I remember when I first started out as a therapist. I loved offering advice. I had such important, good advice to share.
Actually, I was full of advice long before I became a therapist. I had good ideas for just about everyone in every situation starting from a fairly young age.
At one point in college, I decided to try an experiment. Instead of being so free and honest with my advice, I’d wait until people asked me for it. Why should I make it easy for everyone?
Strangely enough, no one asked.
Perhaps that’s part of what initially led me to this profession. Imagine my surprise when, three weeks into my first internship, my boss very directly told me and the other two interns, “Your job this year is to learn to listen and to not help anyone.”
I found that to be glib and annoying. I figured he just wanted to say something bold, shocking, something to make us think twice. I mean, my earliest exposure to therapy was Lucy in the comic strip Peanuts. There was an advice giver if ever there was one.
Well, my boss was right.
Advice giving as a therapist should be a rare thing. Here’s why.
- The person in therapy is the expert. It’s not just a business strategy, as in “the customer is always right.” Part of going to therapy is learning to trust yourself again. Sure, there’s an outside person who can help you see “the forest for the trees,” but good therapy means guiding without dictating. Ultimately—and maybe this is scary to hear—you know yourself better than anyone else, and perhaps a major reason you’re in therapy is to discover more.
- Empowerment. My wanting to give advice as a young therapist was more about me than the person in therapy. I feel like I need to be strongly on guard with respect to any kind of paternalism in my role. If I give you advice—even great, smart advice—I need to make sure I’m not taking away your growth in your own decision making. Sure, I can let you know if I think something is a really bad idea, but unless there’s a major safety issue, my main job is to guide your thinking (and feeling) through the situation. Someday, you’re probably going to not be in therapy. Am I preparing you for that?
- You’re rarely satisfied with advice. I can’t really remember a time when I gave direct advice that was really all that helpful in the long run. It was either not taken—which is fine; that’s at the other person’s discretion—or it was given because we were both avoiding something else that was going on. Meaning: maybe I gave advice to alleviate the person’s anxiety about a decision. You get advice from family and friends. You get advice from blog posts, attorneys, and trusted advisers. You don’t come to therapy to get advice. In my early days of therapy it’s been interpreted as an intrusion, an “I know you better than you know you.”
- It’s the relationship that heals. Ultimately, it’s your interaction with your therapist that provides the most healing and growth. While I might make some useful interpretations about a topic or uncover a long-hidden pattern, when asked what has been most helpful in my sessions (I think it’s important to regularly check in with a person about how we’re doing), most, children especially, say it’s that I listen and there is a space to just have feelings heard. People with anger management issues often get more out of working through their anger with me than they do from any step-by-step plans we formulate for time outside the office. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but we are relational people. It’s how we learn best.
- The last thing you need is another person telling you what to do. Let’s be honest. Before you got to therapy, you probably had a slew of wonderful advice givers: your parents, your in-laws, your partner, your friends—heck, the guy at the table next to yours. If you want advice, there are cheaper ways of getting it than going to therapy.
None of this is to say I’m never concrete with people in the therapy room or that I never offer suggestions. I don’t think it’s all that helpful to hold back or to be deliberately vague. But in my years of doing this work, I’ve given advice less and less and people seem more satisfied.
Sometimes my lack of advice giving brings up some strong feelings. I think back to when I wanted someone to make a decision for me. When someone did, I missed an opportunity to be better prepared for next time.
It’s like your mother telling you to look up a word in the dictionary instead of simply telling you its meaning. I was always angry when she did that. I considered her to be manipulative, withholding, and smarmy.
But I know what “pompous” means.
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