Friendship and Giving Good Advice

Good advice is a gift. Like any gift, it isn’t about you, but the other person. Here, this means that what matters is what helps your partner in conversation, and not your desire to be seen as wise.

Tied up in this is an important recognition: good advice shouldn’t involve telling someone what to do (they likely already know), but instead, helping them understand why they need to do it.

Advice is useless if someone can’t implement it, and it is even worse if they were ignorant in the first place. By analogy, there is no use giving someone a hammer if they don’t know how to use one, and there is even less use telling someone to buy a hammer if they don’t know what it is; no use telling someone to be happy if they don’t know how to be, and even worse to tell someone they can be happy if they don’t even see it as a possibility.

The problem we often fall into when giving advice is we don’t really give advice at all; advice, and the subjunctive ‘to advise’ comes from the Latin ad meaning ‘to’, and videre meaning ‘see’. That is, to advise means helping someone ‘to see’ something they couldn’t previously; but usually we think of it as meaning to give instructions, commands, or orders. We have a tendency to tell people what they should do, without giving proper consideration to what they could do. If someone smokes, no use telling them they should quit; of course they know that, what they need is advice, a way to see how they could quit. ‘Advice’, seen in this way, is about opening up possibilities for action, rather than providing instructions for an action that clearly isn’t possible. After all, a smoker really would quit if they could.

What this reveals is that good advice does not come from a position of authority; it does not involve one person telling another what they should or must do. Good advice, rather, comes from a position of assistance and partnership, and its aim is giving insight into what one can do.

Good advice should operate like a mirror, giving reflections on what the other person is saying. It could, rather than clay-shooting a target, be more like a game of verbal Ping-Pong, where their thoughts are bounced back to them at different velocities and angles, to have them return the play and keep going. What someone may need is not comments on appropriate courses of action, but a back and forth which will bring their own thoughts and feelings into greater clarity. If someone says ‘I’m feeling sad’, the response is not ‘you shouldn’t be, the weather is so nice today’ but instead, ‘why are you feeling this way? Let’s talk about it’ (and thus opening the door for actual advice). Good advice, in this sense, isn’t a one way street, but two-ways, and relies on bringing unknown thoughts and feelings into focus.

The statement ‘giving advice’ implicitly reveals there is a person giving the advice, but what about the one receiving it? Giving advice must be intimately connected and inextricably bound to the person who receives it. Just as we want to talk, the other person want to be heard. This can yield particularly fruitful results. Imagine you have a friend who is complaining about their struggle with a university course. You could very well give them advice on how to study, the importance of being studious, and tips and tricks on how to maximise their time; and these tid-bits of advice might be very insightful and helpful…to another person. But, there is any chance that if you were really listening, you would find the problem wasn’t with that university course at all, but the fact they feel, deep down and irrevocably so, stupid. What they need isn’t advice in the traditional sense, but advice in the Latin sense, in allowing them ‘to see’ these deeper feelings. The best advice you could offer them, therefore, might not be tips on how to study, but the insight of a partial observer alerting them to a deeper angst which must be addressed.

Advice comes in many forms; we think of it as instruction or teaching, but it could more properly be identified as guidance. But we can only provide guidance when we know where someone has come from and where they are going, therefore, the best advice needs us to do something very simple which parents and lovers know all too well: listen.

Mobius as Metaphor: Strength & Weakness

The Mobius strip is a surface with one continuous side and one boundary. It folds in on itself with its opposite poles revealing themselves as the same side. It isn’t like a coin, which has two sides. On a coin, they really are opposites of one piece, but on a Mobius strip, they are one but misunderstood as being two.

I have a friend. They have been working for many years now to save up for a house. Sure, they don’t really love their job, in fact, they hate it, but they are committed to working because, among many other reasons, they are good at it and it pays well; that is, it helps them achieve their goal. Although they want to buy luxury items and splurge on new furniture, they hold their resolve. They sometimes feel like quitting and giving up on their dream, but they persevere, always keeping their long term goal in mind.

But the very qualities which make them such a good saver also make them a sometimes infuriating friend. They never adjust their position in an argument; once convinced of something, it is hard to change their mind; and moral compass is so firmly fixed that I can never shake their convictions…no matter how misguided or just plain wrong, I might find them. What makes them an excellent saver can, at times, make them an utterly infuriating friend.

