharing content for other bloggers, especially those working in the mental health space. I’ve shared blog prompts, image prompts, my blogging workflow, and how to handle blogging setbacks. I refer to these myself when I’m stuck with my writing.

I mentioned changes in my friendships have made some advice less relevant than it used to be. I haven’t always found these transitions easy but I’ve taken the opportunity to explore how I handle them. Some of the articles I’ve written about that remain very relevant to me. I return to such posts as What My Mantra Means to Me: Healthy Boundaries, Supportive Disengagement: How to Be There for Your Friend When They Need Space, Spokesfriends and Insular Groups: What Kind of Support Network Do You Have?, and Too Small for Comfort: When Life Closes In On You from time to time, especially when I’m feeling disconnected or adrift.

(As Yet) Unpublished Advice

I’ve focused on our book and blog, but that’s not the sum total of my “personal wisdom.” I often turn to things I’ve discussed in chat messages, written in my personal diary, or jotted down in private notes on my phone. Some or these are too personal or raw to share publically. Others fall under the category of things I’m unlikely to blog about, as I’ve described previously.

I’m wary of writing if I have little or no experience of the subject under discussion, unless I’m presenting the insights, opinions, and accounts of others who do. [...] I mostly discuss mental illness from the perspective of a supportive friend, although in the past couple of years I’ve begun sharing aspects of my mental health.

There are topics I’d like to write about but haven’t yet found a way to approach them as I’d wish to. These include my perspective as a caring friend when someone I know has taken an overdose or harmed themself. I can’t imagine ever writing about abuse, addiction, rape, or trauma. Those are too far beyond my lived experience for me to do them justice.

I may share some of this currently unpublished content in the future. Likely candidates include more on healthy boundaries, expectations, acceptance, and letting go.

Bringing It All Together

High Tide, Low Tide represents our collected wisdom at a particular point in our friendship. It remains valid, honest, and useful — to us and to others — but it no longer fully reflects our situation, or the totality of my experience as a supportive friend. Our blog enables us to share new insights and as we grow as friends and as individuals. Where past advice and ideas fail to meet my needs, I’m open to returning to basics and allowing the present moment to inform my decisions and approach.

Do I take my own advice? Yes, definitely, and often! I’m careful in selecting which advice is most relevant to my present situation, however. In that I follow Fran’s suggestion in the Epilogue to our book.

How do I help my friend? What should I try? What works? So many choices. So many possibilities. To me this book is less of a memoir than a menu. You would never order and eat everything on the menu if you went for a meal. You would choose. Something familiar, perhaps. Or something new. Use our book like that. Choose something. A bit of this. A bit of that. And let that something ease another’s pain.

I’ll close with a quotation that came my way whilst writing this article. It’s a perfect reminder that advice — however loosely defined — is not always what we need. Sometimes we need to be in the moment, listening to ourselves and one another, open to what’s actually going on.

The best way to help someone is not to give them advice, but to listen to them. (Jordan B. Peterson)

That sounds like pretty good advice to me!

Over to You

In this article I’ve explored my relationship to the advice Fran and I have published in our book and on our blog. What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you take your own advice? Do you find it easier to give advice than to take it? Whose advice do you trust? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever given or received?

We’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Christopher Jolly at Unsplash.


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