Here is a truth. Even therapists see therapists.
I personally have been in therapy for over 15 years and worked with one particular therapist for over 10 years. Sadly, this therapist passed away a little over 2 years ago from complications from a very aggressive form of ALS. And, as part of my own grieving, it took me a while to venture back into finding someone new to work with. However, I was facing my own life challenges and I could no longer ignore that I needed to return to therapy. And so I ventured out as most of us do, and looked online to find someone.
And in my journey to find a new therapist, I got a reminder of not only what it’s like to be on the other side of couch, I also got a very valuable lesson about what works and what absolutely doesn’t work in therapy.
For most of us, when we come to therapy for the very first time, we don’t know what to expect. We have a problem or life issue that usually prompts us to come to a therapist’s couch. And, it is natural and understandable to come to a professional with the hope they have the answers as to what can help us feel better. And it is part of our job after all to help our client’s live better and more satisfying lives. But, the question is, what creates true change in us that can potentially last a lifetime?
Understandably, in my work with clients there comes a time when the inevitable question arrives. “Tell me”, clients will often ask with their eyes earnestly pleading when talking about a problem or issue they are having in their lives, “What should I do?”
In my many years of experience as a student of psychology, a client in my own therapy and therapist in private practice, I have learned this one important thing: A therapist giving advice is not only not therapy, it can potentially be one of the most damaging things a therapist can do.
You may ask: What’s so bad about asking for and getting advice from a trained professional? That’s what they are there for, right? Here are a few thoughts:
1.) ADVICE ISN’T TAILOR MADE TO YOU. IT IS OFTEN BASED ON SOMEONE’S PERSONAL OPINION
There are times we ask for other’s opinions, we want to hear based on their life and their experience what they think or recommend. And while the motivation is completely understandable, it is helpful to remember that it may not be what you need to hear or what necessarily works best for you, even from a professional who is there to help and support you. It is important in any therapy process for a therapist to understand your particular circumstances and history, understand your emotions/thoughts about the issue you are wrestling with and guide you to the answer within you, rather than provide an external opinion or advice.
2.) GETTING ADVICE FROM OTHERS CAN SOMETIMES PREVENT PERSONAL GROWTH
Personally, I am one of those people who talks every day with their dad and I feel really lucky I still have my dad around and to have such a close relationship with him. Over the years, I would rely on my dad’s advice to tell me what to do or how to handle a situation that I couldn’t figure out myself. It felt great getting his advice and it helped me to feel closer to him. However, in the long-term I noticed it wasn’t really helping me and, in fact, made me dependent on my dad for any major life decision. Add on top of it he’s my dad and I didn’t want to disappoint him if I didn’t take his advice. What I had to learn in my life is the drawbacks of getting advice from others, including from therapists. And while it may feel good in the moment and it may give us a potential solution to our immediate problems, it may also leave us more reliant on others and prevent the development of our own tolerance for our problems and our abilities to cope and problem solve. True transformation and growth happens from developing our own sense of what works for us, what feels right and what our values are and what we want to do as a result of this knowledge. Part of the process of growing “into our own” means knowing ourselves without the input of others. Good therapy free from advice giving can be a great way to begin and encourage this process.
3.) GIVING ADVICE CAN DAMAGE THE THERAPEUTIC RELATIONSHIP
As a therapist, there are so many times I wish I could give my clients all the answers and take away their struggles and difficulties. It can be hard to see my clients wrestle with break ups, losses, divorce, hardship, unemployment…and it can be very tempting to give a quick moment of advice or solution. However there are many additional problems that can occur if a therapist “takes the bait” so to speak and gives advice. For example, what if the therapist gives you bad advice? Even if it’s well intentioned, what if it wasn’t what you needed to hear? What if you followed that advice and it ended badly? It would be incredibly damaging to the relationship with the therapist if this were to happen and this is where advice giving has the most potential for becoming quite damaging to a client in therapy.
So where do we go from here? In my experience, most clients find feeling understood, processing their emotion and working their way through a problem with the support and guidance of a therapist to be far more helpful than any piece of advice they may receive. Therapy, at its’ best, can be a wonderful way to discover and grow in a safe, empathic, reflective and guiding space for you to express, explore and discover. Therapy done this way can potentially create long lasting satisfaction and change that can help you feel and live better. And, it may be safe to say, it is best to leave advice-giving at the door.
With compassion and love,