Everyone who’s gone to therapy has pondered the same universal questions. Am I boring my therapist? Do they like their other patients better? Am I actually allowed to lie down on this couch?
Lori Gottlieb answers these sorts of questions — and far deeper ones — in her new book, "Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 415 pp., $28).
Gottlieb is uniquely qualified to be our guide to the modern human psyche: After years of working as a journalist, she started her own therapy practice in Los Angeles while writing internet-breaking articles like “How To Land Your Kid in Therapy,” penning the weekly “Dear Therapist” advice column for The Atlantic and inciting heated debates with her relationship book, "Marry Him."
But Gottlieb says her most important qualification is the fact that she’s a “card-carrying member of the human race.” After a devastating breakup, Gottlieb embarked on an emotional journey that led her to grapple with the major issues of her life, such as motherhood, mortality, work and love. To guide her, she sought out a therapist of her own, Wendell, and throughout the book, shares the stories of four of her own patients, including an obnoxious Hollywood TV producer a newlywed battling a rare form of terminal cancer.
Gottlieb spoke to Newsday from Los Angeles about the important therapist-patient relationship and the potentially life-changing lessons that can come from it. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This book feels different from a lot of your writing, in that it’s not about one big issue. It reads like a very addictive novel.
The stories that unfold in the therapist’s office are very similar to what you would read in a novel. Is there a cliffhanger at the end of every session? No. Is there sometimes? Yes! When you see a patient for a while, you realize as a therapist that their story is very cinematic. It’s very much like the best storytelling there could be because it’s real. There are all these twists and turns that are actually twists for me, too.
You're both a well-known writer and a practicing psychotherapist. How do the two complement each other?
They’re so similar, even though they look very different. When I’m sitting in the therapist’s chair, I think my job is almost to be an editor. People come in with a story, and I’m not just listening to the content of the story, but I’m listening for flexibility within the story. Is there any room that the other character in your story has some redeeming qualities? Is there a possibility that you as a hero or protagonist in this story are maybe portraying yourself in a different light than other people might see you? Also, old stories like, “I’m unlovable,” or “Nothing will ever work out for me” — those are faulty narratives, so how can we edit those narratives to make them more accurate?
The relationship you have with Wendell, your own therapist, sounds ideal — the kind that can feel really hard to find. What should people look for in a new therapist?
You’re not always going to have instant chemistry with your therapist, just like you won’t always have instant chemistry with the people who become your best friends later on. Sometimes, that first time isn’t going to be this magical melding of the minds or souls, but just notice how you felt. Did you feel that this person was bright? Did you feel that this person was warm? Really listening? I think that would merit going to a second session and seeing what happens.
Your article “How To Land Your Kid in Therapy” started a nationwide conversation about the consequences of helicopter parenting, and "Marry Him" sparked debate about modern romance. What conversation do you hope this book starts?
I hope this will start a conversation about valuing our emotional health. If you have a chest pain, you’re going to go to the doctor — you’re not going to wait until you have a massive heart attack. For so many of us, when something’s not right emotionally, we think, “I have so much to be grateful for in my life, so I’ll just forget about all those feelings that I don’t like!” And then if you try to tamp down the feelings, they actually become bigger, and you have the equivalent of an emotional heart attack. I hope the book shows people what therapy is, so it’s not just some weird, scary thing. It’s a very human encounter.