Seeking therapy can make some people uncomfortable, but it can also make a big difference in someone’s life. That’s true whether you’re a regular person or a therapist. Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist herself, writes about this dynamic in her new memoir Maybe You Should Talk To Someone. Bookish chatted with Gottlieb about her book, her experiences both as a therapist and a patient, and how we’re all more alike than we might think.
Bookish: Early in the book, you write about the challenges of self-disclosure in treating patients and how difficult it is to know how much to divulge about yourself in sessions. In some ways, does this book feel like one big act of self-disclosure? Did that feel natural or strange?
Lori Gottlieb: It was definitely uncomfortable, and I think that was part of why I wanted to do it. I wanted to bring you into the therapy room and show you these people because I think you’ll see yourself reflected in their stories and see that we all struggle with some of the same things. I felt it would be disingenuous to portray myself as someone who isn’t struggling at all. I think that the main point of this book is to show that we’re all more the same than we are different.
Bookish: I loved your description of trying to figure out where to sit on your own therapist’s couch. Why did you choose to show readers your own discomfort with starting to work with a new therapist?
LG: I think that I have some of the same experiences as a patient that my patients have with me. There’s something connecting about that. I think that people probably don’t think much about whether their therapists go to therapy. When people come in and experience those things, like “What is he thinking of me?” or “Does he like me?” or “Where do other people sit?” it helps to know that’s normal and you’re not the only person going through that. These are just the ways that humans are. I think it really makes it easier to talk about the various things we’re going through in our lives when we know we are like most other people. It makes it easier to talk about the hard things.
Bookish: Readers will learn a lot about therapy in general from this book. Is your hope that some of your readers will feel more comfortable seeking therapy for themselves?
LG: I didn’t write this book to proselytize. I don’t think therapy is for everyone, and I don’t think everyone needs to go to therapy. I talk about the hierarchy of pain—people think their problems aren’t “big enough” to go to therapy. But if you’re having chest pain, you’re not going to wait to have a heart attack to go see a doctor. So many people do that with their emotional health. Someone might be suffering with low level depression and anxiety that’s getting in their way, and they think “I’m not bedridden. My anxiety doesn’t cripple me. I’m really functional, I don’t need to go see a therapist.” The problem is that when you ignore these signs in your body, just like if you ignore a physical ailment, it doesn’t mean they’ll go away. They’re kind of percolating under the surface. I hope that people feel it’s ok to go to therapy and that there isn’t a hierarchy of pain. You don’t need to be in the throes of a major depression to go. I want to demystify what therapy is and let readers see what it’s like in the room. Maybe that way, they’ll be more comfortable making the initial call. It’s a very human encounter that can be very healing and transformative. I hope more people say, “I’ll try that.”
Bookish: You write about an ill-fated book deal in this memoir: You were writing a book about happiness, but ultimately decided not to complete it. Does this book, in a subtler way, feel like a book about happiness?
LG: This was the book that I should have been writing. The happiness book was really scratching the surface of what it’s like to go through the daily problems of living. Therapy isn’t about making people happy; it’s about making people more aware so they can make better choices in all areas of their lives, which is hopefully more fulfilling for that. That’s very different from feeling joy all of the time. So many people come to therapy and say, “Help me not to feel.” They might be in the throes of grief or anxiety or depression, but you can’t mute one feeling without muting the others. If you mute the pain, you’ll mute the joy. I’m not writing a book about how to make people happy, but I do want them to see how to live in a way where things go more smoothly. When we see ourselves more clearly, we live better lives.
Bookish: You worked as a TV writer, became a psychotherapist and an author, and this book was optioned for TV by Eva Longoria. Does it feel, in some ways, like you’ve come full circle?
LG: The careers I’ve had have all been related in ways I didn’t realize until I landed as a therapist. All of them had to do with stories. When I was working in film and TV, I was telling stories, but they were fictional stories about the human condition. That’s what makes for good TV and movies. When I went to med school, I was seeing real-life stories every day, up close. When I was a journalist, I was telling people’s stories, and those were real stories too. When I became a therapist, I was able to change people’s stories. I still have both careers, and I think they’re really about the ways that stories help us make sense of our lives. Even as far back as the cave drawings—that’s how we talked to ourselves about our lives. Stories are really about saying to another person: Can you understand me? Can you see me? Can I see myself in you, and can you see yourself in me?. I think being able to tell this book through a TV show will accomplish a lot of what I’m trying to do.
Bookish: The stories of your patients, particularly Julie and John, are quite moving. It seems like you were as affected by them as they were by you. Do you find that all of your patients have something to teach you, or were these patients outliers?
LG: They’re not outliers at all. There were so many patients that I could have chosen to write about. I wanted to make sure not to write about anyone I was still seeing. I couldn’t do that ethically, and I didn’t want to wonder about crossing any lines. So that was one criterion. Another was that I wanted to pick people who were very different from each other in terms of age, gender, history, and struggles. Even though they’re so different, they’re in conversation with each other. All of the characters want the same things: How can I feel okay? How can I love and be loved? How can I be kinder to myself? How do I live with what has already happened? They’re all asking those questions and so am I. I’m changed by every person I see. In the case of the person in this book that I couldn’t help, I was changed because I questioned what I could have done and why I couldn’t find a way in. I wanted to find a way in. I wondered, what does that say about me? I had to examine myself more clearly after that. Even if the outcome isn’t what I want, I’m still changed by the experience. With every patient, I am holding up a mirror and asking them to look at their own reflection. At the same time, they hold up a mirror to me. I have to be able to look in the mirror and see myself with just as much clarity.
Bookish: Uncertainty is a major theme that you and your patients grapple with in this book. Why do you think coping with uncertainty is so difficult for many people?
LG: I think that we cling to the familiar and we cling to the known. That’s also the reason that people have so much trouble changing. They say they want to change, and they remain exactly the same. I’m guilty of that, too. When we have to move outside of our comfort zone, we get worried. Even if it’s miserable, the thing that we know is familiar to us. If we go into a new area, what if it’s worse or it’s harder, what if it makes us even more anxious? Then what? In so many areas, we have the illusion of control. But the definition of life is uncertainty. It’s hard to accept. We think if we have control, we get a better outcome when in fact letting go can give a better outcome.
Bookish: Few books deal so candidly with the subject of therapy and mental health in such an authoritative but approachable way. For readers who enjoy this book, what would you recommend that they read next?
LG: I love Irvin D. Yalom’s Love’s Executioner. He’s sort of like the Oliver Sacks of the psychotherapy world. He brings us into his therapy room in a way that was revolutionary at the time and still is today.
Lori Gottlieb is a psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author who writes the weekly “Dear Therapist” advice column for The Atlantic. She has written hundreds of articles related to psychology and culture, many of which have become viral sensations all over the world. A contributing editor for the Atlantic, she also writes for The New York Times Magazine, and appears as a frequent expert on relationships, parenting, and hot-button mental health topics in media such as The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, Dr. Phil, CNN, and NPR. Her next book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, is forthcoming in April. Learn more at LoriGottlieb.com or by following her @LoriGottlieb1 on Twitter.