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sounding board v counselor

Posted Oct 05 2005 12:00am
I have trouble sometimes listening to friends talk about their problems. It's not that I don't want to hear them whining, usually -- it's that I have to bite my tongue and not give them advice.

Online, it's paradoxically harder to be silent, especially when you see a friend walking into a situation that closely mirrors nightmare scenarios she has already survived multiple times in her life. Sometimes we're so close to what's happening in our own lives we can't see the patterns, how life keeps throwing the same problem at us, over and over, until we get it right.

On the web, I've got the distance, I can take the long view. I can see it coming a mile away. Usually I don't say anything but today I did, and I'm afraid that I've hurt or offended someone I respect and admire a lot.

I don't have the means to take back what I wrote, and even if I did, I wouldn't. I didn't mean to be harsh but maybe I was, I don't know. I wrote out of concern for a friend, someone I don't want to see hurt or stressed anymore than she already is.

If I was out of line, I'm sorry, but my thinking goes like this: on little things, the day-to-day nitpicks and quibbles, a good friend will just suck it up and let it go. Be a sounding board, as it were. But it's the responsibilty of a good friend to warn you about the big, looming pitfalls that you can't see! Especially if you keep falling into the same pit over and over again. On the big issues, friends should be counselors.

Ah, but how can we tell what's important and what's trivial? We always want to judge people by what they say, but the real yardstick is what they do, and that may be where I crossed the line in my comments to my friend. Her actions say one thing... maybe, while her words are on a whole 'nother plane entirely. Actions, like words, are always subject to interpretation.

I keep experiencing the same epiphany lately: we all live the lives we want. Sure, there are constraints we have to work within, but it all boils down to the same thing. If I really valued a good night's sleep, I'd get to bed earlier. But it's clear that I really think staying up reading and writing is a lot more valuable, because I consistently do that instead of sleeping. Then again, I decided that I wanted to swim and arranged things so I could. Eventually my swimming will get to the point where it forces me to get to bed a decent hour, so I figure I'm sort of converging on a good routine. I do want to be healthy, I just can't get there all at once. That attitude is reflected in my contradictory actions.

There's a common thread of self-sabotage I see in my friend, and in myself. We have to reach that point where we are so rock-sure of what we want that we just do it. It is very hard to get to that place, especially when we keep putting obstacles into our own paths.

I guess I'm left wondering if it's ever worth it to give unsolicited advice. It's such a dicey proposition that I've developed a real-world method which involves wrapping it up in assurances like this: it's only my opinion, and of course you have to do what's right for you, but I'm concerned and here's why and please let me know if I can do anything to help. I probably should have done more of that today in my comments, but it's too late now.

And I'm thinking quite clearly now of a few situations in my own life when I wish someone had said something, anything to me when I was doing something monumentally stupid. Maybe, most likely, I wouldn't have listened, but at least they would've tried -- and after the fact, I would've appreciated knowing that they cared enough to do that.

It doesn't take much effort, really, to reach out to someone in a caring way and say, "Hey, think about what you're doing here." The risk you take as a counselor is worth it, I think, as insurance against the pain you'll feel later, watching a friend suffer when maybe she didn't have to, when you decided to be a sounding board and just let it go.

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