Lori Gottlieb has been a child savant who haunted libraries; a preteen who went to war with anorexia and came out on the other side; a mathlete; valedictorian; dabbler in the film world; med school student; med school dropout; memoirist—and today, after a medley of still other roles, a practicing psychotherapist.
Her past has been eclectic. It has been, at times, chaotic. It has been imperfect.
Especially when it comes to therapists, we like to think of our doctors as omniscient. Infallible. As unflappable. But as Gottlieb shows, that’s to fundamentally look at it the wrong way. As she describes the role of the therapist in her new book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, “Our training has taught us theories and tools and techniques, but whirring beneath our hard-earned expertise is the fact that we know just how hard it is to be a person. Which is to say, we still come to work each day as ourselves—with our own sets of vulnerabilities, our own longings and insecurities, and our own histories. Of all my credentials as a therapist, my most significant is that I'm a card-carrying member of the human race.”
Every moment of her incredible story is essential to the wonderland of wisdom she offers today. As you explore her past in the latest episode of Design Matters, here are 20 brilliant (and admittedly brilliantly out of context) therapeutic lessons from therapist Lori Gotlieb.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
“A common complaint I hear in the therapy room is some version of ‘I wish I’d tried working in the art world/becoming a chef/writing for television/starting a company when I was younger but I was too scared/talked out of it.’ I don’t hear a lot of ‘I regret that I tried’ but I do hear ‘I regret that I didn’t.’ Some might express disappointment that their attempts didn’t pan out, but it’s a different flavor of disappointment from that of not knowing what might have happened had they given their dream a shot. The never knowing—the wondering—is harder to shake.”
“There’s a saying among therapists: If you keep banging your head against a wall while trying to find an answer to your question, rotate the question. Tilt it slightly to the side, turn it upside down, and that rotated question will lead you to your answer.”
“One thing we often forget when we’re feeling trapped in a situation is how much choice we actually have in the matter. And you have so many choices here that you don’t seem to see.”
“One of my favorite maxims came to mind: ‘Insight is the booby prize of therapy.’ Meaning, you can have all the insight in the world, but if you don’t changeoutin the world, the insight is worthless.”
“What’s the difference between a criticism and a complaint? The former contains judgment while the latter contains a request. I know that you hear them as criticisms, but that’s mostly due to a quirk of human nature: The complaints of those we’re closest to often contain essential truths, but the discomfort these truths produce makes it hard for us to hear them. In other words, our discomfort with a complaint is largely due to its accuracy, not its inaccuracy. As a general rule, the greater our discomfort, the greater the accuracy.”
“Many of us are so afraid of being judged that we take any potentially negative feedback as condemnation, as proof that something’s ‘wrong’ with us. But it may be just the opposite: Perhaps the significant people in your life voice their observations because they think you’re fantastic and underneath their words is the desire for you to care about them as much as they care about you. If they didn’tcare so much about having a relationship with you, they wouldn’t bother calling your attention to the things about you that bother them—they’d just leave.”
“We’re alldifficult and impossible and imperfect in our unique ways, and the people closest to us will surely notice. When they do, pay attention to your discomfort. Don’t throw it in the bin along with your other trash. Instead, consider it a gift that few other people will be generous enough to give you.”
“Yes, you are screwing up your kids. Because there are just so many ways to do it that’s it’s almost unavoidable.”
“Often, outside of our awareness, we envy our children’s childhood—the opportunities they have that we didn’t; the emotional stability we have the foresight to provide but didn’t get ourselves; the potential they have with their whole lives ahead of them, a stretch of future that’s now in our past. We envy their youth. We strive to give our children all the things that we didn’t or no longer have, but somehow end up, without even realizing it, resenting them their good fortune.”
“Change and loss travel together. We can’t have change without loss, which is why so often we say we want change but nonetheless stay the same. When you say that it’s hard to let go despite wanting to move on, what you’re really talking about is grief. You’re grieving, but sometimes what we’re actually grieving is the future more than the present.”
“Yes, change is hard. Yes, it involves taking responsibility for your life. Yes, it requires you to give up the familiar, which no matter how unpleasant can still feel comforting. And yes, change will put you face-to-face with loss. But what’s beautiful about this loss is that while you might have to give up the hope for a better past or a less painful present, the future is squarely in your court.”