~

Being utterly compliant might make one an excellent employee, but will lead to real trouble standing up for oneself; being a really careful writer who painstakingly agonises over every single word will make one a brilliant writer, but a terrible friend to make loose comments with (not to mention using poor grammar); being able to stand in front of crowds and handle insults and embarrassment might make one a fantastic public speaker, but it might also make one less attuned to the complaints of their peers.

In the infinite multiplicity of life, what is strength in one situation is a weakness in others. It does not mean you should necessarily change who you are, but rather, that no matter who you are and what you do, it will be a boon in one instance, and a bane in another; that is a fact of the Mobius strip.

But what we can do, for both ourselves and others, is that next time we observe what we would think of as a weakness (someone’s stubbornness, or their ignorance, rudeness, or lack of empathy), we should see how this can also be a strength for them. In doing so, we will look at each other with a fairer and deeper understanding of their personality, perhaps not being so offended the next time they are so stubborn, knowing that this aspect of their personality we see hate, is intimately entwined with a part of their personality that we love.

Staring Out Of The Window

Nobody says “I had a lovely day; the high point was staring out the window”. But, maybe they should.

‘Not everything which cannot be deemed useful is useless’ wrote Josef Pieper. For while science, accounting, exercising and eating are all useful, others, such as art, music, and quiet contemplation; while being essentially ‘useless’, perform an incredibly important function. They may calm, uplift, inspire, or move us; but we don’t necessarily do them for such utilitarian purposes. We do them, simply, because we like them. There is value in the useless.

This humble truth is revealed in the act of staring out of one’s window. What matters here is not what one is looking at per se, but the very act of looking. Like hearing but not listening, this involves looking but not seeing because, what matters is not the content of our view, but the content of our minds. Looking out the window can provide a perfect moment for self-reflection. That single bird chirping to the wind, notes extinguished by air; its song makes you think about the ephemeral nature of existence and the fleetingness of beauty. Or, perhaps, the clouds whispering through the sky causes you to think about your tendency to hold on to things. The world outside the window is a space on which we can project our thoughts; redefine, reconceptualise, and rethink.

Our mind is like an upside down cone. As we go throughout the day, thoughts will fill the cone from the point, up; thoughts at the bottom stay there, and new thoughts pile on top. But, when we contemplate, such as staring out the window, the gravity of thought loses sway; thoughts once at the bottom can rise to the surface again and become objects of attention.

By giving our mind’s a moment to still/calm/relax, we are providing an opportunity for the quitter parts of ourselves to have a voice. They may not be entirely useful: you might not become a better friend, better lover, better worker, or better thinker by staring out the window; but then again, you just might.

For it is the nature of quiet contemplation that you do not do it with a goal in mind, to achieve usefulness from it. It cannot be retrieved, it must be granted. The ancients called this ‘grace’; we might call it an ‘epiphany’. You cannot force an epiphany; you must let it come to you.

Have you ever tried to remember a name or think of a certain word, but the more you try, the further away it seems to go? But then, in the midst of eating dinner or as you’re about to fall asleep, it just hits you?

The ancients understood well that when presented with a problem, sometimes, the solution is not found by strain or exertion, but by giving up and letting the solution come to us. This is the usefulness of the useless, and the greatest quality in aimlessly staring out of one’s window.

Toppling The King

One of the lessons of Jungian psychology is that we are not one single entity. The thing we call ‘me’ or ‘the self’ is really a collection of voices or ‘selves’. Rather than one entity seated at a table, there are, in fact, multiple sitting together, all sharing a meal.

Jung used the metaphor of archetypes to help make sense of these multiple entities. You can’t look at the brain and find the archetypes any more than you can look at the brain and find the ego or the subconscious. They are just metaphors. That’s the first thing to note. The second thing is that we are all very different and our archetypes will express this. Even the ‘same’ archetype in two people will operate differently in content, while the general structure remains the same.

