Diane Barth

Diane Barth
New York, New York, USA
June 25
Psychotherapist and author in NYC; specialist in the area of eating disorders and college issues; specialist in attachment issues


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MARCH 18, 2012 10:24AM

Why IS Advice So Hard to Take?

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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.  


Siegel, Daniel J. The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to ShapeWho We Are. Guilford Press, 2012.

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As a counselor, i learned that the three most important conditions are empathy, genuinness and unconditional positive regard. The middle one may involve advice giving, but usually advice is not too therapeutic. But it may be necessary at times. Suggestions are better than baldly stated advice. Not quite the same. Especially "suggestions to consider." people have a hard time with bald advice because we all have a need to maintain autonomy and individuality and not become anyone's puppet. All of this is how I see it, anyway...
Plus we all know that the counselor or therapist is not perfect either and can have his/her own distorted view.
Hi Patrick,
As always, your comments are totally on point. Thanks so much for your input!
Just read this. I found it a little late, but it was exactly what I needed to read to today. I am facing huge changes, and it's not fun. How great to hear this message about change right now. I feel some lowering resistance just being reminded that it is "normal"...
Thank you! This helped me.
I suspect that it's so hard to change because we are what our brain is. The brain is plastic, hence we can learn, but absorbing a logical argument and agreeing with it is not the same as changing the brain. To change from being an angry spiteful person to a relaxed agreeable happy person is at least as hard as changing from being a person that does not know how to play the piano into a person that does know how to play the piano: it requires a great deal of time, patience, practice, and concerted consistant effort to modify the brain to that extent. It is a matter of time and effort and persistence to make abstract ideas into habits we can play by ear.

I know how it feels to be absolutely unable to feel joy; that is, I can remember how that feels from the past. And even in a state of misery one can cling to that like a precious lifeboat; after all, my grievances and suffering and angers were part of what was uniquely me. And they were based on rational argument. They were well founded and to let go of all the emotion attached to these carefully nurtured sources of spite felt dishonest; it felt like being untrue to myself, and untrue to the awful truth about reality.

The way out for me was love. I admitted some faults of my own that had precipitated my spiral into nihilistic self-negation, and I decided I could honestly exorcise myself of those; I began a campaign of atonement, an attempt to undo the harms I had done, the faults I had allowed to control my life. In that process I reached out to help someone, someone I knew casually and I knew needed the help. And it turned out she loved me; and I allowed her to love me, which was not easy. The bitterness that seemed like my foundation slowly started to dissolve. It became merely fear. My hatred of life itself, of light and gravity and time and space, hatred of smells and sounds, hatred of every unwelcome thing the world pummeled me with if I stepped outside, was reduced to fear and dread, and then slowly to annoyance, and after this woman I married had loved me enough I reached neutral ground and started to be able to tolerate the thought of laughter and joy. They no longer seemed like phony untrustworthy deceivers. They started to feel natural again, and even to feel good. And now I love her too, to a depth I never imagined possible. We are one and always will be.

It was so hard to change, and took several years, because the dark place I had dug myself into took years to burrow into. It was a slow process of accumulation, and it became embedded in my brain as emotional habit, habits of reason and rejection and resistance that became the shape of my brain, my new instinctive behaviors.

I think the time to dig out must have some proportionality to the time required to dig in. There is energy, momentum, inertia, encoded in neuronal connections that must be undone patiently, consistently, relearning how to be human again.
Onislandtime -- so glad this was helpful! Good luck in with the changes you're making! hope the process is ultimately a good one!

JeffJ -- Well put! glad you were able to find a loving relationship to help you with your change process! Having someone else to go through the experience with us is so important, but not everyone is as lucky as you to have that!

While reading this, I found my mind wandering to one of R. D. Laing's Knots:

There must be something the matter with him
because he would not be acting as he does
unless there was
therefore he is acting as he is
because there is something the matter with him

He does not think there is anything the matter with him
one of the things that is
the matter with him
is that he does not think that there is anything
the matter with him

My guess is you are more qualified to suggest reasons why this Knot came to mind than I.