• David Unger, PhD

Do as I Say, Not as I Do



We all know the old saying – Do as I say not as I do. We know that phrase because we also know we don’t always do what we tell others to do. We talk the talk, but don’t always walk the walk


People like to tell other people what to do. Even if they don’t do something themselves they don’t mind telling others to do it. Giving advice empowers the giver. You can be knowledgeable and worldly-wise when you share some suggestions for handling life. People tend to feel good when they are giving advice.


From our early years when our parents tried to teach us right from wrong and guide us towards living a good life, we have been besieged with advice. In kindergarten we were taught “Everything we need to know”. If I remember correctly that list included such things as:

  • Play fair

  • Share

  • Put things back where you found them

  • Don’t hit people

  • Clean up

  • Cookies are good

  • Take a nap.


It is hard to argue with most of the advice we have been given and yet there are very few amongst us who can honestly say they have completely followed this counsel. So, how can that be? How can we know what is best for us and yet not do it? You would think people would want to do the best by themselves. If you asked, I think the vast majority of us would say we would prefer to live the best life we can as opposed to a lesser version. If you know eating meat is statistically going to shorten your life why would you eat it? If you know that smoking is going to statistically shorten your life why would you do it? If you know that raising your voice at a loved one is going to hurt their feelings and harm your relationship why would you do it?


Smarter people than I have tried to answer these types of questions. As far as I can tell none have been able to answer it in such a way as to significantly help the rest of us. The vast majority of us do things that are harmful to us even when we know better. Knowing and doing are two separate things.


There is a good amount of research that concludes that of all the things a therapist can do, providing advice is the least useful. How can that be? You would think if you went to somebody to help you out with your life you would hope they would dispense some sage wisdom that you could employ and life would get better. You go to a doctor and complain about some aches and pains and often they can give you something to make it all better. Why can’t a therapist tell you what to do and have it be of greater assistance?


Every time someone gives you a piece of advice the underlying message is they know more than you. While this is often true it does create a dynamic of the one with the knowledge (power) and the one without. It is not an uncommon place to be, but until your knowledge/ability/power is on par with the other you may feel less than them in some way. You are one down from them.

Even though you may ask for advice and want to believe someone knows the way to the good life, the fact that they tell you is also telling you that you are not competent enough to figure it out yourself.


Sure, a therapist, like anyone else can offer you some good advice now and then. I certainly offer my share of advice, but in order to help someone gain independence and confidence in their abilities, I ask them what advice they would give themselves.


Therapists are taught then when a client asks them what they think, the textbook response is: “What do you think you should do?” The message there being the answer is within the person.


The therapist tries to empower the client to believe in their own ability to live the life they want to live. Does the therapist usually also throw in their two bits? Sure. People can’t help themselves sometimes for wanting to offer some advice.


When it comes to doing as I say and my not doing what I say, there are few amongst us are able to walk the walk all the time. We slip, we fall, and we falter. Perfection is a direction not a goal.

So when it comes to what I think you can do to make your life better I would ask what do you think you can do here that will make you feel better about yourself?’


Believe that you know what is best for you. Trust that you can do what it takes to make your life better. Not completely. Not always. But more. Let’s aim for making things better.



#Advice #relationships #aches #pains #knowledge #better

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