Allow me to introduce Jane Doe, an imaginary client offering her services to illustrate some of the finer points of therapy. Jane is a 30 year-old, single, educated and successful woman entering therapy for the first time. She and I have met for a couple sessions. Today she appears particularly upset. Here's how she opens the session:
"I don't know what to do. John and I were out to dinner last night and his cell phone rang. He ignored the call, but I had this sense it was his ex-girlfriend calling. He got up to use the restroom a few minutes later and left his phone, so I grabbed it and checked to see who called. It wasn't her. Now I feel bad for not trusting him. We've only been dating a month, so I'm not sure what he'd say if I told him. Should I keep it to myself, or tell him?"
What is about to transpire can be a very frustrating aspect of therapy for many clients. It's what distinguishes this relationship from friends, family, Dear Abby and Dr. Phil. But it may also be incredibly helpful for Jane in the long run.
I'm not going to tell her what to do.
You've probably heard this proverb (generally attributed to Lao Tzu): "Give a man a fish, and feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and feed him for life." The goal of therapy is helping people understand and ultimately solve problems on their own, not solving their problems for them. Many people want their therapist to give answers and advice, and I don't blame them. Jane has a dilemma here, she wants it resolved, and she's paying me to help her. But in therapy we need to look at the bigger picture.
If I tell Jane what to do, she is no closer to understanding herself than when she walked through the door. She is no more enlightened, empowered or independent. She could leave with an answer for her quandary, but would feel no satisfaction for resolving it herself. If and when a similar issue arises in the future, Jane will not have tools to resolve it and would probably look to me again to give her another answer. Furthermore, I would be assuming the responsibility for her decision, as well as taking the credit or blame. That's empowering me, not Jane.
Instead of giving Jane advice about John, I'm curious about a few other things. I wonder if trying to understand the thoughts and feelings behind Jane's snooping could be helpful. Perhaps her suspicion has deeper roots and impacts other areas of her life. But first, maybe we should understand what gets in the way of Jane making her own decisions. Hers is an innocent enough question, but I've known clients who have great difficulty making decisions. They'll poll everyone they know and go with the greatest number of votes. I call this "living life by committee," and it's a painfully disempowering way to live. I'd want to explore this for a while to see how and why she may be giving her power away.
Of course, there are many exceptions to the "no advice" rule. The severity of the situation, the length of the therapy or the theoretical orientation of the therapist may deem advice necessary. But in general, therapists aren't part of the committee. If Jane can address these deeper issues in therapy, she may come to understand her thoughts and motivations better and develop confidence in her decision making skills. This will feed her for a lifetime.