Dear Answer Queen:
At 54, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. My longtime marriage is good. My kids are grown and gone, but not too far—so I get to see them often, but without having to deal with their daily needs. I love my job, at least most of the time, and I have longtime close friends. I have enough money to usually get what I want, and I own a great house. I even have two adorable cats.
So what exactly is my problem? Maybe exactly because everything is so good now—which was not always the case; I’ve struggled with depression, career instability, financial worries, health issues with my kids—I realize I’ve become a little, well, full of myself. It’s not that I think I’m so great. (God, no.) It’s more that, because I’ve solved my own problems (for now, anyway), —which involved, yes, hard work, but also a lot of luck—I sometimes think I know the answer to everyone else’s, and I’ve become very direct about offering advice, even when not asked.
I sometimes think I know the answer to everyone else’s problems.
I’m also very honest about what I think, on everything from politics to art to how people behave. (If your dog takes a dump on my lawn or you cut me in line, trust me, you’ll hear about it.) The fact is, I’m just not interested anymore in small talk or not saying what I think. And some people really appreciate this, or seem to. But others I’m less sure of. And often a few hours later I’m a tiny bit horrified I said what I did.
I grew up with a father who was blunt and critical and, by his later years, had no filter, whether he was listing our flaws or waxing openly about which very young women he found attractive. (Right??) He had good friends, but he also alienated his siblings, his children (at any given time at least one of us wasn’t speaking to him), and occasionally his co-workers with his need to say exactly what he felt. I fear I’m turning into that, and I don’t know how to stop it. And I’m still young! Can you imagine me in 10 or 20 years? Terrifying.
Just because your father said too much (and as his daughter, you were probably particularly sensitive to almost anything he said), that doesn’t mean that you do—or that there’s anything wrong with being honest and direct. The world needs all kinds. In fact, let’s take a tiny second here to shout out you forthright types. You’re the ones we can count on to tell us if we’re flirting a little too 20-something-ish with the bartender, say, or if our road rage is out of control; the ones who have our backs and don’t let us make idiots of ourselves. You’re the ones willing to let us get mad at you for telling us something we don’t want to hear but probably should anyway.
One of my best friends is like this, and she’s advised me on everything from my (unfortunate) clothing choices to my (at times questionable) mental health, often without my asking. Occasionally this is tricky—no one wants to be scrutinized or to have to be on guard with a friend—but I’ve come to appreciate and even cherish this about her, not just because I know she’s doing it out of genuine affection and/or concern, but also because she’s coaxed me into some major decisions that have changed my life for the (much) better.
The Other Type of Person
But now let’s take a moment to appreciate the people who don’t feel a need to list your flaws or broadcast every random political thought or sexual whim that flits through their mind; the ones you can go to when you feel particularly pathetic and they will not judge you or make you feel worse, but instead will support you and even build you up. They’d rather make you feel good than be brutally honest! Love those types.
Like you, though, I am not one of them. And though occasionally I admit it would be nice to have even a modicum of self-control, more often I’m way past the point of wishing I were different; might as well be imperfect in the ways I actually am than the ways someone else is, right? These are the Age Boldly years, after all. If I didn’t like who I am by now, at least most of the time, I wouldn’t be this way.
Still, it’s wise that you realize the flaws of your personality and want to guard against becoming too extreme—especially coming from the family you do. Bluebirds don’t raise blackbirds, after all. And from what I’ve seen, behavior and personality traits do become more extreme as we get older. Also, of course, the fact that you’re often slightly horrified a few hours after you mouthed off suggests that it wouldn’t hurt to take it down just a notch or two; you can still Do You, Speak Your Truth, and engage in all the other Twitter-y sayings. Just not quite as much.
It’s wise that you realize the flaws of your personality and want to guard against becoming too extreme.
So how to do that? My other best friend, definitely one of the “make you feel good/supported” types, taught me a great skill in this area: Say something as a question, rather than as a piece of advice.To wit: “Do you think you might be better off just nicely asking the guy to move his car?” (unsaid: “rather than exploding at him like a complete borderline?”) Or: “It could be good not to hang up on your sister again, don’t you think?” Then it’s not you accusing or advising so much as offering up a thought for the person to chew on.
Susan Scott, in her bestselling book Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time (Berkley Books), says a similar thing: “It’s not our thoughts or feelings that get us into trouble. … It’s not our disclosures that cause distress. It’s our attachment to them, our belief that we are right.”
Checking Your Filter
Ask your loved ones every few years for a brutally honest review, similar to the ones they do in offices: Tell me (please!) three things I’m doing right, but also three areas where I could improve. If more than one person tells you the same thing, take that seriously. For you, it might help to start now with some strategies to not be so direct: pause for three seconds before you let yourself give advice, or send emails (or even internet posts) back to yourself to reread once before you officially hit send.
Every few years, ask friends to tell you three things you’re doing right, but also three areas where you could improve.
The problem with all this, of course, comes if and when we stop caring how we come off; if we reach a point, as your father seems to have, where it’s more important to state your opinion and be right—or even just to provoke—than to listen to what other people want and need from the conversation, the fallout being that you drive friends and family away.
I wish I had a solution for that (other than therapy, which is always my go-to), but the best I can do is pass on advice a writing mentor of mine once gave to me: If you don’t want to become a certain way, stay aware of yourself and what you’re doing, and why. Keep writing and thinking about it.
And if that fails? Find one of those overly direct friends to tell you to STFU.