News flash: Your therapist is a human being, just like you. They have good days, bad days, and their own set of personal struggles. They may even go to therapy, too. Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb did. And to demystify the trope of the stoic therapist, she decided to write about it.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed hits bookshelves today, April 2nd. It brings you into Gottlieb’s therapy room as she works with four patients: John, the arrogant Hollywood producer; Julie, the young newlywed with a terminal diagnosis; Rita, the senior citizen with estranged children and strained relationships; and Charlotte, the twenty-something who keeps hooking up with the wrong guys. But that’s only half of the story. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone also follows Lori’s own personal journey with Wendell, her therapist, as she recovers from an unexpected breakup and deals with struggles in her writing career.
So, what does your therapist REALLY think about you? That even if they can’t relate to your direct struggle, they empathize with you, understand what you’re going through, and relate to you as a person. (Phew.) I spoke with Gottlieb about how going to therapy made her a better therapist and how, at the core of it all, she’s a human being just like her patients. If you’ve ever thought, “Maybe I should talk to someone,” this book is the perfect place to start.
HelloGiggles: In some ways, writing this book was sort of a risk, because therapists aren’t “supposed” to reveal their humanity. Why did you decide to open up about your personal life?
Lori Gottlieb: I didn’t wake up one day and think, “I’m going to write a book about being in therapy.” [Laughs.] I think I was at this place in my life where I was really grappling with, “I want to do something meaningful. I want to understand and be more intentional about how I’m living my life.” I wanted to talk about happiness, but I wanted to talk about it in terms of what I was seeing every day at the office. I wanted to bring people into the therapy room partly because I wanted them to see that they weren’t alone. I wanted them to see that they may not have the same struggles as some of these people, but they’ll see the universal longings, desires, voices in our heads, messages that we all get—all of the things that we all deal with. I wanted them to see that, and I wanted them to really focus a little bit more on what they’re doing in their daily lives and what they’re doing about their emotional health. I also felt like if I was just the person who was guiding them, it wouldn’t really have the impact that it would have to show that we’re all in this together. I wanted to be both seeker and guide.
There are two tropes in our culture of therapists. One is the brick wall: the person who is very competent, but robotic and not very human; the expert from up on high. The other trope is the neurotic mess. The person who is really competent in the therapy room, but a complete mess outside of it. I wanted to just be a person. I wanted to say, “Your therapist is just a person.” Study after study shows that more important to the success of your therapy than the therapist’s training, expertise, and number of years they’ve been doing this is the relationship that you have with them. I really wanted people to know that the person you’re having a relationship with in that room is a person just like you. And that’s a good thing.
HG: I don’t think many people realize that therapists have therapists of their own. Do you think seeing your therapist Wendell helped make you a better therapist?
LG: It’s important for people to know that outside of the therapy room, [therapists] are just like them. Going to therapy once you’re a therapist—we have to go [to therapy] in order to get licensed—it’s like reading a book at different times in your life. You have a very different reaction to the book depending on what’s going on in your life and where you are developmentally at the time. I think the same thing is true of therapy. At the time I go to see Wendell, I’m really in the thick of it as a therapist. Being able to really experience that again—I want him to like me, I wonder if the person in the waiting room is more interesting than me, I google him and then worry I’m going to slip up—these things I understand better about my own patients than I ever did before I went [to therapy] at that time in my life.
HG: Do you think Wendell has a therapist?
LG: It’s kind of like, you know, you don’t imagine that your teacher has a teacher. I don’t know if Wendell has a therapist, but I assume that he’s, as I like to say, pre-shrunk. I’m sure he’s well-versed as a patient. I think most therapists are. [Being a therapist] is a really hard thing to do well if you haven’t experienced what it’s like to go to therapy. All the things that I do with him are things that my patients do with me. It’s one thing to understand that on an intellectual level, but it’s another thing to understand it on a visceral level when you yourself have experienced it.
HG: All four of the patients you chose to write about—John, Julie, Charlotte, and Rita—were in very different places in their lives when you began working with them. How did you choose them as your focus?
LG: I didn’t want to write about anybody I was currently seeing, because I felt that would be impossible to do. I wanted to pick a variety of people in terms of different ages, genders, life stages, family backgrounds, childhoods, and struggles. Everybody looks very different on the outside, but I think—what I’m hoping that people take away from the book—is that at their core, they’re very similar, and they’re probably very similar to the reader. The reader might not say, “I’m just like John.” But when you get to know him, there are elements of him—wanting approval, wanting to prove something to people who misunderstood him, wanting to be loved, his intense loneliness, his intense loss and grief—those are all things that I think people can relate to. All of the chapters are in conversation with each other, and all of the characters are in conversation with each other, just like me. People may not relate to my particular issues, but I think they can relate to me as a person. I really wanted to show that there are lots of different people who have lots of different struggles who look different from us, but really, they’re not.
HG: I related to John a lot more than I’d like to admit.
