capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

Why I Cannot Tell You How to Live Your Life

Well, what do YOU think I should do?

It’s a question most well-intentioned clients ask at one point or another, during an especially frustrating, gridlocked situation. It feels like an appropriate and even harmless question. After all, aren’t you just trying to make the right decision? And isn’t the thWherapist the expert at hand?

One of the greatest misconceptions clients have is that we therapists somehow carry an elixir of special knowledge excluded from the vast collection of psychology books and self-help work.

This is not the case. While we do carry knowledge, this knowledge is easy to obtain. Most “mental health” advice can be found littered among advice columns and Internet forums. Knowledge, however, is easy to chew, but difficult to digest. And knowledge alone rarely stimulates long-term growth.

Good therapists seek to expand. Expand awareness, knowledge, risk, capability. We want you to stretch, grow, experience in new dimensions and new ways. Therapy is often sought out with the intention to reduce feelings of helplessness, stuckness, or defeat. If I tell you what to do in an uncertain situation, I’m fostering you to depend on me next time you struggle with a decision. I’m perpetuating the idea that you need me to navigate you when you cannot see. This only discredits your capabilities and strength. This only shrinks your autonomy. Rather than walking next to you on this journey, I’m ten steps ahead, dictating and pretending your path is my path, and you remain in my shadows.

Expansion requires respecting autonomy. In fact, it is in the therapist code of ethics to act in ways that assist the client in making independent, autonomous choices. We do not tell you what to do because we are not you, and we respect that- even if it feels impossible or unsettling- you have the capability to make the best, conscious decisions for your life. As therapists, we hold the hope and faith for you while you find that confidence and intrinsic strength within yourself. It may feel impossible, but good therapists encourage and guide you to tap into your inner self and inner resources to unstuck yourself.

Therapy is not advice-giving because advice-giving is one dimensional. Additionally, it puts the therapist in a position to abuse power, to assert that they have the expertise and control over your life and your trajectory. Instead of expanding, this shrinks you. It limits your independence and essentially keeps you as a passenger- rather than the driver- of your own car.

If you are searching for a therapist who will tell you what to do, you are searching for another reason to depend on something or someone else. You are (often unintentionally) avoiding some kind of internal responsibility. Is this a bad thing? Of course not. It is normal to want guidance and reassurance, to want to make the right decision. But nobody has that right decision for you. All the fancy degrees and research articles in the world cannot tell you how to live your life. 

Good therapists may give you suggestions, feedback, and options. They may point you to what’s worked for others or work with you to analyze the pros and cons of making a particular decision. They may even express their hesitations and concerns about you taking a particular action. Your therapist, however, is short-changing you if he or she is telling you what to do without room for you to explore it yourself.

In therapy growth, it is infinitely more satisfying and healing to experience the turbulent emotions, uncertainty and risk, outweighing and calculating, that comes with making a decision than taking the instantaneous gratification of following exactly what tell you to do.

As a therapist, I will stand with you. I will support you. I will give you the safe place to dissect, explore, and process your options and all the emotions that come with them. Sometimes, I will give you suggestions, and I will confront your defenses. But I cannot be you, and I will never be you. And I cannot know the best choices for you. And to make a decision for you, to tell you how you need to live your life, is limiting, shrinking, and discrediting the amazing human you are.

We all have the inherent and beautiful right to make our own decisions. Mistakes will happen, but with mistakes comes growth, and with growth comes progress.

I work to expand. I work to not live your life, but to help you live your life. I cannot enable you to divorce yourself from yourself. Chances are, you’ve spent far too long doing that, anyway.

After all, if f therapy was just about advice-giving, this profession would have been replaced by Google over a decade ago.