“The funny thing about ‘normal’ is that people tend to worry that they aren’t while simultaneously claiming it’s the last thing they want to be. Normal is boring, they say, which is like saying they never wanted the job they got rejected from in the first place. While I don’t know how typical you are, I’ll bet you share the very typical human need to belong, or you wouldn’t care so much about how normal you are. But there are many ways to belong without losing our distinctive selves. Normal or not, a more important question might be, ‘How can I love who I am?’”
“It’s common for people with unhappy histories to feel anxious around happiness, to be wary of feeling good because of the fear that joy will always be taken away. They come to expect disaster just around the corner, so instead of leaning into the goodness that comes their way, they become hypervigilant, always waiting for something to go wrong. They believe that the second they get too comfortable—whoosh!—the other shoe will drop. Joy isn’t pleasure; it’s anticipatory pain.”
“A relationship may seem like it’s just about two people, but it’s about the confluence of your respective worlds as well. How do your larger worlds mesh? How do they add context to the person you see only through your own lens?”
“Whenever somebody in my office brings up sexual infidelity (confirmed or suspected), my first instinct is to wonder what other infidelities might be going on. I don’t mean other affairs—I mean the more subtle ways of straying from our partners that have at least as much potential to threaten a marriage. The affair, of course, gets the most attention, but it’s the affair that is also often misunderstood. And it’s because of this misunderstanding that the cheating takes center stage—and that the other factors, the betrayals that needthe most attention, stay out of the spotlight.”
“It might be reassuring to know that most people have affairs not because they’ve found somebody better or hotter or more more perfect (perfect people don’t tend to have sex with other people’s spouses) but because affairs make us feel alive and seen; they counteract feelings of numbness or flatness or disconnection that seem like they might kill us, if we don’t kill ourselves first. And since we aren’t up for suicide, we find a work-around.”
“What I say about forgiveness is this: You can have compassion without forgiving. There are many ways to move on without forgiving, but pretending to feel a certain way is not one of them. Forced forgiveness is false forgiveness for somebody else’s benefit. As therapists, the last thing we want to do is to talk people out of how they really feel.”
“What people do in therapy is pretty much what they do in their outside lives. In other words, if a patient tends to feel dissatisfied with people in her life, it’s likely that she’ll eventually feel dissatisfied with me. If she tries to please people, she’ll probably try to please me too. And if she avoids people when she feels hurt by them, I’ll be on the lookout for signs that I’ve said something that may have hurt her, too (she cancels her next session, or clams up, or comes late).”
“There’s always going to be a gap between what the therapist might advise, and what’s best for the patient. A therapist might see a couple and think they should divorce, but some people prefer to be in a highly conflictual marriage than to be alone, no matter how much the therapist might personally champion being alone for a time over a highly conflictual marriage where one partner refuses to change. Our patients’ lives are theirs to live, not ours.”
“Taped up over my desk is the word ultracrepidarianism, which means ‘the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge or competence.’ As a therapist, I’m trained to understand people and help them sort out what theywant to do, but I can’t make their life choices for them. I’m not a real-estate specialist, career counselor or, most important, soothsayer. … Therapists may not give advice, but we do give guidance. And if there’s one thing your therapist knows, it’s that the most powerful truths—the ones people take the most seriously—are those they come to on their own.”
Lori Gottlieb: What people do with a therapist in the room is very much what they do with people out in the world. You can bet that whatever is happening between you and your patient is what somebody else in the world is experiencing with them.
Curtis Fox: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from DesignObserver.com. On this episode, Debbie talks with author and therapist Lori Gottlieb about the importance of emotional awareness.
Lori: If we don't have access to our feelings, it's like we're driving without a map, you know, we don't know where we're going. That's what our feelings are, they're a navigation system.
Curtis: The audio quality of this recording is not great. We think the interview is still very much worth listening to. Thanks for your patience. Here's Debbie.
