Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

My Misgivings About Advice

--by Parker Palmer (Jan 23, 2017)

My misgivings about advice began with my first experience of clinical depression thirty-five years ago. The people who tried to support me had good intentions. But, for the most part, what they did left me feeling more depressed.

Some went for the nature cure: “Why don’t you get outside and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air? Everything is blooming and it’s such a beautiful day!” When you’re depressed, you know intellectually that it’s beautiful out there. But you can’t feel a bit of that beauty because your feelings are dead — and being reminded of that gap is depressing.

Other would-be helpers tried to spruce up my self-image: “Why so down on yourself? You’ve helped so many people.” But when you’re depressed, the only voice you can hear is one that tells you that you’re a worthless fraud. Those compliments deepened my depression by making me feel that I’d defrauded yet another person: “If he knew what a worm I am, he’d never speak to me again.”

Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.

Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to “save” the other person.

And yet, we have something better: our gift of self in the form of personal presence and attention, the kind that invites the other’s soul to show up. As Mary Oliver has written, "This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness."

Excerpted from this blog.

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Previous Reflections:

On Jan 19, 2017 Victoria Fabling wrote:

 Yes, I like this.  I witnessed a lady ranting in a care home tonight, and I was aware of the beauty and caring of those around her who just let her rant, let her clear her demons (is what it seemed like to me).

On Jan 21, 2017 david doane wrote:

 I think of things like "the nature cure" ie "Why don't you go outside and enjoy the sunshine?" and "self-image sprucing" ie "Why so down on yourself?  You've helped so many people?" as friendly well-intentioned advice and encouragement that  typically are just pablum, minimally nourishing or helpful.  Witnessing as being fully with the other, present, attentive and actively listening, is important for the soul, providing the space to become.  We are born, heal, evolve, grow, transform from inside out.  No one does it to us or for us.  We have the resources within, and witnessing can support and allow the process.  Sometimes witnessing is more than enough, and sometimes additional skillful intervention is very helpful or necessary.  I've seen both situations.  What helps me stay rooted in being a witness in the face of intense suffering is knowing that witnessing in and of itself is powerful medicine, is nurturing and healing, and if more is needed, witnessing can be the container in which additional skillful intervention is tolerable and successful.  Witnessing and the right intervention can be a valuable combination.

On Jan 21, 2017 Amy wrote:

 My soul's connection to God!  Jesus stayed rooted by aligning his soul with His Father.  I think I will do the same.  In the end, He is the only One Who really matters.  The people in darkness have seen a great Light .... The word of our Lord ....

On Jan 24, 2017 Anantharaman M wrote:

 Our gift in the form of personal presence and attention,....... having the patience to allow the person to do anything which he/she is capable of doing, not trying to help, being available, not advising, .....and active listening. A friend highly qualified, 65 years in the social work field, being incapacitated after a fall at the age of 86, shifted to a home for people who cannot look after themselves, with all her complaints,  wrote her autobiography over a three year period, which was published by her Alma Mater, which honored her by making her a Hon Professor at the age of 91. Recently passed away aged 93. Was a period of transformation for me.

On Jan 24, 2017 Sunil,Bangalore wrote:

 No advice but only sympathy and empathy with head,heart and soul.

On Jan 24, 2017 Judy Purvis wrote:

 I spent a concentrated period of time in therapy with a psychiatrist who was firm about not giving me advice or answers, just the occasional question. It was frustrating--sometimes one just wants answers. But I came to understand that he was giving me a gift: the continual affirmation that I had the answers within me, that only I could know what I needed, and that his careful listening helped me listen to myself. So hard to do, but so affirming at a time when I felt like a mess.

On Jan 24, 2017 Jaye wrote:

 I happen to be one of those people who others like to bare their souls to...I don't know why but you know what I mean. This has happened to me since forever...even when young. I learned through the years, and there are many, that people really just want you to listen to them. The author of this article is right! I don't ask question; I just give the occasional "hmmmm" or "well" or "ohhhh". Only if they exactly say..."what do you think I should do?" Do I ever attempt to advise. And then nothing too specific...oh, there have been times when someone was in great need but then I would direct them to someone much more qualified to help than I! 

