It’s pretty common for people to seek out a counselor to get some advice. They want answers, a referee, an expert to tell them how to get out of the place they find themselves in, and the safety and objectivity that a stranger can provide. While I consider these to be valuable functions of a therapist, I don’t believe that giving advice is productive to the therapeutic relationship or to the growth and healing of the client.
I am not a head-nodding, beard-stroking type counselor like you see in the movies who listens intently, but with little response beyond “Tell me how you feel about that…”. While it may be helpful to get your feelings out and talk to someone who can listen non-reactively, I don’t find it to be what my clients really want or need. I’m not going to let my clients continue to swing their clubs around in the weeds and mud, blindly searching for answers. They can do that without me, and if they could figure it out without some help, they would have done it by now and wouldn’t be sitting in my office. There’s no shame in it, therapists can’t be their own therapists either, because no one can be objective about their own stuff.
Sometimes giving people what they really need and helping them out of the muck means telling hard truths and holding up a rather unflattering mirror. It takes courage. I delineate, however, between guidance and active reflection, and giving advice. I believe that my clients are the experts on themselves, not me. I am an expert on relationships, feelings, and objectively mirroring the wounds and fears I see; the ones that my clients are so used to having running through their heads that they are no longer consciously aware of them. I can also more objectively see the patterns and voices buried deep in their subconscious that, mostly reflexively, drive a large percentage of their behaviors.
So if we operate on the understanding that you are the expert on you, and I start giving you advice or otherwise telling you what to do, what happens? Several results are possible, none of them helpful. Here are some of the possibilities, and they can happen with or without your conscious knowledge:
- You resist the advice, because after all, “who do I think I am giving the expert on you advice?” Even if you think what I’m suggesting is the best thing, you may resist simply on principle, out of rebellion, and because I am giving you something to resist. (Yes, even if you’ve asked me for it!)
- You may resist the advice because you are not ready to deal with the consequences of the changes that result, while experiencing me as “pushing you”, damaging our relationship.
- You go out and follow the advice, receive negative consequences, and blame me for steering you wrong. This is damaging all the way around, to you, and to our therapeutic relationship.
- My giving advice may trigger pain, fear, and reactivity to a wound you received in childhood if you had controlling, critical, or un-trusting parents or caregivers. I refuse to hurt my clients in that way.
- It gives you the opportunity to not take responsibility for your own feelings, actions, and decisions. If I give advice, the responsibility for the outcome is on me. To lead a healthy, peaceful, and differentiated life, you must take responsibility for yourself and make your own decisions.
All of these are negative consequences to the therapist attempting to give advice. I won’t do it, and I’m very forth-coming with my clients about this from the beginning.
Does that mean I won’t give any guidance or help my clients out of the mud and weeds? No, I absolutely will do that. I’ll give them all kinds of information and expertise on what I objectively see, how I have seen situations similar to theirs play out, pitfalls to avoid, and hand-holds to look for as they climb out of the hole they are in. I will shine the light on the path to the healing they are looking for, but they have to decide when to move through it. It’s really scary and difficult, and we are going to go at the client’s pace, not mine. No pushing or pulling, only inviting.
The difference lies in who makes the plan and the decision. I will help you to see the possibilities, the pros and cons of different decisions, but not decide which one is the best. I will help you mine your own expertise on yourself and your situation, objectively seeing the factors contributing to the situation, but not pick the course of action you will take. I know where many paths lead, and I will share that information with you, but you will make the choice on which path you walk.
Hopefully this has shed some light on the dangers of giving advice. It may also help some of you who have people approach you for advice think a little differently about whether doing so is really the best thing, perhaps? There is nothing wrong with sharing knowledge, as long as we are careful not to over-step, or over-function, for others. It doesn’t serve either person, and can, in fact, cause lots of problems and even damage relationships.
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Healing Hearts provides counseling services to the surrounding communities of Indianapolis, Fishers, Carmel, Zionsville, Westfield, Noblesville, and Geist. E-Counseling is available for residents of Indiana. Call or text today to set up your appointment. 317-218-3038
© 2015 Nancy Eisenman, MSW, LSW