Debbie Millman: Before she became a therapist, Lori Gottlieb worked as a television executive. That's quite a career change, but it makes sense if you care about stories as much as Gottlieb does. She says that stories are essentially one person saying to another, "This is who I am." And what is therapy if not an attempt to rework one's own story? Gottlieb never stopped writing. She writes the Atlantic magazine's Dear Therapist advice column, and she's written three books. The latest is a book about being on both sides of the couch, and it's titled Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed. It's being adapted as a television series, so, in a sense, her career has come full circle. Lori Gottlieb, welcome to Design Matters.
Lori: Thanks so much.
Debbie: Lori, growing up, you had a pet parakeet you named Chrissy after the character from Three's Company. As a kid, you wrote that she was the only normal member of your family. Really?
Lori: You know, to me, she was. I felt like I was the sane person in my family, as I think a lot of kids do, and my parakeet was sort of my salvation. I would talk to her, I felt like she understood me in a way that maybe the rest of my family didn't, and I was always sort of the outlier in my family.
Debbie: In what way?
Lori: I was very different, I felt, from the rest of the members of my family. I was different from my brother, I was different from my parents. I think that the rest of my family was much more conventional, in the sense of, they didn't question things in the same way that I did, or they didn't want to see certain things in the way that it was very important for me to see things. And so I always felt like I was living in this other dimension than they were, and that there were certain things that we just didn't talk about in my family, but that I wanted to talk to somebody about, and so I would talk to my parakeet, Chrissy.
Debbie: What kind of things did you talk to Chrissy about?
Lori: The observations that I made as a child about what was going on with my parents, my interactions with them, frustrations that I had with them.
Debbie: Now, was she the type of bird that could learn how to speak the things that you were saying?
Lori: No, but I tried. But I really felt like, you know, the way she would look at me, it was funny, because birds have... You know, their eyes are on the sides of their heads, and she would look at me with one eye or the other, and kind of turn her head. And I really felt profoundly understood in a way that I felt like sometimes my parents, who tried to listen... You know, to their credit, they really did, but I don't think that they had the same capacity for hearing what I had to say in the way that I imagined or fantasized that Chrissy did.
Debbie: Now, you grew up in Beverly Hills in the late 1970s, and I understand you were a very smart child. You repeatedly got sent down to your guidance counselor, who gave you puzzles that were secretly part of an IQ test. Now, that sounds really bizarre. You were secretly being given a test about your IQ?
Lori: They never told me that it was an IQ test; I found that out years later. They said, "You're going to go play games with," you know, Mrs. whatever her name was, right? And I would go, and I'd think, "Why are they taking me out of class to go do these puzzles?" But I loved them, they were really fun, so I kind of felt like, well, maybe it's a privilege that you get to go do this.
Debbie: Were they doing it with everyone-
Debbie: ... or just you because you were so smart?
Lori: Well, I don't know that I was so smart, but they thought I should maybe be moved ahead.
Debbie: Oh, okay.
Lori: And so they were testing me to see, because the work was too easy for me. I didn't know these discussions were happening, until finally somebody told me they had spoken to my parents and told them that my IQ was several grades ahead, and that they thought that it would be in my interest to skip me ahead. And I was very upset about that, and I said no, because I didn't want to, socially, leave my friends.
Debbie: Now, you've described your family as "anti-academic," and have said that you rebelled, and your rebellion was doing well at school. Why were they anti-academic?
Lori: Maybe that's not the best way of describing it. I think what I meant was that they really didn't care that much about academics, in a way that I deeply cared about academics. I think they were more concerned about the social world, appearances, how things seemed, and I think they just... You know, they wanted things to be very calm and serene and peaceful, and I was not that kind of kid.
Debbie: You played tournament chess, you were on the math team, you were valedictorian of your high school class. For anti-academia, your parents had to be a bit jarred when you went to Yale.
Lori: I think they were very proud of me that I did that. They were very proud, it's just that they kind of didn't understand me. I was kind of like... When I was young, I used to think that I was adopted. I always thought that, and at one point, I actually called adoption agencies, when I was quite young, maybe like eight, and I tried to find my real parents.
Debbie: Was it because you felt excluded or othered?
Lori: I felt like I could not have come from these people because our interests and our personalities were so different.
Debbie: That's so fascinating.
Lori: I think nobody would take me seriously, which is, you know... I was not adopted, so I understand why they did not take me seriously.
