If you’re looking for advice, you can call friends and family. You can speak with a spiritual leader or life coach. But if you ask your therapist, you may be disappointed if you hope to leave the appointment with a specific to-do list.
Melba Vasquez, PhD, a psychologist in independent practice in Austin, TX, has heard the plea a number of times throughout her career: “Why don’t you just tell me what to dooo?” she says. “Because they’re so frustrated, because they’re so confused and struggling.”
But she knows that telling them what to do isn’t her role.
In Los Angeles, professor and licensed psychologist Michi Fu, PhD, also gets requests for instruction. Clients have asked her things like whether they should break up with a partner, divorce a spouse, or accept a new job.
“People come in with expectations that therapy will be similar to receiving advice from family and friends,” she says.
She gently explains that she can’t make decisions for them, but she can ask questions that help them reflect and make their own choices.
“We help them to understand the best method for their situation, rather than giving them a cookie-cutter approach,” Fu says.
That’s not to say that therapists can’t help you through a conundrum. But rather than giving immediate answers, they act as guides so you learn to make good decisions for yourself.
So what exactly is the therapist’s role, and how can you find the right match for your particular needs?
Don’t Expect a Quick Fix
Instant gratification is something we’ve come to crave, and that sentiment often finds its way into a session.
It’s understandable, especially when you have a concern that’s weighing heavily on you. But psychotherapy doesn’t work that way.
“I think some people are very accustomed to fast culture,” Fu says. “I’m able to microwave my food and get it within a matter of minutes. I’m able to click on something on Amazon and relieve some tension by purchasing something I really needed. So they might approach therapy with these expectations that there will be immediate relief.”
In reality, when Fu works with clients, she says she tries to help them develop an awareness of what might be best for them. That takes time and introspection.
If someone asks her for advice on whether they should quit their job, for example, she’ll respond with a series of open-ended questions, called Socratic thinking, such as, “Do you like your job? What might be other factors to make you consider leaving?” The intent is to help them find their own answers.
“It’s great for folks that are interested in self-reflection, have some level of self-awareness, and are not afraid to look into that,” Fu says. “And it’s a little bit foreign for folks that are accustomed to constantly being 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 direct -- or don’t direct -- their clients.
Fu shared some ideas on how different therapists might approach a request for guidance. Take psychoanalysis, for example. “Psychoanalysts are supposed to provide a safe space for people to emote,” says Fu. “They might offer some interpretations, but very rarely will you receive a directive from a pure psychoanalyst.”
Psychologists who practice cognitive behavioral therapy, on the other hand, tend to be more instructive.
“They give you tools to do what you want to do. If you’re telling me you want to stop smoking, we’re going to create a plan for you to quit smoking,” Fu says.
She describes a type of therapy called humanistic therapy as a “supportive” approach. “Those folks believe we just support whatever the person wants to do. You go be you.” They focus on how you can be your best true self.
While knowing the approach can be helpful, Fu emphasizes that interviewing a therapist is critical. She says you can do that through an initial screening, which is often free, or a brief consultation, which many therapists offer at a low fee. At that time, you can inquire about their style and the kind of clientele they have the most success with.
“You can ask them questions, like ‘I need someone more directive to give me resources. Are you the type of therapist that does that?’ ” She encourages people to meet with more than one therapist to find the right fit. “You wouldn’t just go to one hairstylist and say, ‘Well that’s it. I’m stuck with this kind of person that cuts my hair,’ ” she says.
Word-of-mouth can be telling, Vasquez says. She encourages people to read reviews of therapists and ask friends for recommendations to find the right person and the right plan.
“One of the variables that makes psychotherapy effective is, No. 1, belief in the person. That they get you. That they understand you and your problems and how you got there," she says. “And No. 2, that the plan to help with those issues is a solid one. Those two factors have to be there for psychotherapy to be effective.”
Stick With It
Perhaps you sought out therapy because you wanted help in making a potentially life-changing decision. Likely, you learned quickly that it’s not as simple as a yes/no answer.
But don’t give up. If you stick with the sessions, a therapist can potentially help you better understand yourself, your needs, and your wants so that you can make the best decisions, yourself.
“One of the goals of therapy is to empower clients to learn to trust themselves,” Vasquez says. “So what we try to do is to help clients learn to gather information about whatever dilemma or decisions they have to make, and then to listen to their best selves.”
After all, you’re the one who will be living with the choices you make in how you shape your life’s story.