The personality can be divided into archetypes in numerous ways, it could be four, five, or sixteen; the best way to consider one’s own archetypes is not reading a list of general ones online (unless as a description and not a prescription) but looking at oneself and seeing how certain behaviours reflect certain actors in life. To take an example, there is a part of you that is the joker, the everyman, the serious, the seducer, the baby, the commander, and the magician. But, there can just as easily be the mother, the daughter, the materialist, the calculator (or rationalist), and the writer (if you’re someone like me who thinks this particular colour has specific traits). While every person is different, the point of Jungian psychology is to appreciate that we are a confluence of varying forces of varying degrees, each corresponding to a different part of our personality, and therefore, very likely to change over time. The magician may be a relevant archetype today, but not so tomorrow.

However, we tend, especially in the West, to operate under the model that there is only one internal voice, the ‘ego’. But, this is just a model, and models are never direct reflections of reality, only metaphors; and metaphors can be changed.

Archetypes 2, Chris Miles, undated

This type of modelling invites what Adam Phillips terms ‘over determination’. That is, from every perspective you can think about something, there are so many other ways of looking at it. Your ego presents itself as absolute but ultimately, it is only one (and therefore, limited) perspective.

To take an example, say you have recently been dumped and are the type of person taken to self-critical assessments. You may say to yourself ‘I don’t blame her; I’m clearly a piece of shit’. Okay, maybe so, but this is only one part of you saying so. If you consider this internal voice to be the WHOLE of your available voice, then you come out with an entirely different perspective than if you considered it only one PART of your internal conversation. A Jungian model of archetypes invites further interpretations. ‘Indeed, the ego may say I am a piece of shit, but; when I contemplate calmly and deeply, a voice says perhaps (agreeing, however doubtedly) “but you were never really working, so someone had to end it”, and this is my mother; “calm down, and try to think clearly about this”, and this is my calculator; “I hate her, she’s a terrible person for leaving me”, and this is my baby; “you could have made it work if only you changed x or y, maybe there’s still time…”, and this is my magician; and “you never needed her anyway, you’re stronger on your own”, and this is my commander. Different points of view attain a unique salience when, rather than seen as expressions of the single ego, they are seen as alternate dimensions of the self that when taken together constitute a ‘personality’. Rather than a single one (the ego) reaching out in different directions, it is different perspectives bleeding in.

In thinking about ourselves from a Jungian perspective, we don’t invite split-personality disorder, because all of these voices are mere aspects of ourselves. They are never separate. No, they are intimately connected by the table at which they sit, but they all have something rich and insightful to give. But, that richness can only be appreciated when we see there has never been a single voice speaking to us but many, each giving a unique version of events. When we see this, we can topple the king from his throne, and no longer be beholden to one voice, because we know there are so many others waiting to speak.

A Philosophy of the Everyday

Philosophy, especially in the West, tends towards the abstract and complicated. This website is dedicated to the pursuit of recapturing philosophy from these distant and often incomprehensible heights and bringing it back down to Earth. Raw material for philosophy isn’t just found on dusty library shelves or exclusive journals. It can be discovered in everyday life if we know where to look.

By correcting our vision ever so slightly, we discover so much suitable material for philosophy that we would often overlook; haircuts, clothes, or the furniture in our rooms. There is a hidden message encoded in our various actions, a message conveying to other people who we are. By learning to look differently, we can think differently; and that is the beginning of philosophy.

Everything we do ‘says something’ about us; that is, our actions carry a tacit message about who we are. Or, in the vein of Roland Barthes and his book Mythologies, these acts signify our persona. Whether we choose to buy that solid, stiff and upright chair, or choose the smooth, cushioned and lounged chair, there is a message there beckoning for a philosophy about our ideas, beliefs and values.

This website, if anything, is dedicated to unearthing and uncovering the unseen and buried aspects of life, and piecing together the fragments found. It is, without putting too much of a poetic emphasis on it, an archaeology of the everyday.

Hair
If Martians landed in Melbourne, they would be astonished by the degree to which we care about our hair. Barbershops and salons occupy every corner (and sometimes two or three to a street). We dry, blow-wave, cut, colour, curl, crimp, condition (and surely other verbs starting with ‘c’) our hair into all manner of shapes and sizes. We fold, stretch, bend, twist and straighten. Our Martian observers would be confused, ‘why do they put so much emphasis on keratin tendrils coming out of their head and face which serve no immediate functional purpose’? The answer is in what these acts signify; that is, how say something about who we are.