Debbie: But what did the adoption agencies think when you called? What did they make of a little eight-year-old girl calling and saying, "I'm trying to find my real parents"?
Lori: They would say... Well, they didn't know whether or not I was adopted, they didn't know who was calling, and they would just say, "I'm sorry, but we don't have... Even if we had information, we could not release that. You'll have to talk to your parents and have them call us." And I was too embarrassed to tell my parents that I had done that. And the other thing is, I look exactly like my father. I mean, we are twins. It was more of a fantasy that I wish I could find those people with whom I had all these things in common.
Debbie: So the kinship.
Debbie: At Yale, you studied language and culture, and then you got a bachelor's in French literature at Stanford.
Lori: Right, so I transferred after two years. I was at Yale for two years, and then I transferred to Stanford, and I continued to study French.
Debbie: Why French literature?
Lori: I loved the language, I loved the literature, I loved the existential angst. I think I was fascinated by these people who thought about all of these deep questions about life, and they just wrote about them endlessly, and I really immersed myself in that.
Debbie: I studied Russian literature, so I totally get it-
Lori: Well, there you go, right.
Debbie: ... for the same reason, all that soul and Sturm und Drang. I loved it. What future did you aspire to at that point?
Lori: I didn't. I mean, that was sort of the problem. I actually transferred from Yale to Stanford because I was working... I'd been doing these internships in the entertainment business in LA, where I'm from, and they said, "You know, there's this job working for Paramount in the Bay Area doing motion picture publicity for the college demographic," and I thought, "That sounds really exciting." I loved movies, I love story. And so, I thought, "Well, I'll go, I'll transfer to somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area and work for Paramount doing that," and I did. And it was interesting, because I was sort of half being a college student and half being this person who's doing this job, and I kind of had a foot in both worlds, but I wasn't wholly immersed in either. So it was kind of like this limbo, but in retrospect, I wish I had just stayed as an undergrad at Yale and finished there, as opposed to kind of uprooting my life.
Debbie: You applied to be an assistant to a junior film agent who would "audition" two different assistants at the same time by having them work for a day, and you heard the agent asking his mentor, "Should I pick the smart one or the hot one?" And the agent told him to always pick the smart one. You got the job and felt somewhat hurt.
Lori: I did, and you know, the feminist in me hates to admit that. But I didn't like that he couldn't see this other aspect of me. People always saw my brain, and I wanted people to see other aspects of me too.
Debbie: Your job consisted of making endless phone calls, running personal errands, typing up endless notes on scripts so the agent could sound competent discussing them without actually reading them, which is somewhat terrifying. Though that took an inordinate amount of time, it really did become the favorite part of the gig for you. What about it resonated so much with you?
Lori: I loved working with story because you could change them, I think, with scripts, right? So you can say, "Here's this person's story, but instead of it being fixed, we can change it, and we can use our imagination and make it different, and make it richer, and make different things happen." And so I love that aspect of story, and I love the idea of, you know, when you'd read a script and it wasn't quite there, but there was something about the character that you liked and you responded to, that you could flesh out that person's life.
Debbie: Sounds familiar, Lori, in terms of what you currently do.
Debbie: It's sort of amazing.
Lori: Right, and I think it's funny, when you look at all of my different careers, I don't think that they're so different. At the time, it seemed like, "Well, she's bouncing from this thing to that thing to the other thing," but every single thing that I've ever done professionally has had to do with story and the human condition.
Debbie: I only have one very specific question for you about your television career. I understand that you were in the room when Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox auditioned for starring roles in Friends. You weighed in on whether Julianna Margulies's character in ER should die at the end of episode one, and you were on the set with George Clooney before anyone knew how famous this series would make him. What was all of that like?
Lori: When you're in your 20s, and you're exposed to all of this, I think it's like a kid in a candy store. You feel like you're part of something really big. And I don't mean big in terms of fame for those people who became very famous; I mean those shows were really good. You know, I came to NBC the year that Friends and ER were premiering, and that was-
Debbie: What a time.
