I'm starting to think that being an advice columnist would be a cool hobby--you get to read all kinds of fascinating, intimate letters from strangers, generate pithy observations on life and proper conduct, and you don't have to worry about after-hours calls or malpractice insurance. Advice-peddling is to psychotherapy what, say, homeopathy is to mainstream medicine. Both respond to the same basic needs.
For a while I've followed "Dear Prudence" (Emily Yoffe) at Slate, and only recently did I start Cary Tennis's column at Salon. Their differences are striking; advice columnists have their own styles, I suppose, as therapists do. Prudence is blunt, wry, and worldly; she does not tolerate fools and the self-indulgent gladly. Her replies are succinct and no-nonsense. Tennis is more reflective, tentative, and speculative, engaging in poetic flights of fancy to get a point across. I wish I could be more like Prudence, but by nature I'm more like Tennis.
A frequent admonition heard (and inevitably, parroted) during my training was that psychotherapy does not involve giving advice. I guess there are two reasons for this: the latter may undermine agency and personal responsibility, and it very likely oversimplifies irreducibly complex situations. But advice columnists perform valuable functions, acting as moral arbiters and as amateur psychologists. Many of the dilemmas prompting advice-seeking involve uncertainty about what is appropriate in myriad life situations, usually involving relationships or personal ethics. If psychotherapy is ultimately about self-understanding, advice-giving emphasizes propriety and practical wisdom.
The problem with advice-giving is that one is almost always going on painfully limited information. Whenever I read a letter the therapist in me instantly has a thousand questions about how some pathetically dysfunctional family or relationship got to be that way. If depth psychology is about reveling in (potentially infinite) complication, time-limited and cognitive-behavioral therapies aim to simplify, as advice-giving does. What I would love to know is whether the letter-writers ever derive any benefit from the replies they receive--it would be nice to have later updates on particularly juicy or precarious situations.