Wise Advice for Difficult Situations
How to apply the simple concept of innate health
In its most essential form, advice is well-intended guidance — but following steps to a better life can lead you deep into the forest of self-help. In this dark terrain, gurus leap from behind trees exclaiming nothing worth doing is easy— peddling dense road maps that promise the way home.
But what if it was easy? What if you were already home? What if you knew of advice that fits any difficult situation, effortlessly solves any problem, and never fails to restore peace of mind?
Well, this kind of advice exists, but you won’t find it in stores. Instead, what you will find in stores are metric tons of advice to keep you confused and searching for more advice, which is right where self-help gurus want you.
Before we learn where to find the most powerful advice — known as Innate Health — let’s first learn how to identify and avoid the usual offerings.
What is Advice, Anyway?
Advice is an attempt to provide examples, directions, or promising ideas to someone who appears to be in a difficult situation. Two essential features make advice different from other forms of assistance like self-help or therapy.
First, advice often comes in bits. Self-help books, training seminars, and therapy sessions are more comprehensive attempts to help with broad issues like improving communication, relationship success, honing your golf game, or quitting destructive addictions. Advice is a bit more specific.
Think of it this way: if self-help is a bird’s nest, then advice is its twigs.
Second, advice is stated as a command. For instance, one of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “put first things first.” One of the Four Agreements is “be impeccable with your word.” Leading with the verb and phrasing advice as an imperative is useful because a command is the clearest answer to the advice-seeker’s classic question: “how?”
How do I get over my anxiety? Smile at fear. How can I rebuild trust in my marriage? Seek first to understand. Advice is easy to recognize because it comes in a do this, get that package that focuses on process over outcome.
Advice Begets Advice
Although advice is merely a brick in the wall of self-help, even bricks can be broken down into parts. As brick is composed of clay, lime, and sand — sand is composed of silica, quartz, and other minerals.
And so it goes with advice.
For instance, one of the Four Agreements is “don’t take anything personally.” This command is a nice example of advice — it’s a specific bit and it’s phrased as a command. But when we ask how to avoid taking things personally, we get finer bits of advice peppered throughout the chapter, like don’t make something big out of something little, don’t worry about what others think about you, and avoid the need for acceptance.
Also included in the lesson on taking nothing personally are over 30 conditional statements — looking at all four agreements, we find close to 200 “if this, then that” statements, like endless lines of program code.
That’s a lot of commands.
This analysis holds up with most other self-help books, in that one bit of advice is often just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet while most advice is intended to help, the search for advice and often the advice itself can be overwhelming — especially when you need it the most, or want it the least.
Differentiating among good and bad advice is an exercise in relativity. “Lose weight and keep it off” is great advice for an obese thirty-something with diabetes, yet it could easily harm an underweight teen with an eating disorder. “Quit cold turkey” could kill an older person struggling with alcoholism (due to a phenomenon known as kindling), yet it is a useful idea for a teenager who needs to catch up on sleep after a crystal meth run.
Whether good or bad, useful or useless, advice can be difficult to recognize because it’s everywhere.
Advice in Disguise
Cleverly inserted into existing titles like Zen and the Art of [insert obscure topic here], advice also comes with various pseudonyms, like tips, tricks, suggestions, recommendations, or even gentle reminders.
Think about this: just over 25 years ago, the world met its first book of advice hiding behind a brilliant new idea: you don’t need advice, you’re just a dummy — and with this notion grew the For Dummies empire.
If you’re not a dummy, then maybe you’re one of the many People Who Don’t Like Poetry, or advertising, or Christianity. If so, there’s a book for you, specifically designed to ease you into that thing you don’t like.
Advice can also sneak up on you during casual conversation. We all have that adviser-friend who avoids telling you what to do but instead says things like, “try intermittent fasting, it worked for me,” or “I lost five pounds the first week I cut out carbs.” Maybe they’ll even warn you first, as if it were a dare: “don’t take my advice, try it for yourself.”
Advice by Numbers
One day out of boredom, I navigated my browser to the websites of various booksellers to see how many self-help books had numerals in their titles. It seemed like there would be a lot.
It was a rather simple search; I entered “the” followed by the numeral 1 — and voila! After finding a few titles on the first page, I repeated the search with 2, then 3, and continued until I arrived at the self-help author’s favorite number (which is 101, of course). Sadly, I could have kept going.
At the end of my little experiment, I found 101 self-help books — along with 101 self-help authors making a living on our self-doubt.
So to be a better all-around person, try The One Thing, The 2-Minute Rule, then move to The 3 Laws of Performance, The Four Agreements, The 5 Love Languages, The 6 Pillars of Self-Esteem, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Don’t forget Eight Dates and then Nine Lies About Work: The Freethinker’s Guide to the Real World. Cap it off with Ten Percent Happier.
Advice in Acronyms
In order to store lots of information into smaller bits of memorable advice, advice-givers frequently use acronyms.