Lori: That was the beginning of the reign of what we called must-see TV. That was the Thursday night dominance that went on for years. There was so much realness about love and longing and desire and connection and community, and what it's like to be in your 20s and not know what you're doing with your life. So it was really funny, and it was a brilliant show, though, even though people say, "Oh, Friends, it was fluff." It was so much more than fluff.
Lori: And ER, of course, that was a game-changer. I mean, it really brought you into these human stories in this way where you felt so invested, and it made you think about your own life, made you think about the people in your life who you love, your own mortality. Those relationships were so involved and complicated, the way life is. It was messy, and they weren't afraid to do that. Network TV used to be very safe, and those were some of the first shows, I think ER in particular, where they were willing to kind of let things be messy.
Debbie: Were you able to identify the power or the charisma that Jennifer Aniston or Courteney Cox or George Clooney had at the beginning? Were you able to say, "Mm, there's something about these people, they're going to be big"?
Lori: Oh, everyone did. I mean, you'd sit in that room, and these people would come in and they'd read, and everybody just like... They would walk out and everybody just kind of sat there. We just looked at each other like, you know... And I was a baby executive; I really just was sitting in the room, I didn't have any power. But everybody knew, you just felt it. There was this palpable sense of excitement.
Debbie: Ultimately, that work didn't satisfy you. You became so enamored with the stories and the process of how ER was being made that it ended up inspiring you to go to medical school. So can you talk a little bit about that?
Lori: Yeah, so we had a consultant on ER who was an ER physician, and he was the person who would make sure that we choreographed the trauma bay scenes so that they were authentic, he contributed to storylines. And I would hang out in the ER with him, and at a certain point, I would hang out there so much, and I would get so invested in, you know, "Show me that X-ray, show me the..." And he would show me everything. "What does that mean when you see this?" And, you know, people's lives would change in the ER in an instant.
Lori: And I just was fascinated by those stories, and I felt like, even though I felt like the stories on ER were just so rich, I felt like the stories that were real life were on a completely different level, and I felt like I want to be immersed in those stories. I felt like this is what life is about, right here, like the whole life and death idea, and just seeing how people dealt with these surprises that happened. You know, you don't go to an ER because something was expected.
Lori: But I still thought it was a hobby, and he kept saying, "You know, I think you like it here much more than you like your job back at the office," and so I applied... I had to take all the science classes, I applied to medical school, I ended up going back up to Stanford.
Debbie: I mean, that's not playtime medical school, that's serious medical school.
Lori: Yeah, it is. And I think people really questioned, you know, I was almost 30 at that point, but I really felt... There was something driving me that only in retrospect I could see. I couldn't see it at the time, I couldn't explain it to people. My joke at the time, because people couldn't understand what I was doing, I'd say, "Well, I'm either very versatile or very confused." I wasn't very versatile; I was really working in the same media, which is story, right? And when I got there, it was different from what I imagined.
Debbie: In what way?
Lori: Well, Stanford was a great place to be if you're going to go to medical school. I would say Stanford had a lot of nontraditional students, meaning they came from lots of different backgrounds. They weren't necessarily the 21-year-old biochem major. Those were there, but there were people who had worked in government, and people who had worked in public policy, and people who had been artists, and so it was a really eclectic group of people. But my fantasy of being, like, the family doctor who guides people through their lives and gets immersed in the trajectory of their journeys, it wasn't going to be that. Managed care was just beginning, and a lot of my professors were talking about the fact that you have to see thousands of patients in your practice, and you see them for these short intervals, and the insurance companies are dictating all of these aspects of your practice. And I got very disillusioned about what that might be like. So I wasn't disillusioned with medical school, I was disillusioned with what the future of being a doctor might look like.
Lori: And when I was there, in order to pay for this period of my life where I was taking science classes to get to medical school, I started writing, and I became a freelance journalist. That was going to be a temporary gig in order to get me to medical school, but I continued writing when I was in medical school, and I really loved the stories, immersing myself in other people's stories in that way. So I said, "You know what? The way I'm going to work with story is not as a physician. I'm going to work with story as a journalist." So I left to become a journalist.
Debbie: How long were you in medical school?
Lori: I withdrew after two years.
Debbie: And what do you feel like it gave you?
