If you are looking for advice, you can call friends and family. You can speak to a spiritual leader or life coach. But if you ask your therapist, you may be disappointed.
Melba Vasquez, PhD, a psychologist in an independent practice in Austin, TX, has heard the plea a number of times during her career, “Why don’t you just tell me what to do?” she says. “Because they’re so frustrated, because they’re so confused and struggling.”
But she knows it’s not her role to tell them what to do.
In Los Angeles, professor and licensed psychologist Michi Fu, PhD, also receives requests for instruction. Clients have asked her things like whether to break up with a partner, divorce a spouse, or accept a new job.
“People come in with the expectation that therapy will be akin to receiving advice from family and friends,” she says.
She gently explains that she can’t make decisions for them, but she can ask questions that help them think and make their own choices.
“We help them understand the best method for their situation, rather than giving them a cookie-cutter approach,” Fu says.
That’s not to say therapists can’t help you through a riddle. But instead of providing immediate answers, they act as guides, helping you learn to make good decisions for yourself.
So what exactly is the role of the therapist and how can you find the right match for your specific needs?
Don’t expect a quick fix
Instant gratification is something we crave, and that feeling often makes its way into a session.
It’s understandable, especially if you have a concern that weighs heavily on you. But that’s not how psychotherapy works.
“I think some people are very used to fast-paced culture,” Fu says. “I can put my food in the microwave and get it in minutes. I can click on something on Amazon and relieve some tension by buying something I really need. So they could approach therapy with this expectation that there will be immediate relief.”
When Fu works with clients, she says she tries to help them become aware of what might be best for them. That takes time and introspection.
For example, if someone asks her for advice on whether to quit their job, she will respond with a series of open-ended questions called Socratic thinking, such as, “Do you like your job? What could be other factors that make you consider leaving?” The intent is to help them find their own answers.
“It’s great for people who are interested in self-reflection, have a certain level of self-awareness, and aren’t afraid to look at that,” Fu says. “And it’s a little strange for people who are used to constantly being told what to do and how to do it.”
Find the right therapy — and therapist — for you
There are dozens of types of therapy. And each therapist will also have a unique approach to how they do or do not lead their clients.
Fu shared some ideas on how different therapists might approach a request for guidance. Take psychoanalysis, for example. “Psychoanalysts are supposed to provide a safe space for people to feel emotions,” Fu says. “They may offer some interpretations, but very rarely do you get a guideline from a pure psychoanalyst.”
Psychologists who practice cognitive behavioral therapy, on the other hand, are often more instructive.
“They give you tools to do what you want to do. If you tell me you want to quit smoking, we’ll make a plan for you to quit smoking,” Fu says.
She describes a type of therapy called humanistic therapy as a “supportive” approach. “Those people believe that we just support what the person wants to do. You’re going to be you.” They focus on how to be your best true self.
While it can be helpful to know the approach, Fu emphasizes that interviewing a therapist is critical. She says you can do that through an initial screening, which is often free, or a brief consultation, which many therapists offer for a low fee. At that point, you can inquire about their style and the type of clients they have the most success with.
“You can ask them questions like, ‘I need someone more directive to give me resources. Are you the type of therapist who does that?’ She encourages people to meet with more than one therapist to find the right fit. “You wouldn’t just go to one hairstylist and say, ‘Well, that’s it. I’m stuck with these kinds of people cutting my hair,'” she says.
Word of mouth can be telling, Vasquez says. She encourages people to read therapist reviews and ask friends for recommendations to find the right person and plan.
“One of the variables that makes psychotherapy effective is, #1, belief in the person. That they catch you. That they understand you and your problems and how you got there,” she says. “And No. 2, that the plan to help with those problems is a solid one. Those two factors must be present for psychotherapy to be effective.”
Stick with it
Perhaps you sought therapy because you wanted help making a potentially life-changing decision. You probably learned quickly that it’s not as simple as a yes/no answer.
But don’t give up. If you stick to the sessions, a therapist may be able to help you better understand yourself, your needs, and your desires so that you can make the best decisions for yourself.
“One of the goals of therapy is to enable clients to learn to trust themselves,” Vasquez says. “So what we’re trying to do is help clients gather information about whatever dilemma or decision they need to make, and then listen to their best selves.”
After all, you are the one who will live with the choices you make in how you shape your life story.
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