Navigating the Intersection of Work and Mental Health

Working Better and Stressing Less

Ideas on work and mental health

Why won't my counselor just tell me what to do?


Sometimes clients are disappointed that I won't tell them what to do in a given situation. Should I break up with my partner? Should I stay in my job or take another one? It can be surprising or frustrating that I can't say what to do. In good news, I can help with HOW to think about it.

What is the difference between how and what? Let's use a silly but true example from one of my days last week. I asked myself, "should I go to Trader Joe's after dropping my child off at school or go later tonight? Trader Joe's is on the way from school drop off to the office." If I asked you this and you were giving me advice, you might say, "Well if you have two hours and you're going in that direction, then stop by the store, Katie. It's the logical choice."

If you asked me this question (and I had my "therapist hat" on), I would want to have a much longer conversation about it. I would ask you to talk about geography, time, what other things you might do with that time this morning, whether you were hungry, whether you were on a budget, what the crowds were like, how you felt about crowds, what you wanted to buy, whether you had your list, whether you use a list, etc. All of this talking probably seems pretty silly if we're talking about whether to go to the store, but answers to questions like those made me ultimately decide to go later in the evening. Your opinion of when to go to the store actually wouldn't matter in the big picture of my decision.

Similarly, my opinion of what a client should do or choose doesn't matter at all when they're making life decisions about relationships, careers, and behavior change. My job as a counselor is to help clients explore factors important to their major decisions so they can make choices they feel good about. I can ask some questions and get them to think about choices in different ways so that they feel better about the decisions they make and ultimately get better at making decisions. 

I do tread into "advice-land" occasionally. As a career counselor, I give my opinion on how clients' resumes look and how they might be perceived by some hiring managers. If a client is clearly suffering from abuse at the hands of a partner, I will label it as such. And if someone wants information on what studies say about x, y, or z, and I know, I can share that too. I suppose that is some kind of advice-giving but it's more about sharing data than about my opinion. 

Ultimately, counselors are not wise sages that know more than you about your life. We just did some training that helps us understand how people work so we can help you move forward in a way you feel good about. 



Katie Playfair