“I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.” -Oscar Wilde
It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and the sun is casting a golden light through the blinds. I am sitting across from my patient Andrew, who wrinkles his face and says in an exasperated tone, “Look, I know you don’t give advice, but what do you think I should do about this mess?”
I respond, “It would be easy for me to answer your questions with advice, but how would that be of any help to you?”
In reality, I do have opinions about Andrew’s relationship. This is the second time he has jumped headfirst into a romantic relationship without consulting anyone. Now he’s in over his head in a tumultuous love affair with a co-worker who is married to one of the partners in his firm. It seems clear to me that Andrew has some commitment issues which he’s been exploring in treatment for some time. Every time we get close to addressing some of his intimacy issues, he predictably gets into a high octane love affair that is nearly impossible to disentangle himself from.
I sit across from him patiently waiting for his reply. Finally, he says, “Well, if I get you to tell me what to do, it would make it easier for me.”
“What do you gain from me making things easier for you?”
“I guess nothing. I don’t learn anything for myself. Ugh. How did I get myself into the mess?”
Bingo. This is the moment when Andrew begins feeling motivated to wonder about how and why he’s gotten himself into this situation.
Therapists are notorious for asking questions in response to questions instead of giving advice. While this can be irritating, there are reasons for this:
- There’s a lot to learn from tension. When people ask for advice, they are sometimes asking to be relieved of the tension around ambiguity. If the therapist gives the patient the answer, the patient will not build the necessary resources to understand how to tolerate tension and learn to manage uncertainty.
- Decision-making leads to independence and agency. Effort and struggle provide a sense of empowerment. It’s disempowering to have someone else make a choice about your life. The act of making a one’s own decision involves an active commitment to taking responsibility for the outcome.
- Therapists are human beings and have blind spots like everyone else. They may have the purest of intentions, but their opinions are limited by their own life experiences. Refraining from offering definitive advice creates the opportunity to explore multiple options and creative solutions.
Therapists who are doing good work understand that the most powerful tool to have in life is to know oneself and to act on one’s own behalf.