Therapy is Not Advice

If you’ve read other entries on this blog you’ll notice that I frequently reflect on the process of therapy and try to describe it so you can have some idea of what to expect and how I work. Counseling is a complex process and there’s a lot of misinformation out there and I find that it works best when you and I are on the same page about what we are expecting. I want to share a quote I recently read that caused me to put the book down and audibly say, “Yes!” and then I also wrote “Yes!” in the margins of the page. The author, a psychologist named Jordan Peterson, put something to words that I have been trying to formulate and say for quite some time.

Psychotherapy is not advice. Advice is what you get when the person you’re talking with about something horrible and complicated wishes you would just shut up and go away. Advice is what you get when the person you are talking to wants to revel in the superiority of his or her own intelligence. If you weren’t so stupid, after all, you wouldn’t have your stupid problems.

Psychotherapy is genuine conversation. Genuine conversation is exploration, articulation and strategizing. When you’re involved in a genuine conversation, you’re listening, and talking- but mostly listening. Listening is paying attention. It’s amazing what people will tell you if you listen. Sometimes if you listen to people they will even tell you what’s wrong with them. Sometimes they will even tell you how they plan to fix it. Sometimes that helps you fix something wrong with yourself.

Short and sweet, but it gets right to the point. I’m not interested in telling you what to do. There are many books for that and you have many people in your life, including yourself, who are already full of opinions and suggestions. What you need is to actually be listened to so that we can process and figure out who you are, what’s going on, and what you want to do. You’re simply too complex for me to listen to you for 30 minutes and somehow have the answer to a problem that took years to develop. Do you really want to be reduced and dismissed so quickly by me assuming that I’ve figured you out and know what you should do? I know this stance will make some of you uneasy.

I’m not interested in perpetuating the myth of therapist as all knowing. I’m a flawed human with my own blind spots and the limitations in knowledge that come from being a limited being. This doesn’t mean that I’m saying I offer nothing and that I’ll just be a blank slate either. The biggest knock on therapists when we’re caricatured is that the only thing we know how to do is ask, “And how did that make you feel?” The assumption in this caricature is that we ask because we don’t actually know what to do and have nothing to offer. But what if asking that question and caring about the answer is the best thing we could offer someone? I think part of the problem is that we’ve totally come to devalue listening well and have only come to value action and productivity. I’m trying to counteract that value system. I don’t think the performance based system is really helping anyone feel better or attain any measure of peace. What I frequently hear from clients is that they could have used a little more “And how did that make you feel?” from their parents and a lot less “Get your grades up” and “Why aren’t your chores done?” and “I’ll give you something to cry about.” No, I don’t want to perpetuate that in counseling of all places.

I am trained to listen well. (And I care!) I will give you feedback on what I’m seeing and feeling as we talk, and I will ask you good questions. I’m very curious about what’s going on with you and I want to help figure it out. I have specific training in things like sex addiction and trauma recovery and I have tools to help you heal from these things. But none of this is advice, and none of it will be offered quickly or simply as a coping tool. And I would be remiss if I didn’t add that I ultimately defer this process to God, trusting that He is the one who can see through all the complexity and provide the necessary words to move forward, if only we could both find a way to listen to Him as we’re listening to each other. He is always speaking truth and order into the chaos.

So my invitation to therapy is a genuine conversation and encounter. Listen to you soon.