As I meet new people in my office and read through the discussions on the Relationships and Coping community, I consciously temper my impulse to jump in and tell people what to do. Part of the reason for this is that I believe I can help them more by encouraging them to think through their struggles than by offering ready-made solutions; an approach related to my role in these situations. But just as importantly (or maybe even more importantly), I try to remember that people’s lives are complicated. When they tell others about themselves, they need to simplify. They decide what to share and what not to share; and they decide where to shine the spotlight. This is always true, though all the more so when sharing thoughts and feelings in new relationships and in online forums.
Because of the need to simplify, there is often more that we (as the ‘listeners’) do not know in these situations than what we do know. Even when they try to provide all relevant details about a situation, they will inevitably leave something out. For example, someone might say that she struggles with trust issues because her husband cheated on her; but it can also be extremely important to know more details, such as: whether he’s done it once or many times; whether it last happened a few days ago or 20 years ago; and whether it happened in the context of chronic marital issues or for the first time after he learned of her infidelity. These are just a few possibilities, but you get the idea. While no reason excuses infidelity, the particulars can affect your reaction.
It’s also important to keep in mind that relationships involve dynamics that no one on the outside is fully privy to. Each person has biases and is probably inclined to defend their own position. Sometimes previous experiences make them overly sensitive—or not sensitive enough—to situations. For instance, someone who has been cheated on in the past is likely to be understandably more suspicious in a current relationship. However, people on the outside might not know about this history. So, they might assume that her unfounded suspicions (supported by biased observations) are correct, and give advice based on them. Or, they might recognize that her perceptions are possibly off, but they fail to provide her with the compassionate response that might help her to heal. And, of course, those offering help are not free from their own biases, either.
Being helpful is tricky. It’s easy to advise one thing when you would provide different advice if you had a bit more information; or could see how your experiences are biasing your judgment. This doesn’t mean that people can’t help each other; on the Internet or in person. It just means that some awareness of your limitations can go a long way. This awareness can help you take a step back when you find yourself being judgmental; and it can remind you to be cautious when providing suggestions. It can also help you to acknowledge your error more quickly when someone corrects your misperceptions, and to move toward connecting better with the person you’re trying to help.
With a cautious and humble approach to others, you can provide support while also learning a bit more about your own limits. What I have found by working with people in therapy and here on WebMD is that, like so much else in life, the more I learn, the more I also realize that I don’t know or understand as much as I thought I did. This realization is humbling, enlightening, and helps to guide me – and can perhaps help to guide you – when advising others.
If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic on the Relationships and Coping Community, click here.