Why Your Therapist Isn't Giving You Direct Advice
3 reasons why therapists don't, and usually shouldn't, give you direct advice.
Posted December 15, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- When pursuing and scheduling therapy, clients often want direct advice, or at least think they do.
- Providing too much advice can disempower clients; helping clients find their own way can empower them in ways they hadn't anticipated.
- Providing direct advice can actually become a liability for both or either the therapist or client, especially if it goes wrong.
While I usually do EMDR trauma therapy with clients, I do get a number of clients requesting talk therapy for help on a present issue. In our era of quick fixes and instant gratification, clients often enroll in therapy wanting direct therapist advice and their problem fixed efficiently and expeditiously so they can move on as is. Afterall, that's what medical doctors do, right?! Usually though, I believe this mindset may be part of the problem that brought them to therapy in the first place (I'll explain below). When clients realize many therapists don’t—and I'd usually argue shouldn't—usually give direct advice, clients may feel disappointed. Rest assured, it's for your benefit. While it ultimately hinges on your therapist's theoretical orientation, her I explain why we usually don't.
Please note: therapist advice is a complex topic. I am over-simplifying it here; there are situations where a therapist's advice is not only appropriate, but needed. That'd be a topic for a future post.
1. Direct advice not often helpful.
Friends and family usually give each other direct advice when they speak to each other about their problems; but, alas, although it can be, it often isn't helpful. This is why therapists have jobs. In most cases (possibly not including crises, or anomalous/outlier situations), direct advice disempowers and indirectly suggests that the person won't be able to find their own solution. Humans usually need to be heard through our present issues patiently and thoroughly, and talking it out tends to help. This is the essence of the talking cure that Freud had discovered almost 100 years ago. After, though, we usually benefit most when we find our own solutions. Humans are the best experts on our lives, and therapists are the expert on the therapy process. Who knows all of the complexities and nuances of your life better than you? I have found that we ultimately prefer learning how to fish, for example, to being given fish. This way you aren't overly depending on your therapist, and you cultivate self-agency, autonomy, self-reliance, and some healthy dependence on your partner(s), family, friends, and other social and community supports. Subsequently, the gains from therapy can become permanent and empower you long after it ends; the process is meant to be temporary in most cases.
2. Most people don't like direct advice, even if they think they do.
This point is clear as day in sales. How do you feel when someone's telling you what to buy? Does it make you want to buy the product more? For me, aggressive marketing usually pushes me away. What about when you mention a problem and someone gives you a solution immediately? It usually doesn't feel good; to me, it feels discouraging, invalidating, and disempowering. The truth is most people don’t really like being told what to do. No wonder teens rebel when their parents tell them what to do too often without connecting to their experience first. Direct advice can often feel disempowering, and people usually don’t follow direct advice anyway, so what most therapists have found most helpful is to follow you and help you find your own way. I've found that we humans crave self-directedness; we deeply want self-sufficiency. This is what direct advice may rob you of (as stated, possibly not including crises, or anomalous/outlier situations); it suggests you can't figure it out for yourself . So giving direct advice could decrease your sense of self-agency, which would be anti-therapeutic. This would be like helping your child with their math homework by giving them the answer instead of helping them get unstuck and figure it out themselves.
3. Direct advice can create liability for both therapists and clients.
I have found that when therapists do give direct advice, if a client uses it (mostly they'd do it their way anyway), and it doesn’t work out, it may create major issues in therapeutic relationship. I personally would be angry toward my therapist if he gave me advice, I took it, and it made things worse. It’s important that you feel like your choices are yours to set you up for success when therapy ends. Even if the therapist happens to give you good advice and you take it, and it works, this may foster a sense of dependence on your therapist when you encounter future problems, which ultimately isn't likely to serve you long-term. To me, this is a lose–lose situation in most, not all, cases (again, possibly not including crises, or anomalous/outlier situations).
Many empirically supported therapies like motivational interviewing know these points well. Direct advice usually, albeit unintentionally, sets up a lose–lose situation for most therapists and their clients—client disempowerment, dependence, and/or anger, and therapist liability, along with potential burn-out and feeling ineffective. On the other hand, I've found helping clients get unstuck and find their own way is usually the best option. This builds resilience and self-reliance, which are, I believe, the most profound gifts therapy can and should produce.
Ultimately, it's the therapeutic relationship that heals, not merely information. This has been a robust finding in the research: the therapeutic relationship has consistently accounted for 30-40% of change in therapy (Brattland et al., 2019; Duncan et al., 2010). If therapy was only about advice, therapists wouldn't have jobs; we'd just provide clients with content and call it a day. After all, do you want your therapist to teach you how to channel your own inner-therapist or resolve your problems for you? Using my own therapy as client to help me figure out things for myself was one of the most empowering and confidence-boosting endeavors I have ever experienced. Myself and arguably most therapists wouldn't want to rob you of that opportunity.
Duncan, B. L., Miller, S. D., Wampold, B. E., & Hubble, M. A. (2010). The heart and soul of change: Delivering what works in therapy. American Psychological Association.
Brattland, H., Koksvik, J. M., Burkeland, O., Klöckner, C. A., Lara-Cabrera, M. L., Miller, S. D., ... & Iversen, V. C. (2019). Does the working alliance mediate the effect of routine outcome monitoring (ROM) and alliance feedback on psychotherapy outcomes? A secondary analysis from a randomized clinical trial. Journal of counseling psychology, 66(2), 234.