In an attempt to evaluate and improve my communication at work, I picked up Kerry Patterson’s Crucial Conversations, which is now part of a franchise, and available as a series of self-help texts and resources.
The first two chapters were clear and helpful, filled with persuasive background research. In just a few minutes of reading, I found clear, simple, and helpful advice to apply when conversations start to turn sour, like “step out of the content, make it safe, and step back in.”
The authors even provided only one reason why conversations become difficult. One reason. Revolutionary.
I thought, “please let it be this simple.” As I began to ease into the book, I started to lapse into daydreams about solving impasses at work, and the countless colleagues who would turn to me for life-altering advice. “My god, thank you, Scott — we’d be lost without your advice.”
Then came the acronyms. Within just a few moments, my initial excitement gave way to caution, and then to all-out surrender.
First, there were the four paths to powerful listening, captured in the acronym AMPP. To speak more honestly, you should STATE your path (STATE is an acronym for the five steps in managing conversation conflict). When you need a mutual purpose, try the CRIB strategy, and after you learn the three types of stories that limit our ability to listen, use the ABC model — a troubleshooter that is only necessary when AMPP, STATE, or CRIB fails.
Now I’m no dummy. I’ve got a legit accredited doctorate in psychology and no history of head trauma (that I can recall). But I started to lose patience after realizing that these four acronyms — encompassing 16 steps — were only part of the deeper 7-step model.
Overall, the Crucial approach was impressive. It was airtight, evidence-based, and the authors’ collective experience was immense.
But did it have to be so complicated?
To help readers grapple with the inevitable complexity, they offered coaching and training videos, which was smart because committing those steps to memory without the add-ons would be pointless.
Good advice, or good sales strategies? I can’t be sure.
The Soul-Crushing Message Behind Advice
At best, the coded message behind advice is whatever you’re doing isn’t good enough — at worst, the message is darker: you aren’t good enough.
Those who struggle enough to seek self-help — such as adults undergoing serious life transitions like divorce or death of a parent — frequently suffer from anxiety and often find ways to self-medicate.
In samples of adults with substance use disorders, anxiety can peak at 40%. Of the worldwide population, one in five will experience at least one episode of anxiety in their lives, and one in 15 will experience the kind of anxiety that requires diagnosis and medical treatment.
One of the diagnostic indicators of anxiety — even mild anxiety — is persistent, racing, and distorted thoughts along with difficulty feeling relaxed.
So the next time you’re about to advise a worried friend, remember that you’re not likely contributing to their well-being. Instead, you may be piling on more thoughts, more imperatives, more directions.
Ultimately, advice is an exercise of the ego. It is selfish and often given to avoid the anguish of watching others suffer. It’s not easy to withhold advice while witnessing a 5-year-old attempting to tie their shoes, or a struggling reader grappling with a new multi-syllabic word.
But we don’t just give advice to others — we most often give it to ourselves. “Get up, stop wasting time and do something with your life,” or “you gotta quit drinking, it’s killing you.”
Rather than sitting uncomfortably in that difficult space, allowing ourselves and others to confront troubling emotions with empathy, we give advice and abruptly steal away our humanity and our dignity — the very right to feel.
A New Direction
Despite an obsession with the self-help genre, I’ve always believed that mighty forces will well up inside me in times of trouble. Although I’ve spent hundreds on self-help titles, I recalled exactly none of their lessons during my darkest days.
You see, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress are associated with malfunction within the structures of the brain involved in forming and retrieving memories.
When you’re depressed, you cannot encode or retrieve experiences efficiently and therefore some stored information — some memories — are gone forever. With anxiety comes a loss of working memory. Without our “mental workbench,” we cannot store new information or retrieve existing information.
We feel worn-out, tired, and dumb.
When the system malfunctions, the intellectual data stored into memory are unavailable — along with the acronyms, steps, and lessons. This is unfortunate because we took the advice to avoid these problems in the first place.
Yet here we are again. Right here, right now.
Although mindfulness is a useful approach to self-help, even during deep meditation, dark thoughts can emerge from nowhere, like a storm, conjuring dark emotions despite our brightest hopes and most diligent efforts.
When we resist, avoid, or look for a way out, we inadvertently hold on to the darkness. Yet the same is true for joyful thoughts — despite the presence of destructive thoughts and feelings, we notice how compassion, love, and peace seem to drop by just as naturally — like a sunny break in the clouds.
When we attempt to hold on to the peaceful thoughts, we invite the darkness back in — due to the law whatever we resist persists.
What if we just leave our thoughts alone?
When we throw a rock into still water, we are helpless to stop the water from rippling. If we try to stop it, we disturb the water even more. The only way to calm the water is to let it calm itself— and it will always calm itself.
Such is the nature of thought.
At any given moment, we feel only what we think and think only what we feel. Because our thinking clears on its own, changing difficult emotions — and the urges that often follow — requires absolutely no effort.
When our waters are calm, the advice of innate wisdom will shine through.
