On Giving Advice

One of my favorite moments in a therapy session is when a patient asks me, “What should I do about this situation?” It almost always makes me smile. If I’ve worked with the patient for a long time, I might ask, “What in the history of our relationship makes you think that I’m going to give you the answer you want?” If they are a new patient I might simply say, “Well I don’t really like to give advice like that.”


It’s a natural request on the patient’s part. The cultural impression of psychotherapists is often one that depicts us as guides or coaches, and that is very often reinforced by therapists who find it easier to work in this way. And patients often look up to their therapists- it’s only natural to ask those we look up to for advice. It’s important to acknowledge the significance of the request in the first place- someone is making themselves vulnerable to their therapist.


And on the other hand, if the advice is authentic and organic, it may come out. If a patient who I know well tells me he is thinking about getting a face tattoo the night before a job interview, I might say “Don’t get a face tattoo!” I guess that could very well be construed as advice.


But really what this all comes down to is the question of what purpose is the therapist there to serve. If our therapists won’t tell us how to run our lives then why the hell are we paying them?


Well there are certainly therapists out there you can pay to tell you how to do all sorts of things, and many of them are caring and compassionate as they help guide you. I tend to live in the territory of non-authoritarianism.  What does this mean? It means I’m not an authority on your life. I can really only speak authoritatively on my own experience, and sometimes that includes my experience of you, but it’s still my experience. The minute we begin to speak authoritatively about someone else’s experience, we cease to live authentically.


And yet, you naturally want to work with a therapist who practices their job with authority- who is knowledgeable, trained well, competent. And so the phrase we use to describe when a therapist authoritatively practices therapy in a competent way without exercising authority over their patient is “symmetrical asymmetry.” The relationship is symmetrical in that there are two subjective personalities who are autonomous and self-advocates. And the relationship is asymmetrical in that these two subjective personalities have different skills, experiences and realms of authoritative knowledge. The therapist may be able to steer the therapy process, but cannot steer you.


So, no advice, no guidance, no life coaching? We still haven’t answered the question- Then why go to therapy? There are thousands of valid answers to and opinions on this question but one might be this- to form a healing relationship with someone who won’t tell you how to run your life. We get advice and guidance and suggestions from people all day, every day. In our culture, every one has an opinion about what we should be doing. Try getting sick- every person in your life will have an answer for what treatment you should take part in. Maybe it’s important to have a relationship with someone who is trained in identifying their own agenda for you and putting it aside. Someone who can be supportive of you and what you want for your life, without needing you to do what they want you to do.


These are ideals, of course, and at the end of the day, both of us are human. Having an agenda for those we care about is human. Tell me you are getting a face tattoo the night before a job interview and you’ll see what I mean.