On Jan 24, 2017 Mish wrote:

 Oftentimes, giving/receiving a hug, is more powerful than words, I have found.

On Jan 25, 2017 Purvi wrote:

It is so tempting for us to advise our near and dear ones when they are suffering. We want to get them out of it quickly. I also used to give advise to people when they go through such depression/pain but didn't understand why they are not able to get it and come out from it. Gradually, I understood that, they don't want advise, they just want someone to listen to them and understand what they are going through. One can only come out from such suffering or pain if he/she decides to come out from it. As the proverb says 'God also can't help you if you don't help yourself'. So, only thing we can do is 'Be with them, take care of them and actively listen to them'. that will heal the person and they will find their own way to come out from it. And as David said right combination of witnessing and skillful intervention can help them to find answers within themselves!

On Jan 25, 2017 daphine mbabazi wrote:

 i think this is very true. i have witnessed it with my self. additionally, i my friends have been depressed a number of times; but in most cases, all they want to know is that someone is beside them, doing nothing but simply listening.
it's powerful!
thank you!

On Jan 25, 2017 Jagdish P Dave wrote:

 Loving attention and compassionate presence is what we need in good times and bad times. Kind genuine look, empathic understanding,therapeutic loving touch, helping hands and active listening are the core ingredients for helping someone who goes through depression and suffering.We all need such seeing, hearing, witnessing  and companioning when go through a downward turn in our journey of life. Advising done with all good intentions is counterproductive.

This writing reminds of a poem I had learned when I was in a high school.It is in Hindi: Ghayal ki gata ghayal jane' aur na jane' koi- A wounded heart knows the pain of the other wounded heart and none other. Yes. We need someone to walk with us as a compassionate companion when our heart aches and when we feel down.

Reading this writing reminds of me a moving experience I had with a 5 years old girl sobbing and sitting by herself. I was heading towards my lunch. When I saw her crying, I paused and stood beside her. I  looked at her and put my hand on her shoulder. She felt my compassionate and caring presence. Her lips were dry. I brought water for her to drink.She seemed to calm down a little.I asked her what made her cry. " I miss my mom. She is flying to Colorado for two weeks for her work and I won't see her for two weeks.." Sitting beside her, holding her hands, listening to her and feeling her sadness was good enough for her to be herself. I asked her if she could face time her mom on her smart phone.There was a soft smile on her face and I left  holding this little girl in my heart.

May we extend our loving hand and be connected with someone going though emotional suffering! It is by giving we receive!

On Jan 25, 2017 David Clark wrote:

 Oh, Mary Oliver, where did you get such beautiful words that help us care about, care for others?

On Jan 25, 2017 Stu omans wrote:

 We are Jewish. We will do ALL in our power to stand beside you. Registry? We will register with you.

On Jan 26, 2017 Amy wrote:


On Jan 27, 2017 Kristin Pedemonti wrote:

 This hit hard. As both someone who has often sat in witness of other's depression or pain and as one who is challenged with depression herself. I meant to respond earlier, but this was a challenging week with being sick with a bad cold and being sick about all that is happening in the US with the new President. I can tell you from personal experience that what I want the most is simply to be valued and heard and loved. No one needs to "fix" me, nor can they. I am made the way I am and it is OK. The same goes for me witnessing for others, I cannot, nor should I try to fix anyone. What I can do is simply be present in love and compassion. Seeing someone you love in pain can be quite difficult, and yet, simply being there is enough. Hugs from my heart to all of yours, Kristin

On Jan 28, 2017 Amy wrote:

 I give and receive hugs and love to/from my Anam Cara every single day.  He keeps me from the "depths" of untruth ... He is a gift from of whom I thank God regularly!  Always Love

On Sep 16, 2018 V. Meera wrote:

I agree with everything what is said, as I have two of my relatives going through this right now for 2 years, denying all human interactions, and completely stagnant. It affects both of their loved ones who live their respective household dearly.  Are there any concrete steps we could take to help this individual or the family?