John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Advice vs. Therapy

In social situations, when people find out I'm a psychologist, it's not uncommon for someone to pull me aside and say, "So what advice would you give for problem _____ ?" (Fill in the blank with your favorite personal problem.)

People confuse advice with therapy, but they are very different things. When we give advice, we're passing on universal solutions for problems that are usually straightforward. Frankly, the right advice can be a godsend under the right conditions. And fortunately, many of life's problems and frustrations can be solved this way. Human beings can profit from the experience of their neighbors, friends, and resident experts.

But personal problems are usually complex. Moreover, part of what makes them so vexing is that they don't always yield to logic. But there's a reason for this. Personal problems may involve thought patterns, suppressed feelings, hidden motivations, self-limiting beliefs, defenses against conflict or emotional pain, and not-so-obvious payoffs for dysfunctional or unproductive behavior. If your problem is not solved by common advice –– that is to say, "one-size-fits-all" solutions –– it may very well be that your psyche is running at cross purposes with itself.

When someone gives you advice, they're giving you generalized information, a solution that should work for everybody who has this problem. But when a practitioner provides you with therapy, you're getting a process that is ultimately tailored to you and your unique situation. Therapy helps you understand the complexities of your own personality and psyche, but it also helps you understand the forces that keep you stuck.

In any case, you can imagine how much I dislike the advice question when it crops up, say, at a dinner party. Usually, I turn to the person and say, "Well, that depends..."