Lori: Oh, so much. I'm really glad I went. I think something about that really helps me as a therapist, which was there was this class at Stanford called Doctor/Patient, and it was a new thing at the time, now I think most medical schools have it, where you go into a room, and it's not just about can you get the diagnosis right, but how are you interacting with this person, and how do you get the information that you need to make a good diagnosis? Because you can't just ask them these questions, you have to ask in a certain way. We don't know, as patients, how to say, like, "This thing is what's going on with my body," right? So we have to ask certain kinds of questions in order to get the right information, or we could miss things. We could miss things that determine whether or not we're missing something really big.
Lori: And so there were these... We'd have this little laminated card that had the questions that we needed to ask, and so many medical students would come in, and they'd literally verbatim say to them, like, "Are you having sex with men, women, or both?" That was on the card. And it wasn't like... You're not supposed to ask it that way; that's just some information you're supposed to get. But some people literally would ask that.
Lori: And because I was older and I had worked, I'd been out in the world, I had a better sense, I think, of, you know, how do you connect with somebody? So I think what it taught me was more about how to connect with people. As a journalist, it taught me a lot about how to get information that you need when you're talking to people. And then I think when I was a journalist, of course, that informed my later work as a therapist.
Debbie: What was the inspiration to then take this new path into becoming a therapist?
Lori: So, I was very happy as a journalist, and I'm still a journalist, so I never left that, I never intended to leave that. I had been working as a journalist for about 10 years when I had a baby, and like many new mothers, I felt very isolated in terms of adult interaction. I was thrilled with my child, and also sometimes bored out of my mind. And so, I felt like if I wasn't working freelance as a journalist, which is what I was doing, if I could get out and interact with people, and I thought back to medical school and those interactions that I would have. So I called up the dean at Stanford, the medical school, and I had become very close with her. I used to do her mother/daughter book groups. And I said, "Maybe I should come back and do psychiatry."
Lori: And she kind of laughed at me. She said, "I know what you want to do, and this is not that. I mean, you could do talk therapy if you go through all the training to be a psychiatrist, but psychiatry is a lot about medication management." And she knew that the kind of connection that I wanted to have with my patients was going to be very different, so she said, "Go get a graduate degree in clinical psychology and become a psychotherapist." And it was the best advice that anybody could ever have given me. In fact, it was one of those moments, people talk about aha moments a lot, and you don't... You know, they're kind of, to me, a fiction, but that was one of them. It was like, "Oh..." It was like the last piece of the puzzle that I could never find, that was missing somewhere in some drawer, someone just took it out and said, "Oh, here's that piece. Let's plug it into the puzzle." And all of a sudden, my everything professionally came together.
Debbie: So you went to Pepperdine University, where you got your graduate degree in clinical psychology, so you now have two careers: one as a writer, and you've written for all the major players, the New York Times, the Atlantic, New York Magazine, you have several books, and one as a psychotherapist in private practice, helping people with depression, anxiety, parenting, grief. How would you describe your approach to being a therapist?
Lori: First of all, I think that a lot of people look at it like I have two different careers. I don't think that at all. So, when I'm working as a therapist, I almost feel like I'm working as a writer, meaning I feel like I'm an editor sitting in that chair, that people come in with a story, "Here's what happened," and they're very sure that they're telling me a very objective view of the story. And we're all subjective, there's no such thing as objectivity in that way, and so I'm helping them to edit their story, because usually they come in with a faulty narrative, almost like a first draft. And, you know, a first draft, as Anne Lamott would say, shitty first drafts, right? There's something that doesn't work in that draft. They have some kind of abiding theme, like "I'm unlovable," or "Nothing will ever work out for me," or in the case of somebody I write about in my book, his story is "I'm better than everybody else."
Lori: And those stories need editing, so I feel like, you know, who's the protagonist in this story? Is the protagonist moving forward, or is the protagonist going in circles? Who are the heroes and who are the villains, and do we need to revisit that? What is not working? What's the arc of this story? Where's the story going?
Debbie: What inspired you to write your latest book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed?
Lori: Well, it was not the book that I was supposed to be writing.
Debbie: Which you outlined in great detail, quite bittersweetly, in the book.
