Advice is a trap, set by the unconscious to act out our patterns from the past.
There, I said it. And here’s the thing: anyone can give advice. You need no qualifications whatsoever. Honestly, all it takes is an opinion and the gumption to say it out loud.
People think that because I am a shrink, I’m steeped in the game of advice. But nothing could be further from the truth. People aren’t actually looking for advice most of the time, even when they ask for it. There are other factors and dynamics that drive the urge to seek advice. And historical patterns of attachment govern our response(s) to the advice we ask for. It’s wild and fascinating to watch unfold, if you know what to look for.
And don’t get me wrong: some advice also happens to be really good. It might be, as a matter of fact, the “right” advice. But in my profession, advice is a trap. It’s also a looking glass into your interior world of authority, power, fear, people pleasing, and risk-taking.
Clients ask for my advice all the time and I always tell them the same thing— “My advice isn’t worth even two cents. Trust me. I’m interested in your thoughts on this topic.” Occasionally, they insist, and I know enough now— two decades deep—to never fight the tides. I’ll only end up exhausting myself. In this case, I’ll give my advice with the caveat that we are now going to observe how they orbit around it. One way or another, I will get you to observe your own relationship with yourself.
One of two things occurs every damn time I find myself in the advice game: Either the person accepts it as gospel and goes about implementing it in their life, or they immediately start to prove/argue why it’s not “right.”
Let’s be clear here— both styles are morally and ethically neutral. There’s no good or bad in this game. Remember, good is just another cage. They are merely styles of orbiting in the world. What matters is that you begin to observe what style you unconsciously express and— if you’re the advice giver— what style you are reinforcing. These patterns— seeking and giving advice— like all unconscious habits (I know, I’m a broken record at this point) run deep. The tentacles are everywhere. Be patient with yourself.
I’ll even go a step further and admit that some advice is helpful. I often offer tips and tools the client can implement in their life. I consider these the low-hanging fruit of behavioral change. They help. They move the needle in the daily practice of self-care and trust me, that matters.
But at the psychological level, the tactical and strategic realm, advice is, at best, an opportunity to observe your clients’ unconscious patterns, and at worst, it’s a trap. If you orbit in my world, advice can be an alluring ego stroke that turns into a quagmire of codependency and/or power struggles really quickly. Before you know it, you will be wrapped up in the historical dynamics someone has brought to the work with you. Be mindful of those dynamics.
Let’s look more closely at the underbelly of both of these responses. We’ll start with the person who receives the advice and immediately begins implementing it in their life. In full transparency, I spent a bunch of my early years feeling really good about myself when my advice reaped some reward or resolution for a client. Frankly, I can see why giving advice becomes so addictive.
But that solution only satisfies me. What about the client? Where does this leave them? Usually, it results in an ongoing pattern of seeking answers from other people, experts, or gurus. I find this trend disturbing and far more pressure than my slacker self wants to be responsible for.
My job isn’t to have all the answers, nor is it to become an irreplaceable expert in your life. My role is to facilitate conversation and ask questions that will result in you knowing what is the next best move for you.
Too much advice-giving atrophies the other person’s ability to problem solve (that’s code for fail and try again), and to think critically (that’s code for make mistakes and not lose your shit).
The second personality style reveals a very different psychology and internal process, but yields equally unproductive and shortsighted dynamics if it becomes a fixed pattern in the relationship. For this person, they need the friction of debate in order to generate internal traction (that will later be used for creativity and strategic thinking).
As soon as I feel friction on the line, of any sort, I let the reel run. Usually, I say something along these lines, “It sounds like you have a really strong sense of what will work here. Can you tell me about some of those ideas?”
Occasionally, the person will further retreat in response to that question and reply, “I don’t know! That’s why I was asking you!” The most effective response is, “But if you did know, what would be some of the ideas?” This question, which brilliantly uses hypothetical thinking, usually softens the fight. It gives them permission to know, even if they aren’t totally sure.
It turns out, this permission to know/not really know is an important barrier we have to get over in order to problem solve effectively.
Regardless of which style I encounter, I am mindful that everything I do inside the client relationship is a form of reinforcement. I am very conscious about what I reinforce with my clients. Reinforcement patterns are the food through which you nourish all your habits and patterns. Buyer beware.
For me, having the opportunity to observe this reaction style has enormous benefit to the process of self-awareness and pursuit of understanding unconscious processes that operate as a saboteur. Beneath the desire for advice, which on the surface is innocuous enough, lurks the shadowy underbelly of codependency, self-doubt, fear, and power dynamics. These patterns are enormously valuable to observe.
Instead of trying to have all the answers, turn your attention to the art of asking all the right questions. My goal is to ask the most valuable questions, not to provide the best advice.