An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Lori Gottlieb,
Author of MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE, A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2 April 2019)
A disarmingly funny, thought-provoking, and boldly revealing new book that shows us what it means to be human.
NOW BEING DEVELOPED AS A TELEVISION SERIES WITH EVA LONGORIA AND ABC. Longoria is best known for the TV series, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES.
“An addictive book that’s part Oliver Sacks and part Nora Ephron. Prepare to be riveted.” People Magazine, Book of the Week
AUTHORLINK: Hi Lori, thank you so much for chatting with us here at Authorlink about your fabulous book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. We just wanted to say how much we enjoyed it; it was such an eye-opening read – especially from such an esteemed psychotherapist such as yourself – and so beautifully human. And like you said, it isn’t a self-help book or therapy, but a story about therapy: how we heal and where it leads us. What made you decide to write a novel about your own experiences of therapy?
“… I wanted to really bring people into the therapy room…”
GOTTLIEB: It’s not a novel, it’s non-fiction and I think that’s important because I wanted to really bring people into the therapy room and have them see, what I have the privilege of seeing every day, which is the human condition. So, this is all non-fiction, and of course, identities are disguised to protect people’s privacy.
AUTHORLINK: Right. Of course.
GOTTLIEB: (Continues…) This wasn’t a book that I was originally supposed to be writing. I was supposed to be writing a book about happiness. And I could not get myself to write that book. I was starting out as a therapist at the time and I felt like the ‘Happiness book’, could not capture the nuances of life – the daily problems of living, right – that I was seeing in the therapy room every day. And I found those so much more fascinating than questions about happiness. I think also, as you start doing this work, you realize that happiness is beside the point. By that I mean, we want to be happy and I think happiness as a result of living a fulfilling life is what we should aspire to. But happiness as a goal itself is a recipe for disaster. So, I ended up canceling the contract for the ‘Happiness book’ and I decided to bring people into the therapy room to see what I get to see because I feel like they will get to see themselves reflected in these stories.
AUTHORLINK: Wonderful. Yes, we read about the ‘Happiness book’ – thank you for mentioning that. It’s the kind of book that will help people become happier inadvertently…
AUTHORLINK: It’s also very instructive about the theories behind psychology. We thought the idea of, for instance, of the ‘unreliable narrators’’ was very interesting. Can you tell us briefly a bit about that? How people who come to therapy present snapshots of themselves?
GOTTLIEB: Sure, when people come to therapy, I’m listening to their story, but I’m also listening to their flexibility with the story because what they present is one version of the story and it’s usually a flawed version, which is what I mean by ‘unreliable narrator’. So, they’re telling the story through a particular lens. And there might be an underlying theme to that story, like ‘I’m unloveable’ or, ‘nothing will ever work out for me’ or, ‘I can’t make good decisions’ or whatever their underlying theme is. And often they’re not considering the point of view of the other people in the story, they misread the motives of those people. They think something that another person said or did means something that it doesn’t about them and I’m also looking at their own role about what’s tripping them up; what’s kept them stuck, what the relational difficulty is.
“So much of what people come to therapy for, even if they don’t realize it, is to improve their relationships…”
So much of what people come to therapy for, even if they don’t realize it, is to improve their relationships both to themselves and other people so that they can navigate the world more effectively and part of doing that, part of getting to that place, is to rewrite their story that they come in with. I think a lot of people come to therapy to get to know themselves better, but I also think of it as a place, to ‘unknow yourself’, to unknow the faulty narratives that are pulling the strings of your daily choices and decisions on a daily basis and get to know yourself in a different, more liberating way.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, thank you. And in relation to this, the advice mentioned in your book, that,
“…you go through life picking and choosing, if you don’t recognize that the perfect is the enemy of the good, you may deprive yourself of joy…” is something that could be laced into the narrative we give ourselves, and really interesting. We try to make our life perfect, but in fact, it’s getting further and further away from perfection and from happiness.
GOTTLIEB: Yes, agree with you.
