John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Therapy is More than Advice-giving

Suppose you’re struggling with a problem and you ask someone you trust for advice on how to solve it. Most people are only too happy to give it to you. Maybe they have personal experience with the concern in question, or maybe they know somebody who had a similar problem. Either way, this very well might you help you. Especially if it’s a practical problem and not too complex.

Or maybe you consult the all-knowing internet, a magazine, or a book. In our world, advice is not hard to come by. It’s everywhere. And if that’s true, why would you bother going to a therapist with an emotional concern? Why not just use one of the other readily available resources?

Many people have, in fact, made this very argument to me.

In social settings, sometimes people will ask, “So, um, what do you tell people who have problem x?” As if giving advice is what therapy is about.

Except it isn’t.

Advice is generalized information that can be tailored to the many, but therapy is tailored to you. Your problem may be similar to the problems that others have–-indeed, many emotional concerns are universal––but your circumstances, goals, and needs are likely to be different. Moreover, your problems do not occur in a vacuum. Your personal history is unique to you and it serves as a broad context in which to understand your problem.

As a therapist, I listen carefully to my clients. I take pains to get to know who they really are, something a columnist in magazine will not do. I try to understand my their unique psychologies. And I lock in on the various psychological factors–-thoughts, feelings, conflicts, beliefs–-that keep them stuck.

Do I give advice? Sure. Sometimes.

But not all clients need advice. Some clients need to listened to and understood at very deep level (think: unconscious mind). Some clients need to be encouraged, coaxed, or persuaded to try something new, even though it feels risky, hopeless, or fearful. Some clients need to have someone believe in them, support them, or root for them as they try–-yet again–-to make a change. Some clients need to be confronted with self-discrepancies or self-destructive behaviors (gently). Some clients need insight into patterns of behavior, relating, or resistance. Some clients need to clarify their feelings, often hidden, or simply experience them in the presence of a caring human being. Some clients need to be challenged. Some clients need acceptance.

Some clients need all these things, and more.

If years of doing therapy have taught me anything, it’s that most human problems--depression, anxiety, relationship issues, career troubles, et cetera--are more complex than they appear on the surface.

Which is why common advice so often fails.

Advice vs. Therapy

In social situations, when people find out I'm a psychologist, it's not uncommon for someone to pull me aside and say, "So what advice would you give for problem _____ ?" (Fill in the blank with your favorite personal problem.)

People confuse advice with therapy, but they are very different things. When we give advice, we're passing on universal solutions for problems that are usually straightforward. Frankly, the right advice can be a godsend under the right conditions. And fortunately, many of life's problems and frustrations can be solved this way. Human beings can profit from the experience of their neighbors, friends, and resident experts.

But personal problems are usually complex. Moreover, part of what makes them so vexing is that they don't always yield to logic. But there's a reason for this. Personal problems may involve thought patterns, suppressed feelings, hidden motivations, self-limiting beliefs, defenses against conflict or emotional pain, and not-so-obvious payoffs for dysfunctional or unproductive behavior. If your problem is not solved by common advice –– that is to say, "one-size-fits-all" solutions –– it may very well be that your psyche is running at cross purposes with itself.

When someone gives you advice, they're giving you generalized information, a solution that should work for everybody who has this problem. But when a practitioner provides you with therapy, you're getting a process that is ultimately tailored to you and your unique situation. Therapy helps you understand the complexities of your own personality and psyche, but it also helps you understand the forces that keep you stuck.

In any case, you can imagine how much I dislike the advice question when it crops up, say, at a dinner party. Usually, I turn to the person and say, "Well, that depends..."