LG: Yes! Even when I run into him at the Lakers game, and he’s kind of being an asshole with the slow people in line, I was silently cheering him on. We didn’t want to miss the second half of the game either! The people were being annoying, and they were wasting everyone’s time, and the clock was ticking, and the game was going to start. So, on one hand, I was like, “Oh my god, he’s so impatient.” But on the other hand, I was like, “Let’s move this line forward!”
HG: At various times in the book, both in talking about your patients and about yourself as a patient, you say that people are unreliable narrators. It’s not that we lie, but we usually only tell half of the story, or we leave out certain details.
LG: I’m so glad you brought that up. A lot of us believe that in order to be loved, we can’t be truthful—meaning, we can’t really show the fullness of who we are. I say in the book that Carl Jung calls secrets “psychic poison,” and I think that’s because secrets are so corrosive. But also, there’s so much shame behind them. The reason it takes a while to hear people’s stories, and the reason people don’t tell you everything early on, if ever, is because of the shame. They have so much shame around [who they really are] that they won’t be liked, they’ll lose your love, they’ll lose your affection, they’ll lose your respect. And I’m talking about in and out of the therapy room. How much can you really know another person? People keep things to themselves because of the shame.
The irony of that is that the very things that people are hiding from you are often the things that would draw you toward them. They think it will push you away. Like John—look at what he was hiding from me. The very things that he was hiding made me like him the most, once I found out about them. An important point for people to remember is that we all want connection. That’s the glue of the human experience. But if we’re hiding ourselves, we’re usually hiding the very things that will draw people toward us.
HG: Why is it so hard for us to take our own advice? Even if you have the tools to think critically about your relationships and make changes, why is it beneficial to talk them through with a professional?
LG: I think it has to do with vantage point. You need to zoom out sometimes in order to see something more clearly. If you’re right up close to it, sometimes you can’t see it. Also, when we’re working with our patients, we don’t have an agenda except to help them relate better in the world or feel better or whatever they’re there for. With ourselves, we definitely have an agenda. Our agenda is that we’re right, and the other person is wrong. [Laughs.] It’s hard for us to zoom out and see the bigger picture.
I talk in the book about how I love stories; I’m a writer and I’m a therapist. When people come to therapy, they come with a story, and I’m listening not just to their story, but to their flexibility with it. Because I’m going to give them a different perspective on their story. Inherently, I’m going to see their story a little bit differently than they will. We don’t really edit our own stories well; we’re not our own good editors. As a writer, my editors save me all the time. Other people can see something you can’t see because you’re too close to it, whether it’s in your writing or in the story you tell yourself about your life.
HG: Why do people avoid going to therapy even when they know they should? What advice do you have for people who are too paralyzed to take the first step?
LG: A lot of times we say we want to change, but there’s a lot of anxiety about changing. If you take the first step and call a therapist, you know that you’re going to have to make changes, and that can be really scary to people. Even positive change; there will be a loss of the familiar. You’ll have to do things outside of your comfort zone. Because whatever you’re doing right now is done in the service of protecting yourself. Even if you know it’s not the most functional way of protecting yourself, at least you don’t have to do something scary and go outside of your comfort zone. If you call a therapist, the therapist will hold a mirror up to you—in a very compassionate way—and you’ll have to look at the reflection. You can’t hide from the reflection anymore, because now somebody is actually voicing it out loud. You’ll have to look at things that might be uncomfortable to look at. You might need to break up with someone. You might need to do something about your career. You might need to act differently around your parents or your children. Sometimes we want things to go more smoothly, but we don’t want to do what’s entailed to get there.
The other part of it is that I think people have misconceptions about what therapy is. Some people think, “Oh, I’m just going to go and talk about things and then leave. Why do I need to do that?” They don’t realize how much work is involved. Or they think, “Oh, you go to therapy and you talk each week and you never leave.” Like it’s going to be a big waste of time and money. [Therapists] have the worst business model ever: From day one, we actually want you to leave. We want to get you out of there so you can feel better more quickly and become more self-sufficient and move on. People imagine that therapy is something that it’s not, and that prevents them from doing it.
HG: You write that the book is not intended to be a therapy session, but it really felt like one for me. Do you like hearing that?
LG: I do. When you’re a therapist, you’re working one on one with people. I wanted to bring the therapy room to a much wider audience so people could see what it is. But it’s not about getting people to go to therapy; it’s about getting people to examine themselves in a way that will help them. I hope it serves as a therapy session in that it helps them to see things about themselves that they hadn’t seen before. What are the ways that they’re shooting themselves in the foot they might not have realized, but can see through the lens of some other patient that I’m writing about?
HG: Can you share any updates about the Maybe You Should Talk to Someone adaptation for TV?
LG: Beyond that, no. [Laughs.] We have the script and I’ll let you know!
HG: What’s your favorite book that you’ve read recently?
LG: I’m reading so many things, especially right now, before I go on book tour. I just finished Anne Lamott’s Small Victories, which I loved. And I’m rereading Mary Pipher’s Letters to a Young Therapist. I also just got sent the galley of Melinda Gates’ The Moment of Lift, which I started and wanted to keep reading, but I was in the middle of these other books.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed is available wherever books are sold.