AUTHORLINK: This too is a great line, “We marry our unfinished business”. And, “choosing familiar partners, people guarantee the opposite result: they reopen the wounds and feel even more inadequate and unlovable.” As much as most of us live in happy relationships, it’s always interesting to hear something like this and a different perspective of our reasons for marrying, or our reasons for being in a relationship. So just briefly, would you be able to talk to us about how we ‘marry our unfinished business’?
GOTTLIEB: Yeah, there is one patient I follow in the book I call Charlotte and she’s a perfect example of someone who’s dating that way, where she keeps dating the kind of person who will treat her the way that her parents did when she grew up. Most of us say (if we were injured in some way by the ways in which we were treated growing up), ‘Oh I’m going to find somebody who’s not like that at all. I’m going to find someone opposite of that,’ and what happens is, it’s almost like we have radar for what feels familiar. So even if a person on the surface may look very different from a parent or somebody else in our life that we might not want to engage with that way, what happens is, is that we cling to the familiar. There is something in us and completely out of our awareness, that says, ‘Oh, that person seems familiar, although they look very, very different in every other way on the surface. And once you start dating that person, you start realizing, ‘Oh wow, that feels familiar…’ (laughs…). I’ve seen that before…Déjà vu! But it’s a different version of your parents.
And I think what happens is that we’re very shocked and disappointed by that when that happens (laughs…). And there’s also a lot of good qualities that person has and you chose them for a lot of good reasons and healthy reasons too, but it’s important to be aware that if you don’t get clarity on some of these things, that you’re still carrying around from your childhood, you will pick people that are similar, and you will be disappointed over and over.
So, it’s important to understand what are these things, and can I understand them better so that I choose people from a clearer perspective.
“…one of the most important things we can understand about ourselves is how we relate to the world, how we relate to ourselves…”
AUTHORLINK: Right, wow. Food for thought! (Laughs…). I suppose that relates to the ‘attachment style’ that you also mention…
GOTTLIEB: It does, I mean I think we have to understand…one of the most important things we can understand about ourselves is how we relate to the world, how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to other people and how that has to do with understanding, what you do in relationships and once you understand that better, then you also have to make changes in the world. So, a lot of people, I think, believe they’ll come to therapy, understand more about themselves and then they will change…it doesn’t quite work out that way. We say that insight is the booby prize of therapy. You can have all the insight of the world about why you do what you do, but if you don’t then make changes – how you respond out in the world, or how you react in the world – then the insight is useless!
AUTHORLINK: Right. And I suppose that’s where ‘Cognitive Behaviour Therapy’ comes in?
GOTTLIEB: Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, yes, has to do with changing your thought patterns. And also changing the behaviours that result from them. But I think in talk therapy as well, you have to be both vulnerable and accountable…You have to be vulnerable so I can see who you are and get to know you and really understand what’s going on and so you can understand yourself. And to be accountable, meaning, what happened between the time that we spoke last week and the time you came in this week, what did you do differently? Even if it was a microscopic change, what was that change? Because all of these small changes add up. All of the changes over time become significant in life.
“Before diagnosing people with depression, make sure they’re not surrounded by assholes.”
AUTHORLINK: Yes, it’s so fascinating. It’s like a whole other layer of life that you’ve got to undercover – the layer of life that you’re living and then the underground layer that you need to uncover. In the meantime, may I mention how often your book is often hilarious!
“His expression is intense but gentle, a combination of a wise elder and a stuffed animal…” and,
“Before diagnosing people with depression, make sure they’re not surrounded by assholes.”
These sharp, sparkly lines of observation are really funny. When you were writing, rereading or editing, were you laughing out loud constantly in your account of your own therapy and ‘misery’?
GOTTLIEB: There’s a lot of humour in the book because I think it speaks to the ridiculousness of the human condition and I mean that in a warm way. You know, we have to be able to laugh at ourselves, because sometimes, we do ridiculous things.
