There are lots of ways not to take advice. As a psychotherapist and a parent I’ve probably heard most of them. My son, for example, figured out when he was very young that he could shut me up immediately when I offered psychotherapy-sounding advice by saying, “That doesn’t work with me, Mom.” Many of my clients and friends, however, are more subtle. They might mean it when they say, “That sounds like a great idea” or “That’s really helpful,” but they could also be thinking anything from “Not a chance in the world” to “I’d like to try that, but I can’t imagine that I will.” If it’s frustrating for a therapist to give advice that doesn’t get taken, however, think how hard it is to be on the receiving end of unhelpful but well-intentioned counsel.
But the truth is that while most of us can give good advice, we can’t always take it. Freud figured this out early in his work. He knew what was wrong with his patients, and he knew how they could get better. And he told them what he knew. Some of them got better. But lots rejected his excellent suggestions. So he called this “resistance.”
Today most therapists don’t buy into all of Freud’s theories; but we still use the concept of resistance to explain why people don’t accept perfectly good advice: people resist advice because we don’t like to change. We’d rather stay miserable and be the person we know than take the chance of being happy if it means being different.
But that’s not really a very good explanation. It’s like saying I don’t eat peanut butter sandwiches because they taste like peanut butter. More recently, neuropsychologists and psychotherapists have been looking at the possibility that we don’t change for two very good reasons. First, our brains are wired to keep doing the same thing. In his book The Developing Mind neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel writes that our neurons behave like people walking across a field of tall grass, tending to follow an established path rather than breaking through a new one. So our brains automatically keep us doing the same thing over and over again.
But, according to Siegel and many contemporary psychoanalysts, the brain is only part of the story. The other part is our need for other people – what psychoanalysts today call our “relational” needs. For many of us, the need to maintain relationships with people already in our lives is key to our inability to change. Sometimes these are living, active relationships in the here and now. And sometimes they’re old relationships that stay inside us even when the original people have themselves changed.
We may be afraid, for example, that if we try something new and we do change, people who have supported us might think we’re fine on our own and stop being available for us. Or people who love us the way we are might not love the changes we make. Either way, we’d be different and all alone.
On the other hand, we might be afraid that if we change we’ll be disappointed – nothing will be any different. Or we may think we want to change; but what we really want is to be accepted and loved just the way we are.
But given all of these possibilities, what’s a therapist supposed to do? It’s easy enough to say that our job is not to give advice, but many clients actually ask for suggestions, and it doesn’t seem fair not to offer our thoughts when they’re asked for. But we do have to remember that asking for advice and taking it are two different things.
Sometimes people just want us to listen to them – without trying to change them. One of my favorite supervisors when I was in analytic training used to say that two things have to happen before someone can change: first, they have to feel accepted for being who they are; and second, they have to understand why they are the way they are.
Neither of these steps is easy to take. In fact, that’s part of why change takes time. Lots of time. And here’s the thing: change is a process. Which takes us back to the question of why we often don’t take even really good advice: it is frequently given with the goal of making us change. Immediately. So we resist, almost automatically, without even thinking about it.
Sometimes, however, even the most resistant of us will, eventually, act on good advice. We just have to do it in our own time.References:
Siegel, Daniel J. The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to ShapeWho We Are. Guilford Press, 2012.