I'm a future therapist who heard, "Therapists Don't Give Advice"
January 21, 2018 7:42 PM   Subscribe

Should therapists give advice? Why or why not? What exactly is meant by advice?

I wanna become a therapist. Somewhere, I read that therapists don't give advice. That confuses me, cuz my therapist has given me advice. For example, she told me that I have black and white thinking and that I have conflicts with people cuz I'm overly sensitive and interpret things in a way that frustrates me. She's also planning to coach me on social skills using a children's social skill book to organize the lessons. I'm not sure who to believe, my therapist, or these people on the internet who say that therapists don't give advice.

You might say, "Ask your therapist," but I don't see her till Thursday, and I'm so anxious about this question that it's interfering with my ability to function. The reason that I'm so anxious about it is that I'm worried that if I become a therapist someday, I'll either give advice (if I'm not supposed to give advice) or fail to give advice (if that's what I'm supposed to do) and I don't wanna mess up this job. Not that I have it yet, and it's years away with all the schooling that I have to do, but I'm still really worried about it.

Can you spell out for me whether it's okay to give advice as a therapist, and if not, what exactly would count as giving advice? If giving advice isn't okay, but what my therapist is doing doesn't count as advice, what's the difference between what she's doing and giving advice?
posted by Eevee to Human Relations (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I forgot to ask: if I'm not supposed to give advice, what would be better to do instead?
posted by Eevee at 7:51 PM on January 21, 2018

Surely this is something that will be addressed - probably pretty extensively! - when you train as a therapist?

That said, among therapists who do not give advice, I've always heard it to mean that a therapist won't tell you "yes, break up with your boyfriend" or "you should go to grad school", even though they will help you think through those things. Advice, in this context, is more "advice about what to do" than "here is my professional observation about some ways you tend to think". Even with, eg, black and white thinking, your therapist probably would not approach this issue by saying, out of the blue, "I think you should stop thinking in black and white terms"; they'd be more likely to work with you on your feelings about your thinking and how you want to deal with things.

Again, this all seems like therapy training stuff. They're not just going to sit you down with a copy of "Mental Health: Definitions and Lists" or something.
posted by Frowner at 7:55 PM on January 21, 2018 [25 favorites]

Diagnosing ("...I have black and white thinking...") and coaching are not advice. Your job in therapy is to work through your issues and figure out the path you need to take. Someone telling you what to do (advice) can block your course of recovery.

When you begin studies to become a therapist, this will be covered. For now, please don't worry to the point of not being able function. Be gentle with yourself.
posted by Linnee at 7:55 PM on January 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

No, therapists should not give advice, except in really crisis situations. "Advice," however, means "You should do X." "You have black and white thinking and you have conflicts with people cuz you're overly sensitive and interpret things in a way that frustrates you" is not advice; it's an interpretation of your behavior.

The Best Advice a Therapist Could Get? Stop Giving Advice

Your anxiety about this is premature, though. The whole point of graduate work in counseling psychology is to help you step back from giving advice, to learn how to separate your own issues from your client's issues, and to learn techniques that will help your clients. Getting your own therapy is an encouraged and helpful part of that process, too, so that you don't project your own issues onto clients.
posted by lazuli at 7:55 PM on January 21, 2018 [8 favorites]

Therapists aren't supposed to give you advice on what to do, actions to take. She can give you her opinion, like "you have black and white thinking", but she can't for example say "you should leave your boyfriend, he's making you unhappy".
posted by Joh at 7:56 PM on January 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

For example, she told me that I have black and white thinking and that I have conflicts with people cuz I'm overly sensitive and interpret things in a way that frustrates me.

I think that this is a thing that you should discuss with instructors and stuff as you're in your educational process, of course. But as someone who's seen a bunch of therapists, I've also heard this adage, and I don't think this is the advice they mean. Advice about how to modify your thinking habits is fine. I've gotten advice about how to help my organizational processes for my ADD. What your therapist should not do is advise you that you should break up with your boyfriend. Or that you should take or quit a particular job. That sort of thing. Because of the nature of that relationship, it's a super awkward place in which to say, "uh, no, actually, I don't want to do that thing you said I should do." Your therapist should by that model be helping you to figure out how to make better decisions, rather than saying what decision you should make.
posted by Sequence at 7:57 PM on January 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I always interpreted "therapists don't give advice" to mean that therapists are not supposed to give weighted input into specific scenarios, or otherwise give patients instructions. The basic rule is that the therapist should not be telling you how to live your life. The therapist is there to help you live the life YOU want to lead.

Therefore, if a patient is detailing the ups and downs of their relationship, the therapist should not say, "You should break up with her." If the patient asks, "Should I break up with her?," the therapist should say something like, "I can't answer that, Patient. But let's talk about some of the choices you might make next, and how you're feeling about those choices." Over the course of the ensuing discussion, the therapist might point out maladapative thinking, or ask questions that might help the patient clarify their feelings, but that's different from giving advice. Similarly, if the patient talks about how they're sluggish and out-of-shape, the therapist doesn't say, "You should exercise." Instead they might say, "Have you ever tried incorporating exercise into your routine?"