Hair pulled straight back says that you are serious, in control, and like everything to be in its proper place. Flamboyantly curled hair says you are fun and extroverted, with some good chaotic energy thrown in. Hair parted down the middle says you are ready to get down to business, are professional, and want to be taken seriously. Colourful hair says you like to have fun, diverge from the mainstream, and prefer the interesting to the safe. Tangled hair that hasn’t been combed or brushed says that you are relaxed and don’t necessarily conform to standards, you are more spiritual than material, and you pay attention to what really counts in life.

We can’t speak to every stranger we walk past, so we often let our hair do the talking. ‘I’m fun’, ‘I’m serious’, ‘I don’t conform to society’s expectations’. We encourage our hair to communicate who we are without having to speak a word.

Clothes
At some point in our lives, we move from being dressed by our parents and wearing uniforms at school, to finally being able to choose for ourselves the type of clothes we wear. What this gave us, in no small way, is a chance to express ourselves, not as a subordinates to our parents taste nor as accessories of the school system, but as unique individuals with agency.

So, the choice in clothes (and this includes socks, shoes, perfumes, and nail polish) says something, like hair, about who we are. Embodied within every decision is a sign. This is not about creating significance where there is only insignificance; it is about appreciating that there is no coincidence in our choice of clothes (or hairstyle). We like certain clothes because they correspond to certain aspects of our personality, whether known or unknown. Think of people you know who, after a breakup, buy new clothes or go to the hairdresser…

What are her clothes saying in this photo?

Wearing exclusively organic materials says to the world that you care about the environment and your impact on the world. Wearing clothes with lots of colour and wild patterns says you are fun, quirky, and don’t like being put in a box. Wearing clothes that are starched, perfectly tucked and neatly ironed says you are someone who cares about being in control, appreciates order, and is quick to defend.

Of course, a certain degree of compensation is at play here. We may have to wear a suit and tie all day for work and would like nothing more than to escape the bondage of starched fabrics and embrace loose fitting tracksuit pants and moccasins. Or, we may spend a significant amount of money on designer clothes to display to others that we are well-to-do and have escaped the trash of the lower class. But, while we may give off an impression one way or another, the real sign (if only we knew the whole story) is saying something else. So, just as clothes may indicate who we are, they might also be pointing at the person we want to be. Whether it is one or the other is never immediately apparent.

There is a reason why corporate job interviews involve you in a suit and tie (double Windsor, above the top button please) or a prim and proper dress (buttons, but nothing flashy; a high cut, nothing revealing). Because this regalia says you are ready to work, you will conform the same way as your tie, and you will blend in like your buttons; and this is precisely the reason you don’t feel the need to wear a suit and tie with friends. Unlike an unknown employer, your friends already know you. You can be with them in an old t-shirt and tattered pants. They already understand you, and therefore, aren’t looking to your clothes for clues.

Clothes can tell us important information about people we don’t know anything about if we are paying attention. Hidden in the most ordinary of things is a treasure trove of information waiting to be uncovered.

The bedroom
We think of it as ‘our space’, and not without reason. Our bedroom, our retreat and sanctuary, is an embodiment of who we are as a person. Our bed, rug, tallboy, bedside table, lamp, duvet; choice of colour, texture, and form; and whether the room is chaotic or patterned, neat or messy, dusty or clean, all say something about who we are. (I think you are beginning to see the pattern now).

A neatly and orderly room says ‘I take life seriously, and everything must go to plan’. A messy room says ‘I know what is important and don’t care if a shirt is on the floor, what matters to me are that the bills are paid’. However, the compensatory nature of our unconscious can hold sway here too. A neat room can be an insurrection against the chaos of life and the feeling that one can never quite be safe or secure enough. A messy room might be a revolution against the imposing order of society, and after conforming for 50 hours a week, one can finally be who they want. Seeing a bedroom, in this sense, compliments understanding a person but doesn’t replace it because, ultimately, it is just a room.

