Why Won’t My Therapist Just Tell Me What to Do?

If you need advice, you can call friends and family. You can talk to a spiritual leader or life coach. But if you ask your therapist, you may be disappointed.

Melba Vasquez, Ph.D., a psychologist practicing in Austin, Texas, has been asked several times throughout her career, “Why don’t you just tell me what to do?” dooooo? she said. “Because they’re so upset, because they’re so confused and struggling.”

But she knows that telling them what to do is not her role.

In Los Angeles, professor and licensed psychologist Michi Fu, PhD, is also receiving training requests. Clients asked her, for example, whether they should leave their partner, divorce their spouse, or take on a new job.

“People come in with the expectation that therapy will be like getting advice from family and friends,” she says.

She gently explains that she cannot make decisions for them, but she can ask questions that help them think and make their own choices.

“We help them figure out the best method for their situation, rather than giving them a formulaic approach,” Fu says.

This doesn’t mean that therapists can’t help you solve the mystery. But instead of giving immediate answers, they act as guides for you to learn how to make the right decisions for yourself.

So what exactly is the role of a therapist and how do you find one that fits your specific needs?

Don’t expect a quick fix

Instant gratification is what we strive for, and this feeling is often reflected in the session.

This is understandable, especially when you have a problem that weighs on you. But psychotherapy doesn’t work that way.

“I think some people are very used to fast culture,” Fu says. “I can cook food in the microwave and have it ready in minutes. I can click on something on Amazon and take the pressure off buying what I really need. Therefore, they may approach therapy with the expectation of immediate relief.”

In fact, when Fu works with clients, she says she tries to help them develop an understanding of what might be best for them. It takes time and introspection.

If someone asks her for advice, such as whether he should quit his job, she will respond with a series of open-ended questions called Socratic thinking, such as: “Do you enjoy your job? What other factors might make you consider leaving?” The goal is to help them find their own answers.

“It’s great for people who are interested in self-reflection, have some level of self-awareness, and aren’t afraid to get it right,” Fu says. “And it’s a little unusual for people who are used to being constantly 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 guide—or don’t guide—their clients.

Fu shared some ideas about how different therapists might approach asking for guidance. Take, for example, psychoanalysis. “Psychoanalysts need to provide people with a safe space for emotions,” Fu says. “They may offer some interpretations, but very rarely do you get a directive from a pure psychoanalyst.”

On the other hand, psychologists who practice cognitive-behavioral therapy tend to be more instructive.

“They give you the tools to do what you want. If you tell me you want to quit smoking, we will make a plan for you to quit smoking,” Fu says.

She describes a type of therapy called humanistic therapy as a “supportive” approach. “These people think that we just support whatever the person wants to do. You will be yourself.” They focus on how you can be your best, true self.

Knowing that this approach can be helpful, Fu stresses that the interview with the therapist is critical. She says you can do this with an initial examination, which is often free, or a brief consultation, which many therapists offer for a small fee. During this time, you can learn about their style and the types 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 kind of therapist who does this? She encourages people to meet with more than one therapist to find the right one. “You can’t just go to one hairdresser and say, “Well, that’s it. I’m stuck with the kind of person who cuts my hair,” she says. Word of mouth has a lot to say, Vasquez says. She encourages people to read reviews of therapists and ask friends for recommendations in order to find the right person and the right plan.

“One of the variables that make psychotherapy effective is belief No. 1 in a person. That they will catch you. That they understand you and your problems and how you got there,” she says. “And #2, that the plan to help solve these problems is solid. These two factors must be present for psychotherapy to be effective.”

Stick to

You may have been looking for therapy because you need help making a decision that could change your life. You probably quickly realized that this is not as simple as a yes/no answer.

But don’t give up. If you stick with the sessions, the therapist can potentially help you better understand yourself, your needs, and your desires so you can make the best decisions on your own.

“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 learn to gather information about any dilemmas or decisions they have to make and then listen to themselves.”

In the end, you are the one who will live with the choices you make in how you shape your life story.

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