But my opinion aside, you sound very anxious about this - and honestly, I would advise you to step away from the computer for now. Thinking and reading more about this topic isn't going to help you get out of the obsession spiral. (I say this as someone who enters an obsession spiral at least once a day.) I know this seems urgent right now, but I promise that this is not an issue you need to resolve tonight.
posted by desert outpost at 8:03 PM on January 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

As a therapist who was really good at giving advice, I'll elaborate: It's not that giving advice is bad, necessarily, it's just that it tends to be more about the ego of the advice-giver than the development of the advice-receiver. Therapy, in contrast, is about helping the client develop their own ego and trust their own judgment. So the therapist (except in severe life-or-death crisis situations) shouldn't push their own judgment or ego above the client's. It's not about being a referee and saying, "Here's the right answer." It's about being a coach/teacher who is going to invest the time and emotional energy into helping a client develop confidence in their own judgment, even if that means their choices are different than what the therapist would choose or even when the client stumbles and makes mistakes and makes choices that aren't in line with what they say their own goals are.

Therapy is not about molding clients into the image of the therapist. It's about supporting clients as they grow into the best possible versions of themselves.

That also means that now, in my non-professional life, I sometimes have to push myself to give advice, because that's kind of normal with friends. The thing is, is that it's also not generally super helpful. It's not like therapists say "Don't give advice!" for some sort of arcane reason; we say it because in general, people don't like getting advice, and they rebel against being told what to do, or they internally agree that they should do it but lack the motivation/courage/whatever to do it, and if you're a therapist who's giving advice, those clients will bail on you. Even if you are super-compassionate and wouldn't actually judge them for not taking your advice. The act of giving advice creates a weird power differential where the therapist is dispensing a prescription and the client is not getting the prescription filled, or not taking the prescription, and it screws up the interpersonal dynamic. "Don't give advice" is as much for the therapist's benefit as for the client's.
posted by lazuli at 8:13 PM on January 21, 2018 [19 favorites]

There are different schools of thought about this. I've had therapists who never gave advice and some who gave a ton of advice. My therapist now gives quite a lot of direct opinion about what I should do. He says the older he gets, the more he believes it's important to lay his cards on the table; we also analyze my behavior and thinking, along with my response to his advice. There was also a therapist in my past who was mainly of the non-advice-giving classical school -- actually a psychoanalyst -- who one day simply gave the obvious advice that I needed to hear. It was amazing to actually get this practical opinion from my trusted therapist instead of waiting 3 more years to get to that place myself, when the opportunity would have been lost. So like most things in therapy, there is not one single way to do it. If you decide you want to be a therapist who is more direct, let your patients know that's how you roll and if they don't like that kind of ad-hoc approach to how people have different needs in the course of therapy, sometimes for analysis and sometimes for the wall to break into directness, well, they can go to someone else.
posted by velveeta underground at 8:28 PM on January 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

"therapists don't give advice" is what you say when somebody asks you a question and you don't know the answer. The freedom to respond in that way without guilt is a professional perk that you should take full advantage of, as it may compensate for other professional challenges.

as a non-therapist, I do not care for it as a line. it is also, as you have seen, not true, even among those therapists who take it as a philosophical principle that therapists shouldn't give advice. but figuring out how to elicit a therapist's opinion without letting them know they are giving you what you want is a mid- to high-level interpersonal skill, so it's a good thing for any client to practice doing.

I think that in general, therapists ought to develop the comfort level required to say that they don't know, when they don't know, rather than let the idea fester that they know but just aren't telling. for your own good.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:50 PM on January 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

"therapists don't give advice" is what you say when somebody asks you a practical question and you don't know the answer.

99% of the time when a client asks me a practical question, I know full well what *I* would do, but I'm humble enough to know that I don't necessarily know the entirety of the client's situation, plus I don't want to substitute my judgment for theirs. Not giving advice is really a philosophy, not a technique.
posted by lazuli at 8:55 PM on January 21, 2018 [15 favorites]

And yes, clients often get frustrated at the lack of advice giving. Learning how to deal with that frustration is also part of the training and experience required in becoming a therapist.
posted by lazuli at 8:56 PM on January 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

My therapist once told me that he can't give advice but that he could give me an opinion.
posted by Che boludo! at 11:14 PM on January 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

There is a great book about giving advice called
Should you leave? By Peter Kramer.
posted by SyraCarol at 4:23 AM on January 22, 2018

Generally speaking, giving advice is the wrong approach as explained by others above. Let me add an additional reason. Responding to requests (direct or indirect) for advice is too literal an understanding of what is occurring in an interaction and needs to be explored more deeply. (You might say the literal interpretation is an example of black & white thinking.)

