Even therapists need someone to talk to sometimes. Lori Gottlieb is a psychotherapist who started seeing a therapist herself five years ago, when the man she thought she would marry unexpectedly broke up with her, shattering her sense of the present and the future.
“My reaction was the reaction of everybody that I told at the time, [which] was ‘This guy’s a jerk! You dodged a bullet!’ ” Gottlieb says. “But once I go to therapy, I start to see — or I’m forced to see — the situation, and my role in it too.”
Gottlieb writes about her experiences as a psychotherapist in therapy in her new book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. She notes that she initially thought she needed just a few sessions to get her through her crisis, but stayed in therapy much longer — and learned a lot about herself in the process.
“I think that therapy at any age, it helps people to relate better to themselves and to the people around them,” she says. “It helps them to examine the way that they live their lives and take responsibility for what’s not working and also for what they can change.”
Gottlieb says that therapy can be painful — but that’s just part of the process: “People expect to feel better when they leave. And sometimes you do, but sometimes you don’t. … Sometimes you’re going to talk about painful things, but only because it’s going to make things easier for you.”
On how therapists are looking for the “music under the lyrics”
I think often the reason that [patients] land in therapy is a red herring. One of the things that I am always curious about when somebody comes in is not just “Why are you here?” but “Why now? Why this day, this week, this month, did you pick up the phone and call me?” And often they’ll get beyond the original — the one-liner that they come in with about why they’re there.
I think that so many times what we’re listening to is the music under the lyrics. So the lyrics might be “I’m here because of a breakup. I’m here because of something in my marriage or something with my child or with my job.” But what’s the music under that? What is what got you into this situation in the first place? Is there some pattern or struggle that led you to this place? And that’s what’s really going to help them not only get over the thing that they came in for, but help them just relate better in the world.
On her belief that there’s no hierarchy of pain
As a therapist in therapy, I feel like often we minimize our problems. You know, “It was a breakup, not a divorce.” It’s kind of like people who have a miscarriage but they didn’t lose a child who was 8 years old. They’re these silent losses. … I don’t think there’s a hierarchy of pain. … Pain is pain.
So even when I was seeing this woman who was dying of cancer, for example, and [she] was in her 30s and newly married and all of a sudden she was dealing with this horrible life situation, and then I’d have to go to a session where someone says, “My husband never initiates sex” or “The babysitter’s stealing from me.” I used to worry that I would not take their problems as seriously. But what I realized is that usually the thing that they’re having a problem with is indicative of a deeper pain. What does it mean to be rejected or unloved by your partner? What does it mean when someone betrays your trust?
I think that often we minimize our problems. We think, “Well, yeah, I’ve been sad for two months, but it’s not that big of a deal because I have all these other great things in my life. I have a roof over my head, and I have a family” and whatever you might have. But pain is pain.
On “idiot compassion” versus “wise compassion”
I think that a lot of people come to therapy for validation. They come because they want the therapist to take their side and say, “You’re right. He’s a jerk. He’s a sociopath.” And that’s what your friends will do for you, but it’s not very helpful. I talk in the book about the difference between idiot compassion and wise compassion, and idiot compassion is where you want to make somebody feel better, and so you don’t necessarily tell them the truth. And wise compassion is where you really hold up the mirror to them, in a compassionate way, but you also deliver a very important truth bomb. And I think what Wendell (the therapist that I go to see) did for me was he delivered those truth bombs. But he had to do it very skillfully, because otherwise I would reject them or become even more defensive.
On worrying if your therapist likes you
I think people want to be liked by their therapists. I think people are curious about that. When I would leave [my own therapy] and I would see somebody else in the waiting room, I’d think, “Does he look forward to her sessions more than mine?” Almost like … a sibling rivalry. I think that when you are so exposed, you can’t help but wonder what this person thinks about you. Even though I know what it’s like from the other side. Even though I see it all the time with people, and I know what it’s like to feel affection for them, to be actually like them. But I think that one of the things that people worry about is that if they tell the truth of who they are, that they can’t be loved. I think that when they come into therapy, they’re telling you all of these things that they won’t tell the people that they want to be loved by in the outside world, because they’re afraid that those people won’t still love them if they know this. I think what they discover in therapy is that the truth of who they are is what draws people to them.
On patients’ concern that they might be boring their therapists
I think most patients aren’t boring. I think the boring patients are the ones who want to keep you at bay. They’re the ones who go off on tangent after tangent. When you try to redirect them, they try to run away. I think that people are so afraid of showing the truth of who they are that they don’t realize that if they stopped running, that I would be very interested in them. If you show me your humanity, you will be the most interesting person in the world. But if you hide, I’m going to get really bored.
On the rhythm of therapy sessions
We’re very aware of the time during the session. I think when people see us look at the clock, they think we’re bored, but actually we’re trying to time the sessions so that we don’t leave them at the end of the session in the middle of some very emotional, difficult place and then they have to walk out into the world with that. So we need about, you know, five or 10 minutes, depending on what they’re talking about, to kind of put them back together and get them back out into the world. So you kind of de-accelerate toward the end of the session. There’s a rhythm to a session, and usually the most intense material comes up somewhere around the middle or the last third, and then you … take some time to make sure that they’re not leaving with carrying all of that out into the world with them and then having a difficult time processing that by themselves.
On why she doesn’t recommend Googling your therapist (which she did)
I think it’s a distraction. One of my colleagues had said that the Internet is the most effective short-term, nonprescription painkiller out there. I think that’s what I was doing. … I didn’t know how to deal with my anxiety, and I just kept looking and looking. And I did it for, you know, probably a couple of hours. And I found out a lot of information about him even though, you know, there was nothing that was surprising. But one of the things I found out was that his father had died young of a heart attack. I was so worried that I would slip up and somehow that this information would come out as I was talking about my close relationship with my aging father, that it really made me hesitate in our conversations in a way that that was not helpful to the work we were doing. …
I would say Googling anyone is sort of dangerous, because there’s the story that they put out there and there’s a story that you get when you’re face-to-face with somebody else. But, yes, I think Googling your therapist … why are you doing that? What is the information that you want? And do you really want that information? I think sometimes we imagine that we want to know something about our therapist. And then once we know it, we feel overwhelmed and burdened by that information.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.