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Looking for Advice? You might be Disappointed.

I remember being corrected very quickly on the first day of my first graduate-level Intro to Counseling Course – back when I was a wee-little aspiring Therapist – when I used the word “advice” to refer to something that might be offered to a client during a therapy session.  “We don’t give advice”, I was told by my professor.  She then went on to explain all of the reasons why…I got it…but it prompted a huge shift in the ideas I had about therapy and how it is we go about promoting and facilitating change in the lives of others.  This shift in thinking brought about a certain level of liberation as well.  Some of my naive and uninformed ideas about therapy, had me believing I needed to have all of the right answers – That, like Abby, from the popular “Dear Abby” advice columns you’ve probably read in your local newspaper, I needed to know what or how someone should go about navigating the difficulties in their life.  I learned that the pressure wasn’t on ME alone to figure it all out.  It also brought about a whole new list of questions.  People often come to therapy because they’re not sure what to do or how to handle the things they are struggling with.  How, I wondered, do we go about helping people If we can’t offer at least some direction, suggestions for change, or helpful tips for how one might handle the situations in their lives?  Well, it turns out that it’s not such a clear cut issue and that Therapists have different ideas and opinions about what it is that’s considered advice, how it should be used, and when (if ever), it’s appropriate in therapy. The bottom line, though, is that therapy shouldn’t be a place to get answers and to be told what it is that someone should do – but an environment that allows the client to be able to figure out some of those things on their own.

To be totally honest, I’m probably guilty of giving some careful and thoughtful advice in session.  I should probably explain, though, what I mean by “advice” and what it looks like when I interact with the people I’m working with. It’s certainly not advice in the traditional sense and not the kind of direct advice that some people so desperately seek.  With my approach, “advice” might look more like suggestions.  I might ask someone I’m working with whether or not they have considered a certain option, and then might balance it with some other options that have not yet been explored.  It’s more of an idea-generating process that allows for thinking in new and creative ways.  Over the years I’ve developed a kind of “tool box” that includes interventions, coping skills, and ways of thinking that I’ve found to be helpful.  If I think of something that might be helpful, I never hesitate to suggest this potentially helpful thing and encourage the person to try that thing.  Another thing I’ll do is offer my thoughts and perspective. If someone asks me what I think about something, I’ll typically do my best to honestly share my observations based on the things I’m hearing. I might even tell them how I’ve handled a similar situation in the past.  What I won’t do, however, is to ever tell someone directly what it is I think they should do when it comes to making an important decision in their life.  Here, I’ll briefly explain some of the reasons why direct advice in therapy is not only unhelpful – but also unethical.

A Therapist can’t know what’s best for YOU: Only you know what’s best for you.  As well as a Therapist might get to know you, they’ll never know you as well as you know yourself.  A Therapist might have strong opinions or want something for you, but that doesn’t mean that they know what’s best for you or know the “right” or “wrong” answer. Good therapy should be a place where through self-discovery, weighing options, and exploring pros/cons and the things that motivate you, you start to figure out for yourself what direction might be in your best interest.

Advice can make people dependent on advice: Relying on others for advice makes us dependent on advice and on the people giving us advice. When we fail to sort out solutions for ourselves, we sacrifice independence and the ability to make healthy lifelong decisions on our own. In most cases, the goal of therapy is to help prepare people to be out of therapy.  This becomes difficult when a client relies on his/her Therapist to give them all of the answers.

The advice might be bad: Let’s say you’re seeking therapy to decide whether you should stay in your current relationship or leave.  Let’s also say that your Therapist told you that it was clear you needed to break up with your significant other and that you decided to do so based on that advice.  What happens if it all goes terribly wrong? If you regret the decision and realize you made a terrible mistake?  Who, then, is responsible?  Since as I suggested earlier, a Therapist can’t know what’s best for you and your life, it would be irresponsible of them to suggest that they do know what’s best for you. It might also harm the relationship you have with your Therapist if you end up following through on the advice but later regretting those actions.

We need to take ownership over our own decisions:  When we take action because someone else has suggested we do something, it’s an easy out if things don’t go the way we had hoped. As someone who believes in the importance of personal accountability and responsibility, I believe that we should all be responsible for making our own decisions.

There are certainly plenty more reasons why your Therapist probably won’t give you much advice in-session, but those listed highlight a few of the important ones.

If you’re considering seeking counseling for yourself to grow and to become better equipped to make healthy decisions in your life, feel free to send us a message.  You can also call or text 727-258-5231.

Float on Counseling, LLC is located in the Carrollwood area of Tampa on North Dale Mabry Hwy.

Joel Schmidt, MA, Licensed Mental Health Counselor 


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