Why giving advice can be a selfish act / I'm tired and no I don't want baby sleep advice

I’m much more selective who I talk to about my sleep issues these days.

Firstly, there is the fact of boring myself with the same answer to the question ‘how are you?’ But more significantly, I have stopped relaying my lack of sleep to most (m)others because it is almost always met with some advice. There’s nothing wrong with giving advice to others - when it is wanted. But it strikes me just how much we do this habitually, making the automatic assumption that because others are having a hard time and talking about it, what they are seeking is advice. A proffering of potentials to-do’s or ‘have-you-tried’s’.

In thinking about this topic lately, I have become very aware of this trend. We are so quick to advise. As if the extent to which we have been listening is reflected in our ability to give advice, not duly considering whether this advice is a) sought-after, b) relevant, or c) helpful. Sometimes we forget that the point of communication is often simply to be heard.

It is easy to confuse listening with offering solutions. Sometimes this confusion is so ripe that we don’t even wait for the other to finish expressing themselves before we eagerly fill the air with the sound of our own voice and a spluttering of problem-solving. Who is this designed for? Really? I think if we were to answer this question honestly, we would often conclude; myself. We like the sound of our own voice. We especially like the sound of our own voice when we are being the helper to someone in need. But are we really helping? And is the other really in need? Or are we just doing what we automatically do when others communicate difficulty; seeking solutions for them even when they are not seeking them from us? This has certainly had me thinking. In writing about this, I have noticed this in myself; that bubbling up of inner tension as I think I have a ‘good point’ to make to someone as they communicate to me, and then all-to-quickly (impatiently) filling the space with my offering, but not always leaving time for the other to properly finish their outlet nor the time for myself to duly assess whether I need to try to help at all. It’s yucky. And it feels so.  

What I am about to say is not a very popular point of view, but;

giving advice can be a selfish act.

I don’t wholly blame myself, nor others, for this incessant need to inject advice into every dialogue about a personal difficulty/relationship problem/motherhood trial or tribulation. Mostly; it is truly well-intentioned. Largely; it is a problem with our society - the viewpoint that every difficulty we navigate in life is a problem to be fixed (as opposed to being dealt with, transitioned, healed). Perhaps this has its’ roots in perfectionism. Perhaps it is also a reflection of our discomfort with pain; both in ourselves and others - that we are so quick to try to ‘fix’ the thing, to make it not exist - because we find it challenging to sit with the fact of it. Perhaps it has its’ roots in a tragically binary way of viewing the world; this or that, good or bad, happy or sad. A need to define the positive or desired by the attempted eradication of the negative or ‘bad’. We forget that opposites need to co-exist and that there is really no such thing as mutually exclusive emotions when it comes to This So Called Life. Perhaps it is that in attempting to ‘fix’ others, we feel better about ourselves? Or maybe the advice we feel compelled to give is more a product of our own need to be advised? Perhaps it is far more about ourselves that we would wish to admit.

This is why I think advising can be selfish and why it surely deserves a little thought and tempering.

When I talk about being tired, or the fact that my daughter wakes a lot in the night, I am not seeking advice. I’m not asking another to help me fix it. There are enough articles online or books about this topic for me get advice if that’s what I was after. I’m talking about it just to...talk about it. To get off my chest how hard it is. I’m venting. Expressing. Validating my own experience. Rather than be offered any potential solutions, I’m actually just looking for someone to hear me. To nod their head as my words sink into their heart, allowing them to settle for long enough to experience a little compassion. I don’t want sympathy or pity, but I sure as hell want some credit for not sleeping much and managing to tend to the every need of my baby as well as my own. Honestly, I think it’s amazing. I look at what I am doing (mothering, working, creating, running a household, tending to my partner, remembering to salt the dishwasher, eat, drink, not run out of toilet roll) and I think: AMAZING. It would be amazing enough to do it all on 10 hours sleep, let alone much less. Sometimes I just want to talk about the struggle as a way to let my soul breathe. As a way of healing, a way of remembering how much things have changed. Sometimes I just want to talk because silence is a heavy weight to carry and I’m lighter when the words come out. Rather than chime in with unwanted ‘fix-its’, I’m mostly just looking for the balm of sympathetic resonance. Then before you know it, we can talk about the new Monsoon crushed velvet dress I just bought Juno and how absolutely bloody gorgeous it is and the fact that there are people who have real phobias of velvet and how interesting (read: weird) that is.

There doesn’t always need to be a resolution. It’s a truth we’re not so thirsty to learn.

When we want advice we tend to ask for it. When we don’t want it, but we get served it anyway, it not only makes us feel unheard, but it also deflects the issue onto our own actions - the things we could be doing to ‘fix’ said problem - which makes us feel culpable and confused when all we wanted to do was express how we feel for the sheer sake of expression.

Responding to a statement of feeling (e.g ‘I feel so tired and weary’) with ‘have you tried XYZ’, steers the conversation away from the healing power of self-expression and onto Scrutiny Street... dissecting, analysing, judging, and the dissolution of emotional attunement. When this happens yet we don’t have the emotional headspace to go down that road, it can feel like being dragged through a bramble bush backwards wearing a tulle skirt after an all-nighter whilst we silently scream ‘IT’S FOR MY BENEFIT!’ and try not to cry.

When it comes to sleep deprivation and new mothers, we have to tread extra carefully. There is a real vulnerability; both in the fact that we are exhausted, and in the fact that we are in the throes of becoming a new being and navigating hitherto unknown territory.

Listen; it is safe bet to assume that every new mother with a baby that doesn’t sleep well (which is most babies) has heard about the different things she could do to get her baby to start sleeping ‘through the night’. And the fact that they are tired and not sleeping well also indicates a decision not to do these things. Either because it is against every mothering bone in their body or because it is not the right time. So, if a mother is talking to you about not sleeping much and you start giving advice about different methods of sleep training/coaching/whatever you call it, whilst it may be with a truly good intention, it is not only a bit misjudged, but also not a very thoughtful/helpful thing to do.

So lovelies, let’s try to advise less, listen more. Rescue less, resonate more. Talk less, hear more.

When we do give advise, let’s pause for long enough to consider whether it is wanted. And if you’re not sure, there’s always the question to be asked…’do you want my advice about this?/ Are you looking for advise?’. I suspect this is more important that many of us realise.

That’s all, for now.

claire rother2 Comments