Monday, April 29, 2013

Bad Advice and Big Horses

Here at Honestly YA we decide on blog topics well in advance, so I’ve had a while to ponder the question of what divides bad advice from the worst advice. My conclusion is one that is mine alone. It’s not the result of a scientific study, a Gallup poll or even a survey monkey questionnaire. Like I said, it’s MINE. And this is what I figure: the worst advice ever is the advice that changes who you are deep inside. Advice that creates a dent in your personality that defines the rest of your life. Naturally, this advice comes from your mother.

Okay, not your mother -- because this isn’t your story. This is my story. Hence, my mother.

Mom had a repertoire of favored phrases she liked to employ as I grew up.  There were a lot of things classified as “the last thing I need,” the constant admonition “you’d better marry rich,” and the perennial “this place is a pig sty”. But they weren’t necessarily advice. No. Mom’s advice, delivered sternly and with a scowl, was “Don’t get up on your high horse.”

As a kid - I mean, a real and true kid in the single digits of her life- this was the image her advice created:

photo credit: Pickersgill Reff

well of course I wasn’t going to get up on any high horse. Duh. They were way too big for me. But eventually the understanding kicked in, the realization that she wasn’t advising me to select a size-appropriate steed but was instead telling me my complaints, concerns and feelings of offense made me conceited.

My most vivid recollection of the high horse speech - so you have a nice example - took place late high school, when I’d been approved for a vacation at my job and then told the approval may be revoked. I made the mistake (in retrospect) of telling my mother that having my vacation revoked wasn’t fair. I was told (sternly) not to get up on my high horse.

All right, so in the retelling the episode even makes me shrug and say “yeah, and? big deal.” But remember, I’d been living my whole life with that advice. It’s a message drilled into my brain over and over and over. And this is what it taught me:

I am not worthy. I am not of value enough to deserve fair treatment. I am lesser.

I learned it was better to keep quiet than speak up for myself. And that was a bad, dangerous lesson to learn. It has made me a person who is by turns humble and arrogant - which I know sounds pretty contradictory. But what happens is I take a lot of crap, I make excuses for the people around me, and I keep a lot to myself, and all those moments that I swallow back my desire to stand up for myself build and build until I blow. And that, my friends, is a terrible ugly thing.

Sadly, knowing these things about myself does not help change anything. Being able to identify where the problem stems from does not suddenly give me the skill to judge when I should speak up and when I should remain quiet.

In retrospect, I think a great number of events in my life would have gone much better if my lifelong view of a “high” horse was more like this:


 a horse with the ability to navigate obstacles with ease and elegance. Or, you know, at least to make it look easy and elegant. But that would have required a far different admonition than "don't get up on your high horse," wouldn't it?

I can’t change my entire past. I can’t change the words I grew up with. I can’t even afford therapy to recover. Frankly, I don’t know if I can ever change all those ingrained lessons in silence. But I have, at least, come to realize that it was more than bad advice. It was the worst.

So I'm thinking if there's a take away idea to be had from this story it's this: sometimes bad advice is easy to spot, sometimes it comes disguised as good advice, sometimes it comes disguised as a reprimand. But under no circumstances are you required to follow it -- especially if the advice in question erodes your self confidence or makes you think you don't deserve to be treated fairly or nicely or with respect.

Oh! But there is a plus side to all this! My daughters? yeah, they've never been warned about high horses, for which I am exceedingly proud (even if such emotion does indeed put me on a super-size steed; in this case, it's worth it).

~Jen McA


Lorie Langdon said...

Jen, this post rocks!!!! YOU Rock!

My dad used to tell me the same thing and I agree it was the *wrong* message to send a little girl trying to figure out who she was in the world.
I also have that suppress and then explode temper--and I hate it. I still have to remind myself that it's ok to speak up and voice my feelings and opinions, not matter what others think of me. I'm getting better at it. ;)
AWESOME post!!! :D

Melissa Landers said...

