“Can you just tell me what to do?”

This is a question that is commonly asked, in many different ways, within the therapy room. Sometimes, there is understandable frustration when your therapist responds with a version of, “Can you tell me how you are feeling about it?”, rather than giving their advice. 

Whether you are a friend, a colleague, or a client, here are a few of the reasons why a therapist may steer clear of jumping to providing a straightforward answer to this type of question:

  1. We might get it totally wrong – Therapists fall into the exact same traps as everyone else because we are undeniably also human. Our ability to make decisions comes from practice (and plenty of mistakes) with understanding ourselves, our values, our context, and our goals. While your therapist has almost certainly had plenty of decision-making experience and learning across their lifetime, all of that experience has been within the context of their own self. 

While therapists are practiced in accessing empathy, the reality is that while we may strive to practice putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, we are never actually in their shoes. Our training is in supporting the process, not in being an expert on what is best for each individual. If we tell someone what to do, there is certainly a risk that we take a swing and absolutely miss because this steps beyond our role.

  1. We might get it right – This seems like a good thing on the surface, right? If your therapist gets it right, then what is the harm in them making a decision for you? The first problem with “getting it right” is that the only person who can make that determination is the person who the decision ultimately impacts. Assuming we could make a better decision for someone else is not fair to that person and removes their agency to make the best decision for themselves.

Seeking to support the autonomy, wisdom, and strength of our clients is a foundational piece of being a therapist. It is important for therapists to be mindful of the inherent power dynamics that can pop up in a provider/client relationship and to be cautious to take steps in our work that diminish the possibility of harm, rather than steps that place us on a pedestal. Your therapist is an expert in supporting you, but not an expert about you – even if we might make a good call, if we make a decision for someone else that is taking something important away from them.

  1. It is rarely so simple as “right or wrong” – Often, there are more than just two starkly different choices at a given decision point. Meaning, many decisions fall somewhere in a gray area. When we can move away from black and white thinking, we may find that we have more than two choices and that decisions are not always entirely “right” or “wrong”. Even decisions that seem “right” can come with loss, and decisions that we later assess as “wrong” may teach us too.

While this complicates things, embracing the gray area gives us the space to be kinder and more gentle with ourselves as we make choices, and openness to the ongoing learning that comes with decision-making.

Therapists can at times be viewed through an “all-knowing” lens, but the reality is that we very rarely have “the answer”. Your therapist cannot “just tell you what to do” because answering that question for you takes away an opportunity for growth and self-determination. 

What we can offer is support in identifying what is most important to you, an empathetic and compassionate lens, and perhaps some tools to help you consider your options. After you have practiced with making your decision, we will also be there to support you with whatever comes next.

Check out Cityscape’s therapists to find someone best suited for you.

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