I’ve been writing an advice column for almost 10 years. That column, Ask a Queer Chick, covers sex, love, and life for LGBTQ people as well as the straight people who want to support our community. It’s been around since the beginning of 2011 (first for The Hairpin, then for Splinter, and most recently for Rewire News), and yet I still find myself stunned (and humbled) by the vulnerability entrusted to me, a third party and outsider, with people’s most personal struggles.
People write to me in real anguish, often torn between two courses of action, incompatible with each other but equally necessary to consider. “I love my husband, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m meant to spend my life with another woman,” one letter read. I can imagine the sleepless, tearful nights she’s spent sitting with this seemingly unworkable problem, the outcome of which has huge implications for her, for her partner, and for their relationship.
This question—should I stay with what’s familiar and risk being unsatisfied or should I try something new and risk losing something—is one I’ve gotten in countless forms and permutations over the years. Almost always, when people ask me a version of this question, they are also asking some version of another question: “What if I regret this?” What if I break up with my boyfriend and no one else ever loves me this much again? What if I come out to my family and they reject me? What if I turn down a job offer in a new city to stay with my partner, but then we break up anyway? What if…?
People write to advice columnists, I’ve found, when they’re facing an important decision and seeking reassurance or permission—when they’re afraid the thing they want to do will have serious repercussions and they’re craving encouragement to go for it anyway, or when they’re hoping to be talked out of doing something unwise but extremely appealing.
Look, I get it. Who doesn’t want an unbiased outsider to tell us what the “right” choice is in any situation? Of course, the rub is that only rarely is there ever a “right” choice, let alone a way of knowing that from the start.
Even though I realized early on that I was often being asked not just for advice but to provide someone with guidance that would safeguard their future happiness, I didn’t really understand at first that I couldn’t provide what they were asking for. For a long time, I struggled with these questions, scared I would give someone advice they’d end up resenting. I’d often advise the course of action that seemed least risky, counseling acceptance and patience.
But in the first year of writing my column, I was also planning my wedding—to someone I met when he was on a date with my friend, who agreed to move to a new state with me just a few months into our relationship. It occurred to me that a great deal of my happiness had come from doing things I would caution others against. I had taken risks that, if they hadn’t worked out, would have seemed terribly foolish in hindsight.
I finally realized that there are few objectively “right” or “wrong” choices in life. Some things are morally wrong, like lying or harming other people. I couldn’t accommodate one woman who wrote in asking for permission to sleep with a man who didn’t know she’d also had sex with his sister. But in terms of possible outcomes, most decisions will have both benefits and drawbacks, and every option is likely to leave you with some doubts about what might have been. The best advice I can give—and I give it, phrased in lots of different ways, to just about everyone—is this: Get comfortable with the knowledge that you are going to screw up.
That doesn’t mean you should be reckless; it means we all have to face the possibility that things won’t turn out the way we want them to, and know that we should have compassion for ourselves anyway. It also means you may never feel 100% confident about the path you chose. Still, you can’t live in the shadow of what might have been. It’s wise to think a few steps ahead, and to have a plan for how you’d get through your worst-case scenario, but don’t spend so much time constructing contingencies that you never actually get around to doing the thing.
After all, no one can live a life without mistakes. It’s not possible, and I’m not even sure it would be desirable. How would you ever learn or grow as a person? Besides, one thing I’ve learned from years of anonymous emails from throwaway accounts is that those who have made the fewest obvious mistakes seem to live with the heaviest regrets. I often hear from people (mostly women) who have perfect lives on the surface—good jobs, happy marriages, children—but are eaten up inside wondering about the misadventures they never had. Obviously there’s some selection bias here; people who are totally satisfied with their existence don’t write to advice columnists. Still, it seems to me that dutifully avoiding risk or failure doesn’t predict happiness. Trying to minimize regrets may be less productive than learning to accept and move beyond them.
Sometimes I think the only meaningful advice it’s possible to give is: Take responsibility for what you can, and let go of what you can’t. No one has ever gotten a perfect score in life. You will overreact, speak too soon, break someone’s heart, make a mess, and have to start over. The trick is in realizing that these are all things you can learn from. Sure, think about your next move, consider your actions, and make decisions from a place of kindness and compassion—for you and for others. But after that, you just have to know that your mistakes aren’t detours from your proper path; they’re the entire journey. I can’t tell you what the right decision is. I can, however, remind you that no matter what decision you make, you can still be a contented person whose life is full of fulfillment and love. Take a wrong turn and see where it leads you.
Lindsay King-Miller lives in Denver with her partner, their two children, and an absolutely terrible cat. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life for Girls Who Dig Girls (Plume, 2016).
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Originally Appeared on Self