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by Nathan Chua
“I thought you were the expert.” “Shouldn’t you just tell me what I should do?” This sadly, is a frequent complaint, disguised as an innocent remark among clients who are not as psychologically-minded. It’s a common impression from some, that counseling equals advice-giving and taking. In this blog post, I will be talking about the most common misconception I find that people have about counseling, psychotherapy, or at times, even life coaching. The common misconception is:
Psychoeducation and advice-giving are one and the same. In other words, counseling is about an expert telling a suffering individual what to do.
There are a number of people who have the impression that one session would be enough to solve any of life’s problems. The impression is, I am here to get a laundry list of things to do, or not to do. You are the expert in my life so I will let you in on as much information as I can give, and then you tell me what I should do with my life. I intentionally put the word, “my,” in italics, because this is often overlooked by those who believe in quick fixes. They forget that it is their lives that are at stake, not the therapists’. It is difficult if not impossible (at times even dangerous), for a therapist to decide in behalf of someone else, let alone someone who the therapist just met for a half hour or so.
Of course, I cannot deny the benefits of attending workshops and seminars. For many, this may be their only chance to get help, as private therapy can be intimidating and scary. This can mostly be attributed to the stigma that people attach to those seeking psychological help. Cancer or heart disease aren’t the usual fare among comedians, but serious mental health problems belong to a certain group of subject matter that is frequently used as punchlines. It probably ranks up there with being dumb or blind.
How can you tell the difference between psychoeducation and advice-giving? It may sound rather simple, but it can be tough to distinguish. You would know it is psychoeducation if it talks about approaches, theories and studies. There is always a certain degree of hesitation when these are mentioned. Advice on the other hand is normally given with some level of certainty. It gives someone permission to make decisions for another. Psychoeducation gives you the results of careful study, and leaves the decision-making to the listener. Advice-giving springs from a matrix of conformity, and a one-size-fits-all conception of what constitutes the good life.
Please understand that I am not writing this to embarrass or disparage anyone who may have hitherto believed in advice-taking. This is to let people become more familiar with what is involved in counseling, psychotherapy or life coaching. It really puts much pressure on therapists when they are taken as experts, when only you can be the expert in your life. So be kind to your therapist. There is little use for you to ask for their advice, because it is unlikely that a well-trained therapist, will give in to your wishes.