Description: Temple of Zeus

The Temple of Zeus embodies order, strength, and permenance

But, in another sense, it is not; it is not just a room. The ancient Greeks built the temple of Zeus with strong sturdy columns set across parallel lines, with limestone and beautiful engravings. They did this because they saw the king of the gods as representing order and structure, strength and continuity, while also embodying the inherent beauty of the universe. Christian cathedrals were built with ornate and cascading architecture of almost infinitely receding lines and inspired paintings within because the message was that God is incomprehensible in his complexity yet beautiful in a way appreciated by the human eye. Architecture, like the bedroom, speaks to what we value, even if we may not know from whence this value arises.

~

When we speak to someone, there is only so much we can say to indicate the type of person we are. We may, such as on a first date, describe ourselves, but there is only so much time to share. So, our partner looks to other things, certain signifiers that will provide clues about the type of person we are. We are, in this sense, all detectives of the unspoken, and use this to create a profile of whom we are engaging with.

In an interesting way, our choice of hair-do, clothing and bedroom says things about us that we may not be able to verbalise in our everyday life. These unwritten codes become, in this way, clues to both others and ourselves. What do you think your aesthetic choices say about you?

Just like architecture, our hair, clothes, and choice in furniture – in a strange and non-verbal way – speak; they speak to who we are, what we think is importance, and the dimensions of our personalities. They are significant precisely because they signify not only who we are, but also who we want to be.

No

Even though it comprises no more than two letters and one syllable, ‘no’ ranks among the most punishing words in the English language. Contained in this very tiny word is a universe of potential meanings.

When we run away from the possibility of being told “no”, we are often running away from something entirely different. When we don’t ask out that hot stranger, we aren’t terrified of being told “no”, we are terrified of being told we are disgusting and unworthy. When we hold our tongue and don’t ask for a pay rise, we aren’t worried about being told “no”, we are worried about being told we aren’t actually good at what we do and thus, don’t deserve a pay rise. When we don’t ask our partners for more attention or to be kinder to us, we aren’t worried about being told “no”, we are worried about realising something we may have known all along, they don’t love us the way we need them to.

No’s come in many forms. When we tell a joke and others don’t laugh, the absence of laughter says to us ‘no, you aren’t funny’. When our dog doesn’t roll over or shake our hand on command, the rejection of our order says to us ‘you’re weak, you lack the power to even control an animal’. When we ask a friend to come out with us and they say “maybe”, they might not be saying ‘no’, but it still feels like they are. A ‘no’ feels the same as negation or as absence of affirmation.

Rejection, Tom Roberts, 1883.

While it is reductive to a significant extent, we are largely shaped by the forces of our childhood. Early conditions of a sapling will determine the shape and strength of the tree it becomes; similarly, our childhood affects the shape of our lives and the strength of our character.

If our childhood was characterised by emotionally unavailable parents, we suffer. We may have never been instilled with a faith in our inherent goodness so that today even the slightest rejection, like a “no”, becomes perceived as an existential threat. Or, we may have learned that acceptance means pleasing others and “no” signifies a failure to satisfy and get that thirst-quenching “yes”. Or, one day we asked for an expensive toy and our parents shouted “NO” at us and began to cry; we thought we were being a horrible child to our protector, little did we know about the money troubles at the time. They weren’t crying because they hated us, but because they couldn’t give us everything we ever wanted. We weren’t the failure, they felt like the failure. Looking back, we know that intellectually we weren’t failures, but it still feels that way, deep in our bones. The answer (or at least, the beginning of the answer) lies in interrogating our childhood and seeing how the feelings a ‘no’ today conjures are often remnants of undealt with circumstances in our pasts.

To survive, we are likely of falling into a pattern of avoiding any situation in which ‘no’ might arise. We narrow the possibilities of life by sticking the well-worn tracks of ‘yes’. While it may be more secure and satisfying (or rather, simply not unsatisfying), in the process, we retard our own creative development and chances for self-transcendence. By avoiding situations where we are told ‘no’, we avoid rejection, but we also miss out on opportunity.

