Your therapist can’t give you all the answers

Your therapist is there to help you see yourself more clearly — not necessarily dole out advice. Credit: Wavebreak Media
Your therapist is there to help you see yourself more clearly — not necessarily dole out advice.
Credit: Wavebreak Media

The question:

I’ve been seeing a therapist for a year. He’s great. While I understand that I’m supposed to figure out the answers to some of my problems, I get frustrated sometimes because I’m unsure if I can find some of the answers myself. Isn’t that why people go to therapy in the first place? I feel like I spin myself in circles in session a lot, and I leave with the same problems.

Glinda
: You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.

Dorothy: 
I have?
Scarecrow
: Then why didn’t you tell her before?

Glinda
: Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.

When I read your question, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. Not because it’s a silly question – it’s actually a rather common question – but because, as a psychotherapist who’s been on both sides of the couch, I can relate… as a client.

As you may or may not know, many therapists see therapist themselves. In fact, we’re encouraged to do so because it helps prevent our own baggage from getting mixed in with yours (yes, therapists are people too, and occasionally we have issues of our own.) Anyway, sometimes I really, really want my therapist to tell me what to do, especially if I’m confused, and the thing that I’m confused about has potentially significant consequences. I would much prefer to be absolved of the responsibility to make a tough choice that screws up my life (or, at least, that I fear will screw up my life, which isn’t the same thing.)

When I’m in these foggy places, and I feel as though I need to act, I often turn to my therapist and say, “Why can’t you just tell me what to do?” She just smiles. She knows I know why. She doesn’t have the answer. And even if she did, as Glinda explains to Dorothy at the end of her journey through Oz, I wouldn’t have believed her. I had to learn it for myself.

A therapist’s job is not necessarily to offer advice, even though some of us occasionally do, with careful considerations, and caveats, under certain circumstances – for instance, an advice column. Our job is to reflect back what we see, hear, and feel; to use our understanding of the human psyche to ask thoughtful questions that help you see yourself more clearly; and to be a compassionate witness to your dance with the human condition. We don’t have magical crystal balls (though I display one as office decor). And even if we did point you in a particular direction, that would just be our opinion. If we were wrong, you’d blame us. If we were right, you would never feel completely able to own the strength and self-assurance that comes with making a tough choice. Just the other day, I resisted my temptation to offer my opinion about a decision a client had to make and helped her find it for herself, which was far more powerful.

That being said, here’s my advice (ha, ha). If you’re feeling like you’re spinning your wheels, share this with your therapist. Perhaps the two of you can explore what is getting in the way of being able to hear the soft still inner voice that whispers your truth. Some Gestalt techniques (ask your therapist) can be especially helpful for making decisions. Meditation and a lesser known process known as focusing, which helps tune into thoughts and feelings based on bodily sensations, are also great way to gain clarity (for more information, go to www.focusing.org).

My final word of advice is to be patient with yourself. Therapy is not an exact science, and untangling the webs of thoughts and feelings we experience from day to day, especially in wounded places, takes time. Hopefully you and your therapist can figure out what knots and loose strands are getting in the way. And when all else fails, sit quietly and really listen to yourself.


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