Teach Someone to Fish…

You may remember the allegedly Chinese proverb:

(photo source; Wikipedia)

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

As someone with a background in psychology, this proverb always seemed a bit off. Why? Because learning theory suggests that organisms from the smallest to the largest learn from experience, or from reinforcement contingencies if you will. Then the reformulated version of the proverb came to me, incorporating what we know about learning:

Teach someone to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime. Give someone a fish, and you teach them to come bugging you for a fish every day.

Since originally coming up with this reformulation, I’ve seen a blog post in another context that pointed out that you shouldn’t teach a starving person to fish– they’re too upset.


It was written in a business context, but the point is well taken. When someone is flooded with negative emotions, the person responding must first pay attention– fully– and must have empathy. Therapists are expected to do both, but so are friends.

The reformulated proverb could be misappropriated by  conservative people to rail against “government giveaway” programs. But that’s not where I’m coming from. Especially after reading  about not trying to teach a starving person.  It’s just that we learn from all of our experiences, but what we learn from them isn’t always what folks had in mind.

This is why therapists can sometimes be very annoying. You ask them a question and they answer with a question. You ask them what their experience is with a certain problem, and they won’t disclose. You ask them to problem solve and they refuse. There are a lot of reasons for doing those things, and I have it in mind to write about therapist self-disclosure at some other point. Right now I’m recalling some great feedback I got from a clinical supervisor a long time ago: “The more we help them, the more helpless they become.” So when your therapist won’t problem solve for you, he/she is working on teaching you to fish. Your solution to the problem is worth ten of the therapist’s solutions– perhaps even more.

Remember, one of the things that makes a therapeutic relationship uniquely different is that one of the goals is for it to be over– for you to not need therapy any more.  When you’re overwhelmed and can’t cope, you get a fish. When you’ve weathered that particular storm, you get a fishing lesson.

This is something to remember when thinking about how good your therapist is– is it just a nice warm feeling because your therapist is always giving you an emotional fish, or do you sometimes feel uncomfortable because you get the fishing lesson? What’s the balance? How do you find it? I recall a former client who gratefully told me, “You really called me on my shit,” when I had no particular memory of confronting him. But that was his experience.  While therapists are emphatically not in the business model that says “the customer is always right,” we’re mostly in the model that the client needs to discover what is wrong, and when it’s wrong, what’s wrong about it. Again with the fishing lesson. But because in this case the fish are frequently intangible, the therapist also needs to tell the client– “you caught one!” sometimes. The lesson is that one can learn to learn.

The the fishing metaphor is starting to get old– and you know about what happens to old fish. So I’ll let this one go. What do people think about the balance between the therapist as comforter and as teacher?

thai fishing(Photo source; Wikimedia: Philippe Gabriel)


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in behavioral health, change, Distress tolerance, Emotions, Learning, mental health, Recovery, Therapy processes, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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