Here are just a few other possibilities of what may be going on.
Client is uncomfortable making their own decisions.
Client wants to feel taken care of.
Client needs to see therapist as all wise and powerful.
Client believes therapist needs to be seen as superior and must be treated accordingly.
Client is asking about something trivial rather than explore more serious issues.

That said, sometines a therapist may give advice.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:19 AM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm so anxious about this question that it's interfering with my ability to function. The reason that I'm so anxious about it is that I'm worried that if I become a therapist someday

This is an obsessive and catastrophizing level of thinking about this particular issue and should, itself, be something you talk about in therapy.

I think of "therapists shouldn't give advice" as basically "Therapists shouldn't tell you what to do" as in, they shouldn't make choices for you if you're feeling wishy-washy on your own choices. Through a dialogue and questions and maybe giving you little projects/assignmnts to do, they should help you "uncover" what it is that you want to be doing. Part of this whole thing is that there's not one way to go through life that you are trying to figure out. You are trying to get to a place where living your own life is not giving you a bunch of bad feelings and you can more or less get what you want out of life.

It's not okay to make your therapist into the person you cede your own agency to (i.e. by turning them into a trusted person who you allow to have feelings/desires that override your own which is a common fail mode for some people) but it is okay to do scenario planning with them to help you get to your own conclusion. So I think of it more as "therapists shouldn't answer your questions for you" but not exactly like "therapists shouldn't give advice" because they give advice but it's often more in the realm of suggestions

- "Have you considered talking to them about that?"
- Maybe you should see if there's any other way you could work that thing out"
- What do you think would happen if you went back to that place and tried that again?"

Those things are all sort of advice but they're more kicking the ball down the field of working out whatever the thing is.
posted by jessamyn at 8:01 AM on January 22, 2018 [10 favorites]

I don't see her till Thursday, and I'm so anxious about this question that it's interfering with my ability to function. The reason that I'm so anxious about it is that I'm worried that if I become a therapist someday, I'll [do it wrong]

That's one thought. Here's another:

it's years away with all the schooling that I have to do

And yet...

I'm still really worried about it.

At this point, the problem you really need to address is not whether or not therapists should give advice; your real problem is how to put aside useless rumination and get on with your day.

Let me give you something I got from a therapist. It's not advice, it's a metaphor.

Imagine that your path toward some goal is a road, and you're a driver, and you can see a red light ahead - something you can see is going to hold you up, slow you down, force you to wait before you can go further. So you stop at the light (i.e. deal with whatever it is that's blocking your plans).

Is it time to move again when the signal that stopped you turns green, or does it make sense to stay where you are, tapping your fingers impatiently on the wheel and glancing again and again at your watch, until you're sure that every traffic light on the entire road ahead is green and likely to stay that way?
posted by flabdablet at 9:27 AM on January 22, 2018 [8 favorites]

I'm not sure who to believe, my therapist, or these people on the internet who say that therapists don't give advice.

I'm not a therapist, so here's some advice: take everything you read on the internet with a large grain of salt, especially if it has anything whatsoever to do with medicine.
posted by flabdablet at 9:30 AM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Clients come into therapy and want to give us their power. Our job as therapists is to hand it back.

Even if it is done with love and good intentions, giving someone advice from a position of authority can be a way of dis-empowering a client. That being said, helping clients analyze their options, reflect on their decision-making process and abilities, and expressing genuine concern for their well-being are all important tools of the trade. Your lived experience as a person who has participated in therapy is going to serve you well when you become a therapist because of the empathy and understanding you will have for your clients.
posted by Otis the Lion at 11:23 AM on January 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

If you want to give advice, consider being a life coach. As a therapist, most people need someone to listen really well. A skilled therapist can point out themes, ask good questions, and offer that feedback. The therapist make give diagnostic feedback I've had therapists give bad advice or pushy advice, pushing me towards religion or relationships, that was not at all helpful.
posted by theora55 at 1:06 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Your example seems less like advice to me and more like diagnosis and the providing of tools.

If she told you that you see things in terms of black and white, that's an observation based on the things you've said. Providing a social skills book is giving you a tool to learn. That's a process, not advice. Advice would be "dump your partner" or "invest in stocks" or "get a new job." The most you're going to get from a non-advice giving therapist is "You've said X, Y, and Z trouble you about this job. I can give you tools to help you understand X, but would a different job still have problems Y and Z?"

Like most things, therapy is about process, facilitating the recognition of problematic ways of thinking, and giving a patient the tools to recognize and address problems. Telling someone what to do is advice, an end in itself. Therapy doesn't give you ends, it gives you means.
posted by mikeh at 1:07 PM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for explaining this to me, everyone. I'll discuss it further in therapy.
posted by Eevee at 8:37 PM on January 22, 2018

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