Lori Gottlieb is a psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, which is being adapted as a television series with Eva Longoria. In addition to her clinical practice, she writes The Atlantic’s weekly “Dear Therapist” advice column and contributes regularly to The New York Times and many other publications. She is also a TED speaker, a member of the Advisory Council for Bring Change to Mind, and an advisor to the Aspen Institute. A contributing writer for the Atlantic, she has written hundreds of articles related to psychology and culture, many of which have become viral sensations. She is a sought-after expert in media such as The Today Show, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, CNN, and NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Learn more at LoriGottlieb.com or by following her @LoriGottlieb1 on Twitter.
Gretchen Tarrant: You have written 3 bestsellers at this point. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone reads at times like a memoir and at others it is focused on the observation of other characters. How did you develop this voice that so seamlessly shifts from observation to autobiographical and back again?
Lori Gottlieb: As a journalist, I’ve always mixed reporting with my own voice and my own experiences as they relate to whatever I might be writing about. In this case, it was interesting because you get to meet me as both a therapist and also as just a regular person outside of the therapy room. It was critical that the voice of me as the expert was the same voice as me as a person, because what I’m trying to show in the book is our shared humanity—that we’re all more the same than we are different. I think a lot of people wonder, “Who is this therapist that I’m talking to and what is this person like?” It was important to have that genuine, I’m just talking to you, the reader, as I would talk to anybody else.
GT: You note that stories are essentially about one person saying to another: “This is who I am. This is how I see the world. Can you understand me?” Do you feel understood by the reactions this has received?
LG: It’s funny because when I was writing the book I thought that maybe three people would read it, so I was very un-self-conscious. I think that the reason so many people actually did read it is that I was just being truthful. We want authenticity, so I didn’t clean myself up. I felt that if my patients were going to be that authentic and vulnerable and brave with me, it would almost be disingenuous if I made myself look better in order to appear a certain way. That’s what we get on social media, but I wanted this book to allow people to peer in on real lives that looked a lot like their own. Our real lives are much more interesting.
GT: Has writing this book (or any of your others) changed your practice in any way? Do you stay in touch with any of the people whose stories contributed to the profiles?
LG: After the book came out, I went on my book tour, and when I came back, the first thing some of my patients did was sit down on my couch and say, “So, I read your book.” I never told them of course, that I was writing a book, but they had heard about it. And it brought about these very deep, meaningful conversations. It’s so much easier to see ourselves through other people’s stories, more so than someone saying, “You’re like this” or “You do this.” We don’t react well to that. I mean, try saying that to your spouse, right? Or to a friend. It doesn’t go very well. So I think that when you can read a story about someone who seems very different from you and then think, Oh yeah, I’ve done that! I’ve experienced that, I’m like that, and here’s how I can get through that… that’s how positive change happens. So when you ask what my patients think of the book, I think that they’re thinking much more about themselves than they are about me. It’s really about what the stories in the book made them think of, what they see about themselves now that they didn’t before.
GT: To that point, why do you think this book has struck such a chord? Is it, as you note, that people can see themselves in the book?
LG: I think that it has to do with the fact that people are craving connection. Right now in our culture, we are disconnected in so many ways. We’re clinging to our phones, our devices – I have nothing against technology, but I feel like we also need that face-to-face interaction, being in the same place with the person, the ability to just be with another person. The experience of reading the book feels a lot like that for people and also encourages them to make time to prioritize relationships with the people that they love, the people who matter to them. Look at the opioid epidemic, look at all the ways that people are trying to deal with difficulty, struggle, and what we really need in addition to societal change is more connection. That’s what the book provides for people and inspires them to create it in their own lives.
GT: In the book, you bring up the importance of giving ourselves space between stimulus and response, yet you note that we have fewer of these “spaces” to sit with ourselves than ever because of our devices. How do we fight this? Do you think the current generation is less in tune with our emotions?
LG: Certainly younger people grew up with technology, so it’s part of their DNA at this point, but I don’t think it’s a generational thing. We all have the instinct to get rid of certain kinds of feelings. If we’re standing in line somewhere, people just whip out their phones because they can’t be alone with themselves. We have these ideas about, Well I don’t want to feel sadness, or I don’t want to feel anxiety, anything that’s not joyful, and yet those feelings are important because they give you information about yourself. If you’re sad, what’s going on and what can you do about it? If you’re anxious, what’s creating that? What do you need to change in your life so that you feel less sad or anxious? It’s useful information if we use our feelings like a compass to guide us. But too often people will numb out if they don’t want to feel those feelings, whether it’s with drugs, or too much to drink or eat, or with the Internet –which my colleague calls “the most effective short-term non-prescription painkiller out there.” But what they discover is that when they do make a concerted effort not to numb out, then they’re going to get a lot of useful information about how to make their lives better. The other thing too, about being alone with ourselves is that sometimes we are so unkind to ourselves. The kind of monologue going through our heads is very self-critical: “Oh, that was so stupid, I’m such an idiot, I never should have done that,” or you pass by a mirror and think, “Ugh, I look terrible today.” We’re so critical of ourselves, and I think that we need to find a way to be kinder to ourselves because when we can have more compassion for ourselves, we’ll have more compassion for the people around us too. I always tell people: Be better company to yourself.