Lori: Right, right. And I think, you know, I really wanted to be honest about that, because it was a real struggle in my life, and I think a lot of people would say, "Oh, first world problems," and yet I think that a lot of what appear to people to be insignificant problems are really indicative of a deeper issue, as it was for me. I had written this cover story for the Atlantic called How to Land Your Kid in Therapy, and the subtitle was Why Our Obsession With Our Kids' Happiness Might Be Dooming Them to Unhappy Adulthoods. And this piece went viral, it spread like wildfire. All of a sudden, I became a parenting expert, and if you had asked my child at the time, you know, I am not a parenting expert. But publishers wanted me to write that book, and they offered me a ridiculous amount of money, more money than I'd ever seen written on a piece of paper in my life.
Lori: And I said no, and everyone thought I was crazy. And after I said no, I thought I was crazy too, by the way. A single parent, this could really change the landscape of our lives, it would be a really easy book to write because I had written the article already, so I knew exactly how to write that book. Something in it felt inauthentic. I felt like I would be eking out this book to jump on this commercial bandwagon of helicopter parenting books, and I just couldn't do that. It felt wrong.
Lori: And so I said, "You know, I'm really..." I was starting out as a therapist at the time, and I said, "I want to write something about the adults, because I'm really interested in what's going on with the adults, and how we're living our lives nowadays." And they sort of frame this as, "Oh, you're going to write a happiness book," and I thought, "Well, they can call it what they want, but I'm going to write the book that I want to write." And of course, they didn't offer me that kind of money for it, but I said, "That's okay, because I'm doing what feels authentic to me."
Lori: And every day, I would sit down and try to write the "happiness book," and it was making me miserable, and the irony was not lost on me that I called it the miserable depression-inducing happiness book. And I thought, "What am I doing? How did I become this confused person who makes such bad decisions?" But I told nobody that I couldn't write the book. I literally, I was paralyzed, I could not write the book. I had met my boyfriend right around this time; I distracted myself with this exciting new relationship that I was in. I didn't tell him that I couldn't write the book. I literally told nobody.
Lori: I say in my book now that I was like the closet gambler who would get dressed every morning and say that I was going to work, kiss the family goodbye, and then go to the casino instead of the office. My casino was Facebook, or it was writing these fabulously witty emails to my boyfriend all day, and he'd be like, "Wow, you have time to write all these emails to me and write your book," and I could not admit to anybody that I wasn't writing this book.
Debbie: Right. So then your boyfriend breaks up with you.
Debbie: No book, no boyfriend, and you spiraled into some really, really intense grief.
Lori: Yeah. I mean, the whole house of cards fell down, and I mean that both with the relationship and the book, and then this other thing that I write about in the book, my health situation. I suddenly had to face everything that I didn't want to face before. And the boyfriend thing, I really felt like at the time that it was this utter surprise. You know, we were planning to get married, and just the day before, the week before, he had said to me, "I just checked to make sure that when we get married, we can put your son on my health insurance. You know, do I need to adopt him, or can he be my stepson, and can I still put him on?" So we were getting married. And all of a sudden, he tells me that he's decided he can't live with a kid under his roof for the next 10 years, and that was my... The kid was my eight-year-old, who had not been hiding in a closet the entire time that we were dating.
Lori: So my version of this story... His kids, by the way, were about to go to college, and he was tasting the empty nest, and unbeknownst to me, he had been grappling with this question privately about, "Wow, now that we're really going to get married, how do I feel about this? Because I had been planning on the empty nest." And so my version of the story was, "Well, clearly he's missing some marbles. Who would do that to somebody? How do you not think about this from day one, when I had a six-year-old, when we started dating?" And my friends backed me up, and I talk in the book a little bit about the difference between idiot compassion and wise compassion.
Debbie: Can you let our listeners know what that is? Because that was actually going to be one of my questions for you.
Lori: Yeah, so idiot compassion is, we think we're supporting our friends. It makes them feel better in the moment; we back them up. "Yeah, you dodged a bullet. Yeah, clearly he's a sociopath." You know, all of those things. But it doesn't help the person because it doesn't help them to see what their own role might be in the situation. Wise compassion is what a therapist does. We hold up a mirror to people and help them see their reflection so that they can see themselves in a way that they might not have been aware of.