“You know, what I hope to do in this book is, is deliver a big dose of compassion…”
GOTTLIEB: We all do it! And those ridiculous things are universal. You know, we have so much shame around the ways that we think and feel that are inconsistent, awkward, or counterproductive and yet everyone does them… So, I think we can laugh at ourselves, it gives us, you know, space to breathe and compassion – not only for ourselves but of other people too. You know, what I hope to do in this book is, is deliver a big dose of compassion…
AUTHORLINK: Yes, and it does. You used to work at NBC and were assigned to two shows that were about to premiere: ER, and Friends, which are and were huge. What was that like starting off your career there? Was it a writing job or was it just about being consulted about the psychological aspect of the plots? Can you go describe your work in these shows?
GOTTLIEB: Yes sure. I was not a writer on this shows, I was an executive at the networks. So my job was in developing the shows, although I was like the lowest person there because I was young! I would sit in on the casting meetings when we were casting the shows, I would give notes on the scripts, and I worked a lot with story.
AUTHORLINK: That must have been very instructive!
GOTTLIEB: Yeah, definitely. I mean they were both fantastic shows! ER, of course, is what got me to medical school. I spent a lot of time in the ER with our consultant, who was the ER physician but I fell in love with the real human stories. Nobody goes to an emergency room because something was expected. So, you’re watching these human dramas unfold when real life turns things upside down and life changes in a minute. I mean, what do you do with that? How do you cope with that? How do you respond to that? So that was always fascinating to me.
AUTHORLINK: It makes sense that you would find that fascinating because your writing and your observations are so acutely aware of the human condition. Were you always this perceptive, or was it just your profession that made you so? Was it something you were always interested in…people and their stories?
” I’ve always been interested in both story and the human connection.”
GOTLIEB: I’ve always been interested in both story and the human connection. I mean everything I’ve done is in relation to those two things. As a child I was always observing, always interested not necessarily…I mean, I certainly never thought I would become a therapist…it wasn’t that. It was more that I just loved to read, I was a book worm and loved observing the way people behaved, wondering why…but I never thought I would be a therapist.
GOTTLIEB: I was really interested in reading and writing, and I was really interested in science and math. And so, the reading and writing were when I got to the entertainment business and I was working in film and television and all of that story which was my love; I love story. And when I went to medical school, [I observed] the human condition and the human story and when I left to become a journalist, it was about telling those human stories and becoming a therapist was about helping people to change those stories…
“…and to help them look at their stories differently…”
AUTHORLINK: Yes. To make them feel better about their lives and have their hearts mend a little bit…
GOTTLIEB: …and to help them look at their stories differently…They come in with a story and I want to help them edit that story. I’m like an editor. Call me a therapist, but I feel like my real job is in that room is an editor.
AUTHORLINK: I think that’s wonderful…
GOTTLIEB: To help them look at their stories, helping them do a rewrite. Helping them to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, is the protagonist moving forward, or is the protagonist moving in circles. Who are the heroes and who are the villains in this story, and do we need to revisit that and is there an arc to this story? What is the arc to the story? What is…you know, how do we look at these events and maybe include a broader view of them that you can move forward?
AUTHORLINK: It’s great because you’ve combined both of your talents -writing and observing – and it’s quite a lovely niche you’ve created. It’s a testament to your talents as a writer and as a therapist because you’ve been able to marry both of these elements of your skills in a really beautiful way. And in relation to that, you’re quite frank, open and relatable with your writing.
How much time do you have for therapy and how much time for writing generally? What is your writing schedule like?
GOTTLIEB: Yeah…my schedule is a little bit too busy (laughs…) You know, normally I do the therapy, so I have a therapy practice that I do, on certain days and then I have other days when I also write the ‘Dear Therapist’ column for The Atlantic. So, I have that weekly column that I write and then when I was writing the book that would have to happen at night.
AUTHORLINK: Plus be a mum!
“…as a writer if you’re not out in the world in some way, you’re missing a dimension.”
GOTTLIEB: But you know, I love doing both. I wouldn’t want to do one without the other. Because there’s something about being in the room with people and going through those experiences that are very different from a writing experience which is a very solitary experience and I also feel like as a writer if you’re not out in the world in some way, you’re missing a dimension. You’re all in your head as opposed to being out in the world where you see things, you observe things, you participate in things. You have to participate in life, to be able to have something to really say in your writing.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, that’s true. Do you have any kind of writing rituals?