We would do well to utilise this intellectual tool: when people say no, they do so because it doesn’t fit in with their plans. The hot stranger said ‘no’ not because they think you’re a disgusting freak; they have a partner. The animal didn’t refuse your command because you’re weak; they were distractedly focused on food. When your boss rejected your request for a raise, they didn’t say so because they think you’re a worthless employee; the business is struggling.

Think of all the times you’ve said ‘no’ to people without meaning they were sick, defected, or intolerable. You said “no” to the telemarketer because paying $50 a week for insurance on a boat you don’t own simply doesn’t fit in with your plan of saving money; and you said “no” to a friend who asked you to hang out, not because you think they’re boring, but because you already had plans to have dinner with your parents. You didn’t say “no” because you hated them, their requests simply didn’t fit in with your plans.

‘No’ is an incredibly powerful word, but we would do well to be slightly less narcissistic here. It really isn’t about you. People say ‘no’ for so many reasons, often having very little to do (if at all) with you. We would be well-served in keeping this thought at the back of our minds so that next time someone says ‘no’ to us, we can remind ourselves it isn’t because we are disgusting or defective or a failure; our request simply doesn’t fit in with their plans.

Nature’s Philosophy

In the West, our philosophy leans heavily towards theory. It is mental and often confined to the clever organisation and categorisation of abstract concepts. But this is merely one method of philosophising. One can also philosophise not through thinking, but through experiencing. To use an analogy, there are people who stand still and listen to music, and there are those who dance. They both experience music, but in radically different ways.

We can confine ourselves to the philosophy of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nussbaum as it is written and will surely learn a lot. But there is another philosophy teacher, one whose teachings are not found in books but in life itself. This renowned and undeniably wise teacher is nature itself and by living in it as well as with it, we might learn something entirely new, fresh, and altogether radically different.

Clouds
Clouds have many things to teach us. Whispery membranes floating through the sky, forming poetic patterns of mist gleaming luminously against the sky. Yet, clouds never hold form. They manifest the lesson of ‘letting go’, of becoming but not being. A cloud is always on its way to something else; another shape, another form, another pattern. The cloud says to us that we need not worry, our boundaries are porous, there is no real distinction between you and me, any more than there is between one cloud and another. We should not fight this but simply let the wind carry us.

Rocks
Rocks have their own philosophical teachings to impart.

Gongshi – a traditional Chinese philosophy of rocks. Also known as ‘suiseki’ in Japanese, and ‘suseok’ in Korean.

The forces of nature and the flow of time are irrevocable. It is not something we can fight. Even the sturdiest among us will fall before the sword of the ineluctable flow of life. But, in the process, we become unique and in an utterly singular way, beautiful. Our spots cannot be replicated; our curves and crevices cannot be mass-produced.

  • Rocks are elegant and upright in the face of forces far beyond their power; they can teach us to be brave in the face of adversity.
  • Rocks furrow and brow, this does not dampen their beauty but enhances it; the furrows of our brow, the lines from our eyes, the wrinkles around our lips, these are signs of character and a life well lived.
  • The channels on rocks show where time has left its mark and given them a singular beauty; time shapes us in unique ways and these are marks of distinction, not signs of deformity.
  • The holes which allow light to pass through don’t betray weakness but allow light to illuminate their interior beauty; through our struggle, we grow and become stronger in different ways. The marks of past struggles cast us in a new light and show that we have changed.

Flowers
A flower stem fluttering in the wind has an important lesson to share. As it flutters, suggesting it is moments from breaking, we begin to think that the stem is weak and fragile. But we are looking at the stem out of context. It is the wind and open space in combination with the stem which make it flutter. If we were to bring the flower inside, it would remain still and sturdy. Humans are similar. We may say a person is anxious, just as the stem was weak. But it is not the person that is anxious, it is the person in that environment that makes them anxious, that makes their heart and mind flutter. By changing the environment of the flower we resolve the issue of fluttering. So too, if we change our environment, what ails us might also be resolved.

