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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.