GOTTLIEB: My therapy practice and my column are a very much a regimented part of the week, meaning there’s a schedule and I see these same people and, on this day, I’m writing the column and on this day I’m sifting through letters and editing, so it’s very structured. As for the writing of the book, it was very much, you have a deadline and (laughs…) and you write when you can.
But unlike the ‘Happiness book’, this book, came to the page a lot more easily because I knew exactly what I wanted to write and it’s non-fiction so you don’t have to worry about plot because you know the plot, so for me this book was such an organic process of translating these experiences onto the page.
AUTHORLINK: Hmm. Did your ex read your book?
GOTTLIEB: I got an email from him, and it was very kind, and it was very much like the email that I write about in the book, you know, it said nothing about the elephant in the living room…
AUTHORLINK: (Laughs…) Right.
GOTTLIEB: (Laughs…) or the fact of the break-up. [It was more like] ’Congratulations on the book’ kind of thing.
AUTHORLINK: Oh right. No acknowledgment.
GOTTLIEB: And then some note about his daughters and what they were doing with their lives. Nothing about, ‘I didn’t realize’, or nothing about the break-up. It was very, I’d say healing as well. All of these sorts of layers, in the sense of ‘Yes, that was the life I would have been signing up for…’
AUTHORLINK: Yes, get that. Yep (laughs…). The stories of your patients are a combination of a few patients made into specific people. It must have been difficult, at the end of the day, to not have them in your head and your heart. Like the tragedies they’ve talked to you about, or their wounds, or their crying sessions. I mean, [***spoiler alert] especially with the character who passed away, which knocked the wind out of me when I read it. How do you recover after someone’s very sad session? Do you have a few hours alone? Do you need to meditate? What do you do to kind of decompress after sorrowful tales?
GOTTLIEB: I think you get really good at moving through the day and then being able to process what happened when it’s a better time to do that. You know, I remember that very distinctly where I had to go from that session to another session. You have that experience that knocks the wind out of you, then you go and have another person and your focus for the next 50 minutes is on that person. I have a few minutes in between, but not much.
In that particular situation, I remember, really just sitting. I think I moved over to the couch to be comfortable and I remember just sitting. And I was sitting trying to absorb it, trying to digest it a little bit and…also feeling this relief. As horrific as it was, I felt, now we’re really going to start helping him, now we can really do the work and now I can see the path going forward. As sad as it was, now I see what we’re going to be doing in future sessions…
“…I think it’s the most inspiring, hopeful career, that you can do because people are growing and changing…”
GOTTLIEB: But I think too that a lot of people have a lot of misconceptions about a therapist’s life which is, ‘Oh, you just listen to people’s problems every day; isn’t that depressing?’ But I think it’s the most inspiring, hopeful career, that you can do because people are growing and changing…Imagine the courage it took for that patient to come and tell me that? That was amazing. All those years where he couldn’t talk about it. And then something shifted in him where he could.
AUTHORLINK: With your help.
GOTLIEB: Right, because to me…the stories happen, whether I am going to hear about them or not, so I’d rather hear about them, and know that we can do something, to help people move forward and I think there’s nothing more gratifying than that.
AUTHORLINK: That’s very life-affirming and inspiring. You’ve done journalism…Have you done any creative writing courses? You write with such great expression. Like this line,
“His face was a wrinkle. My heart ached for him.”
It was so succinct and so beautifully put. It was a perfectly imagined line. How did you become so creative? Was it just practice? Was it reading good writers? Was it a writing course? Or is it just natural instinct, the way you write?
GOTTLIEB: Well, thank you, first of all. You know I didn’t do an MFA course. I wasn’t a writing major, I was a French major in college. So, I read a lot in French (laughs…). I read a lot. I’ve always been a reader. I think, also the way my brain sees the world is in images. One of the reasons I loved science, particularly organic chemistry, is that you would rotate the molecules in your head…I can see them from all these different perspectives. So many people had so much trouble with that and I am by no means a science genius, but I found it so natural to be able to rotate those molecules in my mind and see things from different angles. I just think that the way my brain naturally functions is in images. Even when I’m working with my therapy patients…So many times I will bring up a metaphor, an image or something that comes to mind about what they’re saying, and it’s so hard for the person to articulate the way they’re feeling and they’ll say, ‘Yes, that’s it!’ So, I just think it has to do less with writing skills and more about the way that I perceive the world – in images.
