The Best Advice I Ever Heard…That Helps Me Now

About critical things--like keeping ourselves and each other safe now--we need to listen to the experts. About many other things--like relationships with children and other loved ones--we need to listen to our instinct.

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It’s been a week since I posted my first little piece here. And as I just sat down to write a second one, I immediately thought: Oh my god, how do I do this? The first felt like a gift I reached out and caught. How, I wondered, can I recreate that experience? And, just as soon as I had that thought came another: Well, that’s a problem. I can’t recreate something I did before and expect it to be any good. And then that demon: Who am I to write something meaningful—especially when the world is reeling from a once-in-a-century pandemic? I’m just as daunted as everyone else.

And that, my friends, is how one does oneself in through the insidious poison of self-doubt. I’ve done it a million times. Many women do. But you know what? I’m not going to do it now. Self-doubt is a dead-end road I no longer have time for.

So, let me say this: One small thing I have learned to be true—that helps me get out of tight spots like the one I just put myself into, and that is helping me navigate, just a little bit better, this difficult moment for our world—is that it helps to try every day, every moment you can, to listen to your instinct. To still the voices in your own head. Take a break from the torrent of advice we are inundated with—and, Lord knows, from the news. To do everything you can to quiet all that so you can hear your own inner voice. 

Because here’s the thing: As well-meaning and even wise as good advice may be, it is often disempowering. It assumes the answers are out there somewhere else—or more pointedly, with someone else. Someone with credentials. Someone who has authority or expertise. Someone who is a professional at whatever issue it is you are facing.

Consider parenting. Once upon a time, parents simply parented. By instinct, and by what gets handed down generation to generation. Then came parenting professionals, education professionals, health professionals and the rest. And somehow, we came to think we needed the experts to tell us how to do what parents always did.

I know I did. When my oldest son was born 20 years ago, I tied myself up in knots wondering whether I was doing right by him—reading his cries right, getting him outside enough or too much, helping him sleep. Finally, my mother firmly said to me: Lisa, put away all the parenting books. Look at your child. See what he needs. And, trust yourself as his mother.

It was quite possibly (and ironically) the best advice I ever received: Stop listening to advice! Because parenting—like anything truly meaningful—is deeply personal. What works for some does not work for others. When my youngest son was born and I saw how different he was from my oldest, I recognized that my job was not to try to shape my children to some ideal of how a person should think, feel or act but to honor who they truly were and hold the container that would support their flowering.  

So, how does this apply to what we are grappling with now in the sudden and frightening new terrain of COVID-19? Here, we need to listen to experts, of course, about how to keep ourselves and each other safe. But what about the rest of it—by which I mean all of the experiences and relationships affected by this new reality? Here, I believe listening to our own instincts can help .

I had a small moment like this with my youngest son yesterday. As hour after hour passed, I grew increasingly anxious about the fact that he was not doing his distance learning homework. Then stepping out of the voice in my head that fretted about grades and college and his future, my instinct led me to wonder: What on earth must this be like for him now? He is a teenager, wired to be with friends, to be pursuing his passions, to be finding himself, to be growing in autonomy, to be exploring the world. And now suddenly, he is stuck at home—deprived of friends and his great love for skiing. I went downstairs to where he was slumped on the couch looking at his phone. I asked how bored he was and said I couldn’t really imagine how hard this must be for him. He didn’t say much. But I could feel a little easing of the tension for both of us.

Our inner voice, or instinct, provides a uniquely valuable guidance system because it is meant specifically for us. Specifically for the situations we find ourselves in. Specifically for our interactions with the people we love. And, amid all the uncertainty that 2020 has ushered in, we can be certain that our instincts are there, ready to help us meet each new moment when we are ready to listen to it. The messages our instincts relay are not big and flashy. They don’t come with bullet lists. In my experience, they are actually rather small and quiet. But still: helpful and true

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