Struggling with Advice
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 2018
Opening the Heart, Softening the Ego, and Learning from Others
We have constant opportunities to learn. Sometimes information that isn't pleasantly presented still provides insightful instruction. We must soften the ego and listen.
Several years ago, A visitor to Flourishing Life Society fb page viciously attacked a posting. I was hurt. It has been five years now, I can’t even remember which posting provoked the venomous attack. She eventually moved from the single post to the entire content of the page, and then to me as the creator. She dismissed my thoughts as unoriginal hubris. She claimed authority as a teacher and then belittled my writing as juvenile, and full of unimpressive fluff. A few followers came to my defense; she then attacked them with the same viciousness. But buried in her attack was some legitimate wisdom to heed.
My first impulse was to disregard her remarks; they hurt. I felt defensive. Obviously, her comments didn’t encourage improvement. I retaliated with responses in my mind, “What kind of teacher is she?” “I wonder if she is as destructive to her students’ efforts.” Then my thoughts turned to my own security, “How dare she insult my well-intended efforts.” I eventually concluded that my entry upset her, and she launched into a protective attack. My justifications had validity and flowed with ease—she violated rules of courtesy. Her harsh and ill presented judgments didn’t deserve attention. But the true lessons were soon to follow.
Once my emotions settled, I reflected on her comments. I noticed valid points obscured by her harsh critique, criticisms that deserved attention. Once my ego interference was dismantled, I learned from the ill presented advice.
Receiving advice (however it’s presented) requires courage and humility. For us to learn, we must accept the flow of knowledge that originates from the outside. This implicitly acknowledges deficits of understanding. We don’t have all the answers and we are vulnerable to unknowns. Awareness to our deficits accepts vulnerability stirring fears. Falsely believing we have a special gift of all knowing knowledge is comforting. We create security by believing that our impulses, thoughts and actions are beyond reproach. When conflicting opinion is encountered, we quickly discredit either the content or the presentation and merrily move on. When we accept advice, on the other hand, we must acknowledge weakness. We may act in self destructive ways.
I warned a dear friend—pointing out all the obvious signs—that his employment was about to be terminated. Proudly and in self-defiance, he declared they needed him too much. Sadly, within two weeks, he was unemployed.
"We don’t have all the answers and we are vulnerable to unknowns. Awareness to our deficits accepts vulnerability stirring fears."
During the natural course of living, we accumulate knowledge; but individual experience is limited; we have serious limitations. We are limited by the imperfect means of gathering facts. We have misguided interpretations of experiences and misguided interpretations trigger unneeded fears, shame and false assumptions. We then compound the wrongness by defensively protecting our misguided beliefs. We march forward, ignoring obvious warnings, until we plunge off the edge of the cliff.
Self-justification and defensive thoughts protect the ego while simultaneous leading us further off course. Advice only clears distorted perspectives for those humble enough to receive it. Many miss the nuggets of wisdom by clinging to the comforts of pretended omnificence, dismissing the endless library of knowledge only available through openness to others.
A wise person weighs advice from a variety of people and then makes an educated judgment only after carefully considering the evidence. True wisdom doesn’t dismiss other’s ideas as faulty because they ignite emotion. Wisdom continually and willingly seeks new knowledge.
As for me, this story has a happy ending. She was right. My writing contained several flaws. The content was very antidotal. I presented problems, sang the common tunes of cures, and moved on. I had work to do; writing workshops to attend; and serious soul searching to complete. My writing still lags, chasing my dreams of where I would like it to be; but I’m improving. Each year, I revisit the past entries, recognizing the lack of substance and the distracting litter of unneeded words and phrases. The young teacher with her stinging words disappeared after her dramatic remarks. I hope she has grown too.
When receiving advice, we must remain mindful of ego involvement. Notice the kindled emotions arising and the churning of defensiveness. Loss of security is discomforting. Our automatic response to loss is to attack, attempting to restore safety. By mindfully acknowledging the ego’s influence, we can step back and weigh advice, benefiting from the wealth of experience flowing from others. Sometimes great insights are gleaned from feedback presented in unloving ways.