Updated: Aug 23, 2022
"Is this the right relationship for me?"
"What should my college major be?"
"Should I take this promotion at work?"
These, and countless others, are examples of the types of questions therapists get asked every day. It would seem that these questions are perfectly reasonable for an individual to be asking their therapist. After all, if an individual is experiencing distress and are seeking therapy to address those issues, why wouldn't a therapist help answer these questions? However, what you are likely to hear in response is some iteration of the question, "What do you think you should do?"
Why won't my therapist just answer the question?? What's the big deal?? Why can't my therapist just tell me what I should do??
I'd like to briefly outline five common reasons, among others, why therapists don't give advice, and even why they shouldn't give advice.
It can reduce the client's autonomy
Why are you in therapy? What underlying issues or challenges led you to seek help? What happens in therapy should help facilitate a process by which you are working through these challenges and moving towards living your life through your values. From the very first time I sit down with a new client, I'm already thinking about how to get them out of therapy. I hope no one takes this the wrong way, but, I don't want you to be seeing me. The vast majority of people have no intention of being in therapy for the rest of their lives. They want to gain the insight or build the skills they need to live their lives in a meaningful way. When someone asks my advice, I am increasing their reliance on me as opposed to facilitating their own agency to engage their choices. It can serve to remove their sense of autonomy and independence in navigating their lives. If we conceptualize therapy as being a process through which the client is creating an "internal therapist", the little voice in their mind that coaches them through different struggles or challenges, the therapy should focus on increasing the client's engagement with this process, not stunt it.
It can interfere with the therapeutic process
Giving advice might interfere with the therapeutic process by feeding into the very thing that is the cause for their distress. If due to depression, anxiety, OCD, or some other source of pain, an individual is having difficulty with making decisions, their asking advice is effectively a strategy to sidestep their indecisiveness. Or, if the therapist is giving advice to a client because they are having trouble with their motivation, are we avoiding the exploration of underlying barriers by simply telling the client what to do? Experiential avoidance, or the efforts to avoid internal distress (thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, etc.), which is seen as a central etiological factor in the development and maintenance of psychic distress, can actually be reinforced by a therapist giving advice to a client. It might impede insight or exploration in the service of expediency.
You and your therapist are not the same people
When a client asks his therapist what he should do in a given situation, what he is, in effect, asking is, "What would you do in this situation?" The therapist is being asked to put herself in her client's shoes, to evaluate the options, and come up with a decision. The problem with this is that you and your therapist are not the same people. Your therapist has different life experiences, thoughts, emotions, temperament, personality traits, etc. Even if you share many lived experiences, even if the therapist has been in this situation before, the therapist and client are still different people. At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what the therapist would do in this situation, it matters what you would do in this situation. So instead of a therapist telling you what they think you should do, the focus should be on assisting you in deciding what you want to do.
It's not the therapist's decision to make, and they don't have to deal with the consequences
Let's say a client asks me if I think he should leave his current job for a new, but riskier, one. From where I'm sitting, I might think that this new riskier job has a lot of great upside and therefore encourage this individual to take the new job. However, if this does not pan out well, I'm not the one who bears the consequence of that decision. The impact of that choice is felt exclusively by the person who makes the choice. I can imagine a scenario where a client is furious at his therapist for "giving bad advice" that resulted in the downturn of his relationship or career. While a therapist can certainly explore the impact of a decision, identify the values involved, and examine the associated thoughts or feelings, unless the therapist will bear the consequences of the decision as well, advice giving should not be a part of the equation.
Advice giving can activate psychological reactance
Psychological reactance is a process that occurs when an individual feels their choices are being limited or removed. When someone feels like they are being "told what to do", psychological reactance can result in a stronger feeling about the alternative. For example, if someone is drinking too much alcohol, telling him he has to stop drinking, while listing all the negative outcomes, can actually result in the individual becoming more entrenched in the reasons why his drinking is under control. (This is actually why the therapeutic model of Motivational Interviewing was developed!) If a therapist gives advice to a client, it might actually result in the client clinging, even tighter, to the alternative, perhaps even pushing them towards a decision they might not want to make. You also don't want a situation where a therapist is now trying to "convince" their client to adopt a new mindset about something.
Therapy can be a valuable resource to explore the dreams, goals, and values an individual may have. A therapist can play an important role in facilitating the open and nonjudgmental exploration that can allow a client to increase their sense of agency and autonomy to live their lives in a manner most consistent with how they'd envision it. Advice giving, while seemingly helpful and direct, may actually impede an individual's growth and development process in this journey.