There are a lot of things I’ve taken out of my education and into my post-scholastic life. For example, I’m great at sitting in silence, creating safety plans, assessing resources, and preparing meals that can be eaten at room temperature because there was never a working microwave on the Community Services floor. All excellent life skills. But the most valuable bit of learning I’ve brought with me to stop giving my friends advice. Now listen, this is hard, and I know it’s hard. You’re probably like, what the damn hell, isn’t that what friendship is? No, it’s not. It might be for some people, but… I can also say it’s probably not. And maybe you’re like, isn’t this you giving us advice on how not to interact with our friends? And the answer is, kind of. But lI’ll stop arguing with myself over semantics and get on with it.
For a long time, I considered myself a good advice giver. I always had thoughtful ideas and creative solutions to my friend’s problems. It made me feel pretty good. Eventually, I started to realize that… my friends we kind of… disappearing. A lot of them disappeared when I got sober. Yes. And a few more once I got engaged. Yes. But, in general, my list of people I could call for support was dwindling and I noticed that I was never anyone’s first call either. It really fucking hurt. Fast forward a bit, I'm in my first year, first semester of college at 31 years old. I'm in a class called Feminist Counselling. Honestly, I could write an entire blog post on how huge of an impact this course had on me, but I digress. My instructor says something that has changed me entire life, “stop giving advice, stop giving your friends advice, just stop giving advice in general”.
Jaw meet floor. It seemed so simple and I was immediately defensive. I had learned that as a counsellor my role is never to give advice. Walking that line is often hard enough, but my friends? What else would I have to offer? What good was I to them?
Turns out, it’s a lot. My pull towards advice giving was a way to prove my worthiness, to prove that I provided something of value to others. It was rooted in both a deep need to make others around me happy and a true lack of self worth. The trauma response I was experiencing is called fawning, or people pleasing. If everyone around me if happy, I can control the chaos and everything will be okay. I can make them happy by being the person they need. But who the fuck was I to say what type of person they "need" or "want" in that moment. As for the self-worth, I was frantic when it came to this - constantly trying to sell myself as a worthy pal. All the while not realizing that I am worthy of love and friendship and support, the same way they are.
The most powerful question I learned to ask my friends is “what would you like from me right now?” or “would you like time to vent, or solutions, or something else?” Or just listen. People don’t always want something from you, especially your friends. Sometimes, they just want an ear or an eye on their experience.
Sometimes, we just want another person to bare witness to the thing that is hurting or bothering or sticking.
In time, I rebuilt some of those friendships, some ended, but new ones started to emerge. And those friendships were built on a firm foundation of listening, making space, and excellent venting sessions. My friends opened up to me more because the space felt safer, and I eventually learned to calm the trauma response that went DING DING DING FIX IT every time someone came to me with a challenging situation. I felt less pressure to be the perfect friend, because I was just being present. But every once an a while… I’d get the message. “what outfit do you like best for my interview?” or “do you think I should cut bangs?” and there it would be… the appropriate time to give advice. And I would know it meant something. I would know they were asking me because they trusted me. And it was wonderful.