The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)
Part III. MEDITATIONS
Chapter 10. Third Meditation: Imperfect Advice
In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?
I am a problem solver. In high school, my favorite subject was math. The clarity, the certainty, the sense of closure I got when I solved a math problem—these were the elements that attracted me to working with numbers. In college my interests changed, as the personal challenges that I faced with my perfectionism and stress drew me away from figures and toward trying to figure out the human psyche—specifically, initially, my own. But while the content of my studies changed (from numbers to people), the methodology did not, and I still sought the same clarity and closure.
My goal was to make myself and others happier, and to me that was all about finding solutions to problems. One day, when I was a graduate student, a friend took me to lunch and told me that he had been going through a rough time. He was no longer sure he was in the right field, he was unable to motivate himself, and instead of working he was spending most of his time procrastinating. I listened to him for a few minutes and then launched into a monologue in which I analyzed his problem, and then, with certainty and conviction, provided him a clear and simple solution.
I told him about some writing exercises that could help him identify his passions and, potentially, an alternative career path. I shared with him some motivational theory and then suggested a few steps that he could take to overcome procrastination—a topic I was well versed in, having studied and taught it for a number of years. Pure reason, very scientific, very insightful—and totally unhelpful.
Throughout the conversation, as I was sharing my experience and expertise, I felt that he was not really listening, that my words were not getting through. I tried harder, explained better, rephrased my suggestions, and generated more practical exercises and creative ideas, but to no avail. It was only later that day, when I had time to reflect on our conversation, that I realized that what he needed was not my solution but my presence; he didn’t need my theories, just a sympathetic ear.
According to Carl Rogers, the role of the therapist (or anyone else in a helping relationship) is to create an environment of unconditional positive regard for the client. In Rogerian therapy, the psychologist does little more than reflect back what the client says and provide a safe environment in which the client feels accepted and therefore comfortable being himself. Over time the client internalizes the therapist’s unconditional positive regard and becomes stronger, better able to deal with challenges and difficulties on his own. “My aim,” writes Rogers, “has been to provide a climate which contains as much of safety, of warmth, of empathic understanding, as I can genuinely find in myself to give.”1
Robyn Dawes, in his book House of Cards, draws on the substantial research in the area of therapy to illustrate how the efficacy of a therapist, once she has the basic skills and knowledge, is not determined by the number or type of degrees she has earned but by the degree of empathy that she has. Empathy allows us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and to understand what the person truly needs. I am more likely to be empathetic to the person before me when I am truly listening to him without being distracted by thoughts about how to advise him. The foundation of effective therapy is not only intellectual sophistication and knowledge but the ability to accept and to empathize.
While coming up with solutions to a friend’s problems may make us feel helpful and competent, it often has the opposite effect on the friend. First, offering solutions creates distance between two people: one person is in the know (above), the other is in trouble (below). Second, the person being helped feels inadequate, especially when he is already feeling weak. When we offer solutions, regardless of our intentions, the message often comes across as condescending and paternalistic.
But when we embrace and accept, we communicate a different set of messages. First, and most importantly, we are telling the person, “I am with you. I care about you, and you can count on me.” Second, we are telling him, “I trust you. You are smart enough and competent enough to get through this.” When the mode is one of acceptance, even though it is clear that one person is helping and the other is being helped, the latter is more likely to feel understood and empowered. It is not always easy to refrain from giving advice, especially when we are with people we care about, but advice is not always the best thing we have to offer. Usually, simply being there is sufficient.
There are times when suggesting a solution is appropriate. If, for example, my friend is struggling with procrastination, it may be useful for me to share my expertise in this area—but only after I have listened to him. In the interpersonal domain—just as in the intrapersonal domain—we need active acceptance: first accept, be there for him, and only then provide advice and suggest solutions. There are, unfortunately, no simple rules that tell us when to embrace and when to try to help actively. This is where empathy comes in. An empathetic therapist or friend senses when acceptance is sufficient and when it may be helpful to offer suggestions.
While Perfectionists are inclined to give advice and fix things—to make things perfect again—they are equally disinclined to ask for advice or any kind of help. In fact, one of the best ways for Perfectionists to move toward optimalism is to actively ask for help—to reach out, to show a need, to be vulnerable. Initially, it may feel awkward and difficult, but as is true for any new behavior, one gets used to it. Personally, one of the most significant benefits that I have received from being in a long-term intimate relationship, one that is based on mutual trust, has been learning to ask for help and, through it, gaining the strength to be weak. I have taken that understanding to other relationships and situations in my life.
Is there something you need help with? Can you reach out to someone you trust for help?
A human being is not a series of mathematical formulas, where we can just plug in the right number in place of a particular variable and the problem is solved. The human psyche, especially when troubled or weak, needs sensitivity and care more than it does solutions and advice. For it is out of this soft embrace, the nurturing soil of acceptance, that the full strength and power and force of the person can emerge.
Learning from Another Person
Think of a particular person who has helped you, or is helping you, through difficult times. Write about the person and specifically about what he or she does that is so helpful. Write about a particular conversation with this person that helped you or a particular event in which this person gave you strength.
What can you learn from the way the person acts or talks? What can you apply to your own attempts to help others? You can repeat this exercise by thinking of one or two more people and then identifying the thread that is common to those who have helped you.