Lori Gottlieb is a psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, which is being developed as a television series with Eva Longoria. She writes The Atlantic's weekly “Dear Therapist” advice column, and also contributes regularly to The New York Times. She has appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, CNN, and NPR’s “Fresh Air.” She spoke in the 2019 program track Understanding Emotion.
We caught up with her about emotional well-being, the benefits of therapy, and the importance of self-reflection.
What commonalities exist among the patients you have seen? Is there something we all share that brings us to therapy?
In my book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, I bring people into the therapy room and into the lives of four very different patients — a high-powered Hollywood producer, a newlywed diagnosed with cancer, a 20-something who can’t stop hooking up the wrong guys (including one from the waiting room), and a woman about to turn 70 who’s racked with regret and whose adult children are estranged from her because of mistakes she’s made as a parent.
But there’s also a fifth patient we follow — that’s me. I’m grappling with midlife, my own mortality, and what the second half will look like both personally and professionally.
And yet, despite how different all five of us seem on the surface — in terms of age, gender, struggles, histories, and earlier life experiences — it quickly becomes clear that we’re all more the same than we are different. First of all, nobody is immune from suffering — and I mean, no one. And we’re all grappling with the same core issues and questions — how do I love and be loved? How do I deal with what I can’t change? How do I manage my pain? Why do I do the very thing that will guarantee my own unhappiness, over and over? How do I live the best possible life knowing that I have limited time on the planet?
Is there a secret to happiness? What is one piece of advice you would offer to someone who wants to be happier?
It’s funny, because I was supposed to be writing a happiness book, and it was making me miserable! The irony wasn’t lost on me: the happiness book was depressing me. Every time I sat down at my computer, I struggled to write it because I felt it couldn’t convey the richness and nuances I saw in people’s lives when I was starting out as a therapist.
People often say to me, “Isn’t it hard being a therapist, listening to people’s problems all day?” But that’s not at all what my work is like. In therapy, there are so many heroic moments, funny moments, poignant moments, and triumphant moments. It’s real life — that’s what I wanted people to see.
I didn’t think the studies could capture the human condition the way I was seeing it every day in my office. So I decided to bring readers behind-the-scenes so they could see it too. I figured that would have a much more profound effect on their lives than a book about happiness.
Happiness as a byproduct of living your life in a fulfilling way is a worthy goal. But happiness as the goal itself is a recipe for disappointment. My book is packed with real-life examples of how to find the former.
Has social media and the ever-present lens into other people's lives affected individual happiness? Is there a way that can be made into a good thing?
One of my colleagues calls the Internet, “The most effective, short-term, non-prescription painkiller out there,” and she’s right.
We have a lot of trouble being present, not just with others, but with ourselves. We whip out our phones the second we’re alone — in an elevator, waiting in line, in the space between things. We don't sit with our thoughts or notice what’s going on around us. With social media, we’re always someplace else.
I find that no matter why people come to therapy, there’s often an underlying loneliness even if the person is surrounded by family and friends. Even when we’re with people, our phones are out or screens on the wall in restaurants or coffee shops distract us. Another colleague says that Skype sessions are “like doing therapy with a condom on,” and that’s because the interaction is mediated by a screen. Nothing can take the place of sitting face-to-face without the distraction of anything pinging or vibrating — sitting a few feet apart in the same physical space, hearing the other person breathe and feeling the energy in the room. Our heart rates slow down, our stress levels go down, and we feel more relaxed when we truly connect. The opposite happens when we don’t.
I’m not anti-technology at all. But there’s a difference between liking a friend’s post and sitting down with that friend face-to-face, and we don’t get enough of that to the detriment of our mental health.
In your book, you disclose a lot about your own life. As a therapist, did you find this awkward, or even difficult, considering you are usually on the other end of the conversation?
Absolutely! But I also decided that I had to walk the walk. At the time I was writing the book, I was going through an upheaval in my own life. I felt that it would be disingenuous to hide that — to present myself as the expert up on high. If my patients were going to show their vulnerabilities (albeit anonymously), I didn’t want to hide my own.
At the beginning of the book, I tell readers my greatest credential is that I’m a card-carrying member of the human race. Nobody wants to talk to a robot. Of course, I’ve gone through graduate school, internships, conferences with colleagues, and continuing education courses and trainings, but ultimately my humanity is my greatest tool. Without my humanity, I’d be useless.
By sharing my humanity in this book, I hope it helps others share theirs with the people in their own lives — family, friends, even their therapists.
What benefits do you see from giving people an insider’s look into the mind of a therapist, and what goes on behind the closed doors of a therapy session?
First, I want people to see that they aren’t alone and no matter how people look on the outside, we’re all very similar at our core.
I also want to show how people grow and change and get through “the daily problems of living.” This isn’t a self-help book, but many people have said it helped them make changes in their own lives.
Finally, I wanted to demystify what therapy is. It’s not, “Come in and let’s talk about your childhood ad nauseam and you’ll never leave.” It’s about having someone hold up a mirror to you so that you can see yourself in ways in which you weren't aware. We all have blind spots, and therapy helps reveal something about yourself so that you can do things differently in the world.
We have saying, “Insight is the booby prize of therapy.” You can have all the insight in the world, but if you don’t make changes out in the world, the insight is useless. You might come to therapy and one day say, “Oh, now I see why I keep getting into arguments with my spouse!” But if you go home and do exactly the same thing you’ve always done, who cares if you understand why you do what you do? Therapy is about insight plus action. You can see how this works within the stories in the book.
If someone is struggling with their emotions but is apprehensive to try therapy for the first time, what would you tell them?
It might help to consider that we value our emotional well-being differently from the way we value our physical well-being. If something feels “off” with your body, you’ll probably go to a doctor to get it checked out before you have, say, a massive heart attack. But if something feels “off” emotionally, we tend to minimize it or attempt to push through it.
Often it’s a version of, “Well, I have a roof over my head and food on the table, so what do I have to be depressed or anxious about?” or, “Why am I still grieving all these years later? I should be over this by now.” But the feelings don’t go away just because you’re ignoring them — just as chest pain won’t. In fact, the more we ignore our feelings, the bigger they get. And then people come to therapy when they’re really in trouble and having an emotional heart attack. By then, not only is it harder to treat, but they’ve suffered all this time unnecessarily.
You don’t have to be falling apart to be helped by therapy. Your emotional well-being is vital to the quality of your life and the quality of the lives of the people you care about. Making that call is a sign of strength and health. If something feels off, why not get it checked it out?
I always say to people who might benefit from therapy, “You only get one life, and you don’t know how long it will last. What are you waiting for?”
The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.