Gardens
One of the most important philosophical lessons we can learn comes from the garden. Its most important lesson can be summed up as it is not about you. You cannot act selfishly or single-mindedly in the garden without destroying it. Chickens will not lay eggs merely by commanding them to do so. You cannot demand a flower bloom without sun. You cannot force a tomato to grow without enough potassium. It is not for nothing that a crop of vegetables is called a ‘yield’; a word captured in essence by ‘giving in’. The garden reveals to us an indisputable truth of nature: things work together; and it teaches us that to be successful, we must give up the myopic focus on what we want, and begin to appreciate and deliver what other things need. Life is relationship; this is what the garden has to share.

Thoreau once wrote,

Students should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than but at once trying the experiment of living?

Western philosophy has a lot to learn from Thoreau. Indeed, philosophy can be learnt from reading pyramids of books and entertaining abstract thought from the comfort of a study. But, there is another, different, and sometimes (especially for a gardener) more fruitful type, and that is the philosophy gained by lived experience, and there is no better teacher than nature herself.

On Caring Too Much About What Others Think

If we can’t decide who we are, others will make that decision for us.

It is sad enough when two people dislike each other. It is even sadder to dislike yourself because someone else does.

One of the most common questions we ask ourselves when we meet new people, especially on dates, is ‘do they like me?’ It is an important question, the answer to which indicates whether we deepen connections or cut them off before it becomes too difficult. However, there is a particular type of person for whom this question takes on a destabilising importance. This person is that peculiar being who is, to their dismay, unsure of themselves.

Especially for the deeply unsure, but for the rest of us too, the reason we care so much about what others think of us is because, to a greater or lesser extent, we simply do not know who we are. Adulation or insult, compliments or denigration; they take on gargantuan proportions because rather than second-hand comments, they are seen as prescient statements about who we are as a person. Lacking proper insight into our identity and missing the courage to defend ourselves, we take what other people say to heart. After all, because we don’t know ourselves, what that person said could very well be true.

There is significant overlap between the ‘people pleaser’ and the person who does not know themselves. Lacking a proper understanding of who we are, we are liable to seek the answer in the words of others. Never wanting to be told bad things, we will go out of our way to appease and satisfy others so they will tell us something we likely have always wanted to, but have been unable to tell ourselves: we are worthy.

‘Do they like me’ might be an important question, but it is also an extremely passive one. It places power and responsibility entirely in the hands of another, as if you are a mere pawn to their whims. To believe ourselves as worthy and to have a mature understanding of who we are, we may still ask ‘do they like me’ but we will be able to ask an equally important question: do I like them?

Caring about what others think often occurs in inverse proportion to caring about what we think. Lacking the courage and self-assurance to say who we are, this space becomes filled with the vapid and sometimes harmful words of others. Our sense of self becomes entirely hinged to what others have to say.

To care less about what others think of us (which does not imply being obnoxious, only self-assured), we must start a new journey: we need to learn who we are and in doing so, develop the confidence to hold our heads high knowing that even if people might not like us, that is absolutely okay, because we know and like ourselves.

How to Complain

As weird as it sounds, complaining is an art form. Just as we can appreciate the difference between a landscape painting of William Blake and a painting of a landscape featuring a sun (always confusingly wearing sunglasses) by our 6 year old niece; we can likewise appreciate the difference between a person who complains and one who whines; between the artist of airing grievances and the cruder verbal ramblings of the untrained conversationalist.

Landscape at Sunset, William Blake, 1874.

The whiner, like the complainer, has a problem; they both share the facts of the problem with those around them. But, the whiner remains at a particularly surface level of engagement with the problem. They will exclaim how it is so horrible that this thing has happened, how it is so unfair and cruel, and probably God is just punishing them for their very arrogance to exist. The whiner sticks with a problem but never goes beyond it. They do not connect dots, dive deeper, or see how an issue inextricably connects to actions they may have previously taken.

The complainer, on the other hand, engages with their dismay differently. Properly complaining is to connect a problem with the deeper issues feeding it, alongside the preceding actions that may have caused it. They say something is bad, but they also explain, in their own way, why.

To highlight the difference, consider the case of a back injury. The whiner will go on about how much pain they’re in, why it is so rotten that bad things happen to good people, and express frustration about how they can’t do what they want to anymore because of the pain. One who understands the art of complaining, however, will approach it differently. They will observe that while it is terrible they have a back injury, what is most sad is how they never took the importance of a strong lower back seriously. They were lax and complacent, and this is the result. They feel less than human now, different, even disabled, and being different and lesser than those around them has always been something they were worried about; childhood trauma is manifesting in the most brutal of ways.