When we fail to understand how thought works, it’s as if we’ve lost the program code to the Human OS — as if diabolical hackers replaced our innate wisdom with programmed commands from an authoritarian, advice-obsessed industry that thrives on human suffering.
It is time for an effective and efficient new direction that makes us rich in happiness and fulfillment while transforming the self-help industry from a multi-billion dollar juggernaut into a cottage industry for the few.
The Ethics of Giving Advice
When I was a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics studying under the direction of the intrepid Larry Lessig, I learned that corruption is defined as the financial influence that steers individuals, institutions, and industries away from their core mission.
If the core mission of the $10 billion dollar self-improvement industry is to help people, then why is it growing? Isn’t helping someone about teaching them to help themselves? In The Ethics of Helping People, B.F. Skinner wrote:
“Therapists, like teachers, must plan their withdrawal from the lives of their clients. One has most effectively helped others when one can stop helping them altogether.”
The more a helper helps, the less the learner learns. As the self-help and advice industry grows stronger, will the collective belief in ourselves as powerful sources of change weaken?
If we truly want a better world, then it’s time to redefine the ethics of helping people. It’s time to guide rather than advise; it’s time to find the bottomless well of innate health deep inside ourselves.
Summoning the Innate Health Instinct
One of my colleagues described taking advice from others like getting an apple from your neighbor’s tree and trying to glue it onto the apple tree in your own yard. Why not eat your own apples? In his metaphor, the apple tree represents our instinct to thrive — known as innate health.
Innate health is an interesting topic of study that began to emerge when psychology abandoned its obsession with learned helplessness and began the more worthwhile study of learned optimism.
Innate Health is our birthright. It points but never instructs, and even when it seems to send you in the wrong direction, there you are — alive, breathing, and ready for another day.
Everything’s gonna be alright.
So, just what is innate health, and how do you find it within? Paradoxically, you can’t find it if you go looking — but it will find you.
For example, while I was recently driving my son to school, I told him that someday he would be driving me. He immediately said, “Wait, what? Aren’t you scared — the other cars are driving like right toward you and they’re going so fast. I would be so scared!”
After I dropped him off, I took some time to ponder his concern. Why wasn’t I more afraid of driving? With cell phones and texting — why aren’t dozens of cars piled on the roads in wrecked heaps of metal?
The answer shocked me with its simplicity — because drivers don’t want to die. We want to live and we want to thrive. It’s in our DNA.
That’s innate health — and it’s the source of all the advice you’ll ever need. No matter what the situation, your body and soul are always striving toward wellness, toward balance.
It’s the reason that babies swim back up to the surface when they’re taught to swim — the reason why those in the deepest depression often write the most beautiful poetry.
Human life is the result of creative, intelligent, and evolutionary forces so powerful that they heal open wounds, and channel electricity via neural wiring from our brain into different parts of the body simultaneously, allowing us to walk and talk — play the piano, detect the smell of burning pizza, and interpret that grumble in your stomach as a sign of dinnertime (no clock necessary).
The wise advice that your innate health confers to you requires no how-to manual— and there are no steps. It is that formless, creative energy that beats your heart without your consent, attention, or will. Alan Watts wrote about this universal creative force in his essay Become What You Are:
“There is no coming toward it or going away from it; it is, and you are it. So become what you are.”
One of the most enduring truths of my work as a counselor in an inpatient treatment center is that clients always deny their innate wisdom — at least initially. In response to the idea that each of us has innate wisdom and insight that guides and advises us, they’ll say, “Yeah, but my innate wisdom was telling me to get high every day, so how is that good advice?”
My response is to explain that the very instinct to get high was pointing them toward wellness. Their innate wisdom wasn’t telling them to get high, it was telling them to be well by any means necessary. Quite literally the only problem is that their approach — shooting heroin into their veins — was unsustainable, dangerous, and destructive to human life. It was cheating the system, but when they find a new method for wellness, the old ways usually wear off.
To my clients, their own innate health is a riddle, a paradox; it’s like telling them to become what they are: healthy and wise. This conundrum of innate health is confusing at times, which is why I like to talk so much about it.
Yet when they begin to realize why they were getting high, they pause — most well up with emotion, and some break down in tears. Some sit there like they saw a ghost, or perhaps a shadow of the self they have always hoped to meet.
Innate health is our wellness instinct, and it works at a level much deeper than words can often convey.
It knows no content. It does not tell you what kind of hiking shoes to use, what weather is best for a day hike, or how to avoid a run-in with bears. It simply points you through the trees and toward the summit.
How can you recognize innate health in your life? It’s the advice that you’ve carried with you since your conception — it has always been there, and it will always be there. It will never leave you alone, and it is always speaking to you — some call it conscience, some call it wisdom, and some call it god.
It is an undeniable, insanely powerful force.
Whatever it is, just know that it is omnipresent, sitting quietly within like a thing with feathers that perches in your soul. And when you need it the most, it arrives as the wisdom you shouldn’t have when you doubt everything about yourself — but it shows up anyway.
All you need to do is listen.