I hear ya, Jen. Nobody actually told me to keep my complaints to myself, but that's what I did growing up. Even as an adult, I was one of those hold-the-anger-inside-until-I-blow types. But anyone who knows me *now* knows that I hold nothing back. So what changed?

I started teaching. I learned very quickly that if I didn't take control, my classroom would descend into chaos. So I behaved like an authority figure, and eventually that bled over into my personal life, making me a whole lot more assertive...and maybe even a little bossy.

But I'm okay with that. :) I'm a much happier Mel now than I was when I kept quiet.

Jennifer McAndrews said...

@Lorie, you're so sweet! Thank you! And wow, I'm so sorry you grew up with the high horse advice, too. But hey, that means if I lose it on you, or you lose it on me, we'll each know why ; ) Glad you're working on it. I am too. Slow going though. slow slow slow *sigh*

Jennifer McAndrews said...

@Mel, ah, I should have gone into teaching ; ) I see now my career path in tech support was utterly the wrong direction. Way too much time spent holding back -- and not always successfully now I think on it *s*.
I'm glad you're happier! We all deserve to be happy!

Kimberly said...

What a super post! I loved it so much. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry!
My mom used to use that expression as well, but if you've read any of my posts about my mom, you know she had my best interests at heart. And you know? When she actually said it? I probably did need to be brought down a coupla pegs. So, in my case, the advice was probably pretty good.
I've never been very good with hiding my feelings or keeping quiet when I'm upset. I've never had to let things build, and for that, I can thank my mom--who, no matter what--ENCOURAGED me to express myself.
I'm so, so sorry that you feel like you can't even afford therapy. That made me laugh so hard! Sorry! But listen here, my friend. I'm only a phone call away when you need to talk, and I'm free.
What wonderful advice you give though! Only take the advice that doesn't change who you are at heart. That's a great lesson to hear. And I thank you!
Big, big hugs sent your way! :-)

Jennifer McGowan said...

I heart this post. I got the same advice, over and over, when I was young. Maybe not those same words, but I was constantly reminded not to put myself in front of others. Even today, I worry about being too selfish (note that "worry" does not always equate to behavioral change!) and it's something that's always made me feel guilty.

Then, a few years after my father passed away (I was still a teenager), I learned that he'd once told my nana that "the world would beat a path to (my) door." He'd never breathed a WORD of this sentiment to me, of course, and I was staggered by the comment, given how much he'd impressed upon me to be humble and accommodating.

I think your summation is outstanding -- take what advice or comments work, and discard the rest. While your parents may have been somehow trying to protect you... ultimately, your heart is already riding that high horse.

Pintip said...

Jen, this is such a thoughtful post, and I really love your distinction between what is merely bad advice and what is the worst advice. I'm so sorry that you had to go through that, but so glad that your daughters are benefitting from it now. I think the road to self-improvement, and unlearning the wrong things we learned, is long and hard, but guess what? Even a few steps every day brings you farther down the road. I think it is absolutely wonderful that you can recognize such things in yourself -- some people can't even do that. Thanks for such an honest, thought-provoking post! And big hugs!

Jennifer McAndrews said...

aww, Kim, thanks so much for your kind words. I'm sure my mom also had my best interests at heart and I also can't delude myself into thinking I never needed to be 'taken down a peg' (great phrase!), but man the timing, the tone, and my own internalization of it made it a bad combination.
And really, I could probably afford therapy...if I stopped buying books. Like that would ever happen *VBG*
hugs and thanks to you!

Jennifer McAndrews said...

@Jennifer - yup! it's that worry about being "selfish", or self-centered or any of those things. Sorry you had similar experiences but so happy you had wonderful words from your dad (via nana) that gave you something so positive to hold on to. Thanks so much for sharing your experience -- I like knowing I'm not alone : )

Jennifer McAndrews said...

@Pintip you're so sweet! You say such nice things - thank you! And yes, hopefully my daughters are benefiting and have learned they can reach as high as they want and dream BIG!
Big hugs right back atcha'!