The complainer inspects their complaint, unpacks it, connects it, and in the process gives a detailed and personal picture. They are like Blake’s landscape painting; broad brushstrokes here, softs touches there, and layers upon layers drawing you in to a unified and sentimental offering of the soul. The whiner does not do this. They say things are bad and that’s that. They are like the crude single line landscape paintings of a child. You can infer there is a landscape, but the painting lacks the detail to convey any sense of what is important to the painter.

The art of complaining lies in going beyond the problem itself, drawing out the personal, and giving insight into the rocky topography of one’s emotional landscape. What makes whining so alienating and proper complaining so fruitful is because when people ask what is wrong, they are really asking what is wrong with you; the insight and clarity the artist of complaining possess allows us to empathise in their pain, and connect with them on a significantly more personal, intimate, and gratifying level.

How Not To Be a Drainer

The drainer is a terrorist, holding someone hostage in conversation.

It is an unfortunate reality that when you meet new people, there are few perceptible signs before speaking to them that they are a drainer. Maybe you saw people they were talking to eye off the exit, or observed exasperated shrugs of the shoulders, perhaps you overheard others make numerous ‘anyways’ and ‘that’s good’ comments as they tried to close up the conversation. The drainer, for lack of better phrasing, just doesn’t know when to shut up.

They will just go on and on about a particular topic with apparent disregard for how interested you appear (or internally are). They certainly believe in what they are saying and unfortunately believe enthusiasm can be a substitute for skill. They really do think that vaccines kill, or truly believe that the climate emergency is just an overreaction. Whether they are pulling at whatever thoughts first float to the surface, or (as they see it) citing coherent arguments, stating facts, and presenting data, what makes them a drainer – that is, a drain on your very energy to continue speaking to them – is that they pay no attention to you.

Drainers, unfortunately, tend to be better at talking at people rather than with them. In the process, they undermine the most basic tenet of communication: to commune; to join and create something together. The drainer is so concerned with being heard they forget to listen.

One comes upon a sneaking suspicion that drainers aren’t really being honest with us or themselves. They are filled with such self-righteous anger at vaccine mandates or protestors fighting climate change. But the venom running through their incessant monologing about why this is ridiculous, or these people are fools, suggests that the problem might be more personal. Perhaps a vaccine mandate seems authoritarian, the same kind of invasive authority they were subjected to in childhood; they were always victimised, and rarely had a say in how they wanted to live, and maybe (and perhaps this is the real issue) they still don’t. Maybe they hate people fussing about the climate catastrophe because they have been poor, unemployed, broken and belittled, but nobody ever gave a damn about them; their problems are real while the climate problem is so abstract. Once again, they have been forgotten, and it makes them furious. The drainer (as they so often are), is angry, but because they don’t properly locate or expand on the sources of their own anger, they come across terribly boring, and even a bit neurotic. The problem isn’t that we want to hear less, rather, we want to hear more; less about the world, and more about them.

A good partner in conversation, therefore, will try their best to draw the conversation from the broader, more abstract and impersonal; into the more concise, specific and personal; understanding that beneath the rage about vaccines and environmental protestors, there was a personal story waiting to be told. A story, perhaps, that would be far more interesting and significantly less draining.

In seeing the personal beneath the impersonal, what people have to say becomes significantly less draining. When someone says vaccine mandates are a sign of fascism or that the environmental movement threatens the economic system, we won’t be as infuriated or even triggered, because we will understand where that person is coming from and just how much their personal experiences inform their present understanding, even if they might not realise it themselves.

Drainers are exclusively concerned with themselves. This comes back to the point about communing. Seeing very little interest in what you have to say unless it supports their point, the drainer is entropic, sucking the energy from conversation. At the heart of it, the drainer has an ardent desire to be heard. What we could do is hear them, or, at least, the parts of themselves that they may not be able to hear themselves. We could, as good participants in conversation, try to draw out the personal beneath the impersonal, and in the process, commune in a way that is gratifyingly more real, more intimate, and less draining in the process.