The danger of giving advice based on our own experiences

Actor Stephen Fry has been quite open about his history of depression and bipolar disorder that at one time even led him to seriously consider suicide. He is now the president of the British mental health charity Mind and is credited with raising awareness and changing attitudes on those issues.

But he recently got into hot water for suggesting that “he had no sympathy for child abuse victims’ “self-pity” if it meant restricting free speech.”

“There are many great plays which contain rapes, and the word rape now is even considered a rape,” he said. “If you say: ‘you can’t watch this play, you can’t watch Titus Andronicus, or you can’t read it in a Shakespeare class, or you can’t read Macbeth because it’s got children being killed in it, it might trigger something when you were young that upset you once, because uncle touched you in a nasty place’, well I’m sorry.

“It’s a great shame and we’re all very sorry that your uncle touched you in that nasty place, you get some of my sympathy, but your self-pity gets none of my sympathy because self-pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity.

“Get rid of it, because no one’s going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself. The irony is we’ll feel sorry for you, if you stop feeling sorry for yourself. Just grow up.”

This issue of the conflict between free speech and sensitivity to people’s feelings is one that has come to the forefront recently but that is not what I want to look at right now. What I want to address is this habit that people have of giving advice to others about how they should react to a situation. This advice is usually based not on professional expertise but on their sense of how they themselves would react or have reacted in the past to similar situations.

While one’s own experiences and reactions if something similar happened to you provide an important perspective that is worth sharing, that does not mean it should be dispensed as advice to others as to how they should react. People are different and react differently to different situations and what worked for you may not work for someone else.


  1. OsmanthusOolong says

    That sort of “advice” he gave presumes a number of things, none of which are in evidence. That people’s abuse is in the distant past, for one. Someone could have gone through something horrific last night or last week. Or that healing is instantaneous, and that when one is recovering, you only do that. Not leave the house or watch a movie or go to school or work.

    And lastly, the thing that almost all people who feel content notices are somehow an affront to “free speech” seem to miss: the primary function of a content notice is to make people aware of the content, so they can prepare, and not be blindsided. Having these makes it much easier to actually engage in things like schooling or media, because they make it more accessible. As opposed to a minefield. Not to mention, that it’s incomprehensible to claim that adding more speech, and allowing more voices is somehow impeding speech.

  2. Numenaster says

    Sharing how you DID react in a past situation is potentially of marginal utility, if your past situation and the one you’re addressing are sufficiently similar. And if you and the person you’re advising are similar enough . But much of this advice is wishful thinking: people talking about how they fantasize that they WOULD react in a given situation. And that, my friends, is about useless. It’s taking another person’s story of a genuine hardship they have faced/are facing, and making the story all about YOU. And the fantasy you at that. Just don’t do it.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    At least he’s consistent.

    Lest we forget, this is the man who coined the mantra “So you’re offended? So fucking what?”

  4. lanir says

    People run away from the things they can’t face. One of the things that people tend not to notice or just forget is that Fry is doing exactly that as well. It’s not only the people he’s complaining about, it’s him not wanting to hear about it as well. This was something I picked up recently from a friend who’s studied psychology. Felt like a pretty amazing revelation to me at the time.

    I find the people who fantasize about situations they aren’t in and insist on unreasonable actions much worse. For example I was told the “solution” to the Syrian refugee problem is that there shouldn’t be any. Because they should all be back there patriotically fighting for their country. I explained the many glaring issues with that idea but apparently it was obvious to them that everyone everywhere should be willing to keel over and die uselessly for whatever random patch of dirt they happen to be standing on at the moment. I forgot to ask but I suspect they’re supposed to yell “Wolverines!” at the top of their lungs as they do it.

  5. lanir says

    Blah. Forgot to mention that I still find people like Fry to be assholes. I don’t like that approach and avoid the people who take it. I just find it helps me personally to deal with them if I remind myself that they’re just running away from some issue too.

  6. Saur says

    What I want to address is this habit that people have of giving advice to others about how they should react to a situation. This advice is usually based not on professional expertise but on their sense of how they themselves would react or have reacted in the past to similar situations.

    I agree, and the problem, as others have mentioned, with Fry doling out this very specific advice is that he (a) has been known to play Devil’s Advocate with pedophilia before (generally by way of fond references to an ancient Greece or Rome that never existed) and (b) has a habit of fleeing from situations that make him uncomfortable. Cell Mates closed because he couldn’t handle his friend and co-actor eliciting better reviews than him, and reacted to this by writing suicide notes to friends, family, and people involved in the production of the play and then abruptly fleeing the country hours before a scheduled performance, leaving everyone in the lurch and frightened beyond belief that he might harm himself.

    One could argue that after recovering from such a public catastrophe--and his standing did recover remarkably well--he’d resolved himself to never behaving that way again, hence his most recent remarks (having engaged in a tantrum of self-pity, he’s warning others off it). But Cell Mates wasn’t the last time he took his ball and went home. He quits social media on a regular basis, and before doing so writes petulant flounces overflowing with self-pity and feelings of persecution. It’s not so much that he’s a hypocrite (who isn’t?) but that he doesn’t seem to recognize when and where it’s actually healthy to withdraw, or to process pain, or to heal wounds by talking about what caused that wound, or by being openly angry at having been victimized. It’s emotionally stifling not to do so. It’s masochistic. And he doesn’t offer an alternative, he doesn’t explain what precisely he thinks constitutes self-pity (because using trigger and content warnings certainly isn’t), and, crucially, he thinks simply branding behavior he doesn’t approve of as self-pity is a winning argument. It’s not. Self-pity isn’t a sin or a character flaw or worthy of scorn. He got out when he needed to, and is better for it. It’s cruel to suggest no one else should have that luxury. And it may all just be projection, because Fry is not just self-depracating but highly critical of himself, and so may automatically direct the rage normally directed within towards people in whom he recognizes aspects of himself. And that’s sad, but that’s no excuse for endlessly spouting bigoted, hateful shit all the time.

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