The Perils of Taking Advice

It’s tempting for many to ask for personal advice. But what is “advice” exactly? You get advice from a tax accountant.  Why? Because the tax accountant knows about laws and procedures that you probably don’t know. You get advice from a car mechanic. Why? Because the car mechanic knows how your engine operates. You don’t, so you hire the mechanic to figure out what’s wrong and to fix it. You get advice from a medical doctor. Why? Because your medical doctor has knowledge of your body which you do not. Your medical doctor shares this knowledge with you and makes recommendations based on that knowledge.

Clearly, advice-getting makes sense in all kinds of situations. But does it make sense in situations like your personal life? Whom to marry, whether or when to have kids, which house to buy, where to take vacations, how to spend your free time, what books to read, and so forth?

The overriding premise of advice-getting is that you lack knowledge that somebody else possesses. With a doctor, tax accountant or car mechanic it’s obviously true. You need specialized knowledge in order to know what to do. But what does it say about your confidence in yourself when you seek advice on matters only you are qualified to decide, like whom to love, date or marry? Or whether or when to have children?

The world is full of people ready to give you advice, not only about personal decisions, but even uninformed advice on matters of taxes, health care or auto mechanics. Be wary of someone who gives you unsolicited advice! It might not be automatically wrong, but in many cases it comes from an unhealthy psychological place. Unsolicited advice suggests a need to feel superior to others. “If I’m giving someone advice, that means I’m in a one-up position next to them.” It’s subconscious and unspoken, but it’s often what motivates someone who gives advice when you didn’t even ask for it. The person giving the unsolicited advice is more concerned with feeling in a position of power or superiority than with the advice itself. Be careful!

As I said before, just because someone gives you unsolicited advice does not automatically make it wrong. But the fact it’s unsolicited probably means the person giving it has to fulfill some neurotic, irrational need … on your time! Don’t fall for it.

Regardless of the motive for advice, you still have to judge whether the advice makes sense. You’d even question it if a doctor told you two contradictory things, or if two doctors told you two completely different things. The point? There’s no substitute for critical thinking. You can’t escape the need for critical thinking, even when accepting advice from legitimate experts. Critical thinking refers to your independent judgment. It refers to your ability and willingness to identify all the facts of a given situation, sort them out carefully, and reach the most logical, non-contradictory conclusion you possibly can.

Yes, others can be helpful in this process of critical thinking and judgment. Sometimes they’re even crucial. But none of that places them in the driver’s seat of your own mind. You’re the one making the decisions —including what advice to even follow! Think about it. It takes critical, logical judgment and reasoning to determine the best doctor or tax accountant to use. It also takes critical judgment to figure out what to do if two different professionals in the same field tell you two different things. And most of all, it takes critical, independent thinking to determine which personal decisions you make.

People invite psychotherapists like me to give them advice all the time. But the only proper advice for me to give is how to better use your own mind. One client of mine calls me a “thinking partner.” That’s what a therapist should be. A therapist does not think for you, or reach conclusions which you must arbitrarily and blindly follow.

Oh, there are therapists who are all too happy to tell you whom to marry, how to spend your time, and how to do just about everything. Avoid them at all costs! It’s an abuse of authority and you can rest assured they’re using their credentials to fulfill their own unhealthy or dubious needs. Read more about this – and other – types of bad therapists in my book, “Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (and How to Tell the Difference)”.

The quest for critical thinking and self-esteem comes down to reason. Human beings learn things by reasoning. If someone comes to me asking for advice, my first question is to ask them for the relevant facts about the situation, and then their reasoning process (if any) about the situation. Then I take it from there. Given these facts, it seems reasonable to…. What do you think? Reason tells us what’s true, or at least what might be true and what cannot be true. The rules of reason are the same for you and me. Our goal is to find out what’s true and what makes sense, keeping in mind that some things are just a matter of preference. Nobody can advise you on that, either.

Advice isn’t usually the way to go. Thinking always is. Whatever or whoever helps you think should always be welcome. But avoid those who have a need to tell you what to do.

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