3 Things I’ve Learned About Dealing with Life from Giving Advice on the Internet

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For lo these many years now, I have been contributing to Autostraddle’s long-running multi-author advice column, You Need Help. We get more requests for advice than we can handle, honestly; even with all the questions we can’t answer for one reason or another, we’ve covered a lot of ground. I don’t think my advice has been infallible, and I’m sure there are some things I’ve written in that archive that I no longer fully agree with. But I do think I’ve gotten pretty good at the fundamental logistics of considering and answering weighty problems — enough so that it’s something I think about now when I have my own. If this were an advice question, what would I say? I realized I’ve benefited a lot from that process, and that perhaps you would too. This isn’t meant to replace writing us for advice (at youneedhelp at autostraddle dot com!) or dissuade you from doing so — please continue to do so with gusto! But the world is a cold, dark and scary place, and the more we talk about this, the better off we all are, no? HERE GOES.

1. Think about how your problem appears through someone else’s eyes

It’s become habit for me to think of my thorniest problems as an emailed You Need Help problem. Is that the healthiest approach ever? I don’t know! But it’s very clarifying. Most of us, precious ego creatures that we are, feel much more confident about knowing what’s best for other people than knowing what’s best for ourselves — it’s why you think it’s SO OBVIOUS that your best friend should break up with her girlfriend but it took you six months to decide the same thing for yourself. Practice imagining your own problem explained to you by your best friend, your mom, your coworker, your girlfriend. Really imagine it as happening to them, hearing them tell you about it over the phone or a cup of hot cocoa. Much of the time, it’s easy to see the solution that you’d tell them is obvious — are you so sure it isn’t applicable to you too?

2. Cut to the core of the issue

Many people do a valiant job keeping to the 100-word limit that we ask people to observe for You Need Help questions — thank you! Some do not, and I totally understand why; when you’re in the throes of something heavy, every tiny detail feels crucial, and you cling to their importance. Even if you know things aren’t great with your current partner, the fact that they [insert major relationship gesture here] feels overwhelmingly significant; you can’t just ignore that. But when you’re actually answering those questions, to be honest, you end up looking past all that. There’s usually one or two sentences that sum up the whole thing, that are the center of it all, and that’s what I end up responding to. Take a deep breath and try to force yourself to distill it, to state it in just one sentence. What’s the essence of what’s happening here, when you don’t look at the history or the trappings of it? That’s what you really need to take a clear, honest look at — what does it point to, where does it lead?

3. Be honest about what you’re really asking, and acknowledge that you maybe already know the answer

Sometimes it’s hard to shake the sense that people who write in for advice are asking one thing as a screen for another, harder thing. People ask “How do I know when it’s time to end things?” when what they really want to ask is “Is it ok that I want to end things? Is this a good enough reason?” People ask “How could I ever possibly move past [thing]?” when they really mean “Do I have permission to say that [thing] isn’t something I can get over?”

There’s the saying — not always true! — that if you’re asking whether you’re not straight, you probably aren’t. When seeking advice, there are times when a question resonates in the same way. There are some questions where, if we’ve gathered up the courage to ask them, it’s kind of because on some level, we already know the answer. If we’re asking this question, it’s because we’ve already had to ask ourselves dozens of others — “Is this really how family is supposed to work?” “Are relationships supposed to feel like this?” “Do other people feel this dissatisfied at their ‘dream job?'” — that have already suggested some conclusions to us. Sometimes you don’t need advice from someone else, not really — you need to let yourself sit quietly and ask the real question, and let yourself give the real answer.

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. Ah, number one is a life changer! I think this is the reason I grew so much from working with teenagers in a role where I had to advise them and advocate for them. It got much easier to see these things from the outside, and I learnt to worry less about things that would seem small/obvious/simple later, but also to be kind to myself and ask for what I need, since I wouldn’t hesitate to do that for my students.

    Thanks for the reminder ^_^

  2. ” People ask “How could I ever possibly move past [thing]?” when they really mean “Do I have permission to say that [thing] isn’t something I can get over?” ”

    This. Asking if it’s okay to feel a certain thing and asking about the thing that’s making you feel that way are two separate questions to sit with. Letting someone know they have permission to feel and then spend some time with it can be enough. <3

  3. I worry about part three. I often feel like I’m asking someones permission to make a decision, when objectively I know I should be able to decide myself. But just saying things out loud (in the form of a question) to another person gives me a lot more confidence in what I was already feeling.

    • I tried to write that comment about four times and can’t quite describe it, so here are my *FEELINGS*. Maybe after some time I’ll be able to come back and I will have worked out what I am trying to say. This was the best I can do for now.

      • I think I know what you mean, though, and I definitely do it too. There’s something about making a thing exist… outside of my head? that makes me feel more secure in it. I mean, it’s also helpful if I get validation from whomever I’m talking to, but it’s not just about that.

        I don’t really know if that’s an ideal thing or not? But it helps me give myself permission to make those sorts of decisions, which I used to not be good at at all. And I think the more I practice it, the better I get. So I figure it’s positive on the whole!

        • ‘Making a thing exist outside of my head’. That is it! I feel like I’m not sure about something until it exists by discussing it, so that will come across as a question. But just the act of asking makes it exist and solidifies it as a legitimate choice regardless of the persons reaction.

          Ahh this is a much better way of thinking about it than ‘asking permission to decide’.

  4. You give such good advice that even if I relate to the question zero percent I still feel way comforted and optimistic after reading your response. Thank you!

  5. I think this advice is so relevant and so real! Thanks Rachel :-) I think we have all been that person a few times in our lives (the person that asks the question… not necessarily for advice, but because in a slightly misguided way we are trying to connect with other people). I have definitely been that person before! It is just another testament to me of how amazing this community/space is though! The fact that hundreds of people are trusting the editors of this awesome site with questions they would reserve for their dearest friends. You all do such a good job of cultivating community. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  6. This is lovely, thanks for writing this! All makes sort of intuitive sense once you hear it, but the tricky part is being clear and intentional in the throes of whatever emotional angst you’re dealing with. Having systems and “rules” like the ones here helps.

  7. I love this advice! My wife recently became friends with a young person who is going through a lot of the same things that my wife went through and still goes through with depression and self esteem. I love listening to my wife give the same advice that I’ve given to her for the last 3-4 years. Also when my wife starts to be hard on herself I ask her if she would say the same things to her friend.

  8. This was magisterial.
    I have to control myself to not hug Rachel and tell her I love her everytime I see her at camp.

  9. This is excellent all around. I think there’s also a corollary to #3 that, so often, what we want is for someone not to give us actual advice, but to reassure us that something better exists. That other people have experienced better relationships, have found a life without a [thing], have a job that they actually care about, etc.

    As a kid, I got a lot of cultural messaging that adulthood was about settling and putting up with stuff, so “do other people feel this dissatisfied” really means “I already know I’m not happy, but what if this is as good as it could be, and anything I find next will be the same or worse?” (Dear everyone: there is actual joy in the world and you can have some, too.)

    • That. So often feel like there’s something greedy/childish about wanting something more than “okay.”

  10. For me, writing to you guys for advice, is less about the advice, and more about knowing that there is someone in this world that cares about me and my broken heart. And I know that you care about a complete stranger, because I see the care and warmth that you share with other readers. And that gives me hope. Because by loving and supporting a stranger on this site, you are saying – we value you. And I appreciate that. <3 Thank you Autostraddle!

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