GT: Can you help us to better understand how you created these characters? What considerations with HIPPA went into writing this and how did you circumvent this by blending the characters?
LG: I got permission of course, and I didn’t write about anybody that I was currently seeing on a weekly basis, because I didn’t feel that I could go into a session, and even if I was writing about something that happened five years earlier, see that person and write about that experience at the same time. And then of course I changed every detail that you could possibly Google.
GT: One of the more poignant pieces in the book is your recounting of your work with Julie. You discuss the importance of not putting important things off. What, for you is next? Is there anything you decided to no longer put off?
LG: I think writing this book was that for me. I was supposed to be writing a book about, of all things, happiness, and I felt that happiness was beside the point. I think that happiness as a result of living our lives in a meaningful way is what we all aspire to, but happiness as the goal itself tends to backfire. I wanted to do something that would contribute in some way to improving people’s lives. and we’re so in need of having these conversations around our emotional health. It’s so crucial to the quality of our lives and the quality of the lives of people around us, and I really wanted to let people into my world and what I get to see every day in the hope that it would help them to open up and examine their own lives and use their time wisely. Seeing Julie, who was dying of cancer, helped me to make that decision, and to realize we do have a limited time on this planet, and I want to make mine meaningful. The book is part of my mission to help make mental health conversations more accessible. We all know someone who’s struggling with something, if you’re human you’ve struggled with something, nobody is immune to that. We are doing a TV series of the book, and I’m going to be doing a podcast starting in the new year which I hope will help people to bring their questions and struggles out into the open and normalize that for everybody else. And I’m going to be writing another book about couples because we learn so much about ourselves in relation to others.
GT: That’s so exciting! Can you share the format of the podcast with us?
LG: The podcast is with iHeart, and Katie Couric is producing it. I write the weekly “Dear Therapist” column for The Atlantic and I brought in Guy Winch, who is the advice columnist for TED as my co-host. , We’re going to help people with their dilemmas, then have them try our suggestions and come back and let us know how it went. And we can adjust the advice if need be. And we’ll also share what a therapist might be thinking behind the scenes and offer that insight to our listeners.
GT: Throughout your life, you have made a few different big leaps of faith. The first being to go back to med school, subsequently to leave to become a journalist, then to become a therapist, later on to turn down a book contract and cancel another. What advice would you give our readers about following their intuition and learning how to make tough decisions to enact change?
LG: I think change is really hard–before you do it. But the reality is that so many of our big transformations come about from these very small, almost imperceptible steps that we take along the way. People think it’s more like Nike, “Just do it!” And people might “do it” for a little while—they make New Year’s resolutions that they may or may not keep very long. Change is a process. In the book, I take readers through the stages of change, from pre-contemplation all the way through action and maintenance. It’s a process, if you want it to last. I think that people sometimes get discouraged because they believe that they have to take a really big step right away, when it’s actually about the small steps that you take consistently.
GT: You have built an ecosystem of your practice, your books, articles, your Q&A column, speaking events, a podcast coming soon, etc. What is your favorite part of what you do?
LG: I love it all. This is where I go back to meaning, and my work is very gratifying to me. Every day people are writing to me and saying that any number of things from that menu that you just described has made them think about their lives differently. One of the things I really want to do is to empower people and help them to see that so many times we feel like we don’t have a lot of choices, that we are stuck in these situations with these circumstances, and I want people to see through my work—whether that’s my recent TED talk, the book, the “Dear Therapist” column—that they have so much choice. They can make so many choices that are different from the choices they are making now, and these choices can make a significant difference in the quality of their lives.
GT: Great point. Is there anything that you would like to add or one big takeaway you want for your readers?
LG: The title of the book, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, isn’t so much about people going to therapy, but more about how we all need to talk more with each other. The big takeaway that I want people to get from the book, that they aren’t alone, that we all struggle with similar things, and we all have the ability to get through them. But we can’t do it alone. If the book shows anything, it’s that we grow in connection with others.