AUTHORLINK: Right. And now just finishing up because our time is nearly over; what’s next for you? Are you writing something now? Are you working on a new project?
GOTTLIEB: I’m doing a TED talk! So, I’m working on my TED talk.
AUTHORLINK: That sounds great.
GOTTLIEB: And let me see, I’m working on the TV show that’s based on the book…
AUTHORLINK: That’s right, tell us a bit about that…
GOTTLIEB: Yes, so we’re adapting the book for television. And one of the things that’s really important to me about the TV show is that I really want it to be a show about this woman who happens to be a therapist. So, the viewer gets to come into this world. But it’s not a show about a therapist if that makes sense. I think there are so many ways the media portray therapists that don’t reflect at all the experience of that person’s life and the life of the people that come to see the therapist. I think there are these two tropes of therapists in the media.
One is, kind of the brick wall, the person who doesn’t really interact and is almost like a robot (laughs…) and nobody wants to see a robot, and the other trope, which I feel is common in television and film is the hot-mess train wreck, who’s crossing all these boundaries and can’t keep it together in their own life. But neither of those depictions reflects any of the therapists that I know. Are there bad apples out there? Maybe. Sure. In any profession…But I don’t know anyone like that, so I really want this to be a show about our shared humanity.
“In the TV show, I really want the same thing to happen, so that people will see themselves reflected in these stories.”
It’s funny, it’s poignant, it’s everything in between and it’s real and it’s raw and it’s a reflection of the viewers’ lives. What I really wanted to do in the book was to write the stories of these four very different patients with the fifth patient being me. I wanted readers to see a piece of themselves reflected in these stories. I think it’s so much easier for someone to read this and say, ‘Oh I see, I do that too. That’s me.’ It’s so much more effective than having someone saying to you, ‘You know, you do that thing too in relationships,’ and you’re like, ‘No I don’t!’ But if I go through the side door and let the reader see all these stories of other people, the readers will see themselves in that book because we share these common ways of being. In the TV show, I really want the same thing to happen, so that people will see themselves reflected in these stories.
AUTHORLINK: We’re looking forward to watching it!
GOTTLIEB: And I don’t think a show about a therapist has been created like that yet.
AUTHORLINK: We are sure it’s going to go well. And when is it going to premiere?
GOTTLIEB: I don’t know, it’s getting written right now. And then, of course, I do the Dear Therapist column every week.
AUTHORLINK: Any more books on the horizon?
GOTTLIEB: Not at the moment. It’s funny because I’ve written a bunch of books, but it’s not my primary focus. There are authors who write book after book after book. I write a book when I feel I have something useful to say.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, about something you need to write about, or express…because you’ve got a lot of other things going on anyway.
GOTLIEB: Right. I have ideas in my head about other books that I want to write, so I’m not saying there’s not another book, but I certainly haven’t formulated it yet. I have ideas about the kind of book that I’d like to write that I think would have meaning, like this book had meaning, that I think would be of value to people. You don’t want to write a book just to write a book.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, absolutely. As a way of ending our chat today, here is another great line from Maybe You Should Talk to Someone…
“…If you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things…about Holland.”
Thank you so much for your time today. We wish you continued success in all that you do. And we cannot wait to listen to your TED talk and to see your TV show!
GOTTLIEB: Well, thank you, it’s been a pleasure. I really appreciate the conversation.
AUTHORLINK: It’s been our pleasure!
About the Author: 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.
She is on the Advisory Council for Bring Change to Mind and has appeared in media such as The Today Show, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, CNN, and NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
You can find out more at www.lorigottlieb.com or join her @lorigottlieb1 on Twitter or @lorigottlieb_author on Instagram.