I would be a… less than great advice columnist. I love my role in supporting people, but I try not to do “advice giving” as a therapist. My advice column would be a series of questions, and it would look pretty similar each time. As I tell clients, I am not an expert in their lives–I can offer an outside perspective, ask different questions than they might, and support them in developing their own expertise. But to think that I, knowing someone in a limited context, could say “Just do X, Y, and Z, and your problems will be solved!” is just not really how it works (and yes, sometimes that’s a bummer!). My goal is to work myself out of a job–I want people to be able to use that self-expertise, all of those tools, the skills that they hone when I’m not there to walk with them. And, for everyone that self-expertise, what is needed in the moment, looks different. Everyone deserves to gather their own unique set of tools rather than me handing off the one that fits in my hand and is useful on the project I’m working on! Here is some of the “advice” I would offer–and spoiler alert, it’s all about harnessing your own untapped advice!
- What makes this problem worse? (Avoid that!) What makes it better? (Do more of that!) When have you dealt with something similar? What made that situation worse or better? (Learn from that!)
- How do you usually think through problems? Do you need to talk it out? (Some of us are out-loud processors and need to talk through things to get our thoughts in order.) Do you need to write about it, meditate on it, sit with it, draw about it? (Some of us are internal processors and need to clarify our ideas before we can talk about it.)
- What would tell you that things are getting just a little bit better? (Can you possibly work on things from the top down?) Or a little bit worse? What’s keeping it from getting worse? (Can you expand on that in any way?)
- What would your best friend, partner, parent, or a total stranger tell you? Someone who knows you and the situation really well? Someone who knows very little about it? (Sometimes we need to zoom in and out to see things a little differently.)
- Are there other areas that aren’t part of the problem where you could support yourself? Can you take any weight off of your shoulders so that the weight of your problem feels a little less heavy? Can anyone else help you lift that weight off a bit? Can you work on getting yourself fed, hydrated, and rested? Feeling safe, connected with others? Supporting yourself on an ongoing basis, doing things to care for yourself right before you come face to face with this problem and while it’s really present, and afterwards? (A snack before you have to take a big exam, some deep breaths during that stressful conversation, time to yourself after an argument or a tough work day?)
- Are there any parts of this that you could separate out, ways to break this into smaller and more manageable pieces, or peripheral issues that you could smooth over before you tackle the heart of the matter?
- Are there things that simply will not change that you can work towards tolerating, or accepting? Learning to live with? Forgiving? Letting go of some of the energy that goes towards fighting against that unchangeable problem, hating it, feeling mad or sad about it, scared of it? (Sometimes the only thing we can control is our response to the problem.)
Many therapists draw on solution-focused questions at times, supporting people in focusing on the potential for change and helping people expand on their successes. When people are wanting advice (and who doesn’t face a situation from time to time where we just want some direction?) solution-focused questions can be great for beginning to hone in on self-knowledge, envisioning change, and seeing some of the ways we have begun to change or have a little more power than we might have thought. (To read more about solution-focused therapy, check out this article.)
In-depth work with a therapist can help you explore questions like, How do I get out of the pattern where this problem keeps resurfacing? What other parts of my life does this connect to and impact? What are the contexts of this issue–both within and outside of my control? How can I create sustained change? Some of the questions above can help us with slowing down and stabilizing things enough so that we have the chance to explore deeper issues, change what we can, and learn to accept things outside of our control. Not so great for an advice column, but maybe there’s something there that could stir up some wisdom or hope, so that you, the person who knows your life best, can craft the best possible advice–for yourself.