Often, the people who engage in therapy with me will ask for advice, tips on managing anxiety, what to do about a relationship situation, how to manage a tricky situation at work. Sometimes someone might ask for general ‘life advice’. Of course, mostly what they want is some sort of reassurance and although its not true that therapists never give advice I tend not to offer reassurance. Why not?
Well to start with, the problem is rarely not knowing what the right thing to do is. If someone wants ‘tips’ on sleep or anxiety strategies, I might advise them to look on the internet, there’s plenty of it out there and its free and of course generally sound. Eat your greens, go to bed at a regular time, do some exercise, especially yoga and don’t take too many or too much, mind altering substances.
This reminds me of a joke, –
‘Doctor, If I stop drinking alcohol altogether, eat my greens and give up sex, will I live longer?
Dr – Well I can’t tell you with any certainty whether you’ll live any longer, but one thing I do know, it will certainly seem much longer!’
Of course, what people struggle with is not, not knowing, what the healthy thing to do is, it’s doing it and the reason for this is that they/we are conflicted.
Many clients may come saying they want to stop, whatever it is, that is causing them problems. So I ask why don’t they then? and they say I don’t know. Well the answer is simple, another part of them doesn’t want to stop, whatever it is there doing, is serving some purpose, even if the consequences of continuing to do it are grave. Of course, in many cases this can indeed be tragic, people find themselves compulsively doing things that they know hurt themselves or others, damage, destroy or put important, sometimes essential relationships at risk.
Therefore, advice on stopping the behaviour rarely works as the addiction or compulsion is a solution to another, sometimes, -unconscious problem., as Depache Mode noted, they’re, “looking for love in all the wrong places”.
– “in the woods of anguish, it’s easy to lose your way”. (George Nash 7.9.2020)
The difficulty in a way is in beginning therapy, as the client and therapist needs to come to a together about what the problem is and what the contract of work is.
I have had many clients come with problems and basically say, well, I’ve told you the problem, now over to you to give me the right advice to fix it. Needless to say, these client’s often leave before the work starts. For instance, someone I saw with a destructive addiction was clearly harbouring a long festering repressed grief about an abandonment by his father, however this wound was so repressed that any interpretation of mine that it might be important to look at this just didn’t work and we were immediately at a stalemate.
Of course, my job is to be as tactful as possible, to not push the client beyond where they are ready to go and to be as patient as possible, BUT, destructive behaviour is always the result of past hurts and unless we do find a way together to think about these, a stalemate or premature ending will be the result.
Paul Salvage is Psychodynamic Psychotherapist trained to work with adolescents from 16-25 and adults across a wide range of specialisms including depression, anxiety, family issues, self awareness and relationship difficulties. He currently works with individuals in our private practice in Hove.
Further reading by Paul Salvage –