Lori: It's like, "Here, we want you to look at this, and don't be afraid to look at this. This is the thing that you look away every time you see this, but I want you to look at it, and I'll be here, and I will stay with you very compassionately while you look at this." It's like, I like to say that we deliver compassionate truth bombs in the therapy room. Your friends sometimes don't do that. And so, I really feel like, at the beginning of the book, my boyfriend is the villain, and I'm the wronged party, and that changes significantly throughout the book, which is how therapy generally goes.
Debbie: Who told you that maybe you needed to talk to someone?
Lori: My friend who is actually a therapist. I didn't even consider seeing a therapist, by the way, when this happened. I thought, "Well, I'm functioning really well at work. I'm falling apart at home, but that's to be expected, because this guy was a loser." And I completely-
Debbie: Had you ever had that level of grief before at the end of a relationship?
Debbie: I mean, you were... You'd really fallen apart. You couldn't stop crying, you weren't eating, you couldn't sleep. This is a serious, serious grief.
Lori: It was, and I think it was interesting, because my work was my respite. I felt like I... Because you're so focused as a therapist in the room that I didn't have to think about myself at all. It was like a vacation from my grief. And then in between sessions, the reality would hit. It's kind of like when somebody dies, and the person sleeps, and then they wake up the next morning and they think for a second that the person's alive, and then two seconds later, they realize, "Oh, wait, I'm back in my hell." So that's what would happen, and, you know, I'd go home from work, I'd get my son to sleep, and then I'd be back lying on my bedroom floor, and I couldn't focus, I couldn't concentrate.
Lori: All that space that used to be taken up by the relationship was now this empty space, and I would wonder, "What is he doing right now?" And I would Google-stalk him endlessly. If he would post pictures of, like, salads and restaurants, I'd think, "How could he even eat? Did I mean anything to him?" I left my credit card at Target, I fell on a step in my garage and badly bruised my knee, I mean, I was just not doing well.
Debbie: How much did you learn about the art of therapy by going to therapy?
Lori: So much. It's the kind of thing where, when you're training, you watch a lot of therapy. You see videotapes of therapy, watch through one-way mirrors. And then when you do it yourself, you're not getting... You're getting feedback through your consultation group or through your supervision, but it's something entirely different to have that visceral experience of being a patient. And I had been in therapy before, but when you're a therapist and you go back to therapy, you feel like you're half a therapist and half the patient. Very hard to take off your therapist hat at the very beginning.
Debbie: How did you find who you call Wendell in the book? You have a therapist; you've changed all the names and all the personalities of the people that you feature in the book. How did you find Wendell?
Lori: Weirdly, even though one of the goals of putting myself out there in the book was to help normalize struggle, and help people to feel less alone in what they're going through, I was embarrassed that I was going through this crisis, and I didn't want other people to know. My friends knew. But the problem is, so, my friend who is a therapist, who said, "Maybe you should talk to someone," I knew all the therapists that she knew, and you can't go to someone that you know in a different context, so it has to be a clean relationship. So I called up somebody who I refer to, and we sometimes share cases, if I'm seeing the couple and she's seeing the individual or vice versa, and I said I needed a referral for a friend. And I'm so embarrassed now that I felt so much shame that I couldn't just say, "You know, I'm having... This thing happened in my life, and I really need to see someone."
Debbie: Why did you feel so much shame?
Lori: Because I felt like people wouldn't refer to me if they knew that I was going through a crisis. I felt like professionally, it would be damaging. Which is ironic, because of course therapists go through the vicissitudes of life. But the truth is that I was very competent at work, so I told her that I needed a therapist for a friend, and I specified very specifically what I was looking for, and specifically, I wanted a male therapist who was married, who was around my age, who had kids, so that this person could corroborate and validate my position. But when I got to therapy, that was not how it went.
Debbie: You've said that what brings people into therapy is often a red herring. Was that the case for you?
Lori: Yes, very much so.
Debbie: So can you talk a little bit about what a red herring is, and then what your red herring was?
Lori: Right. People will come in with something... Sometimes they'll come in with something vague, like a feeling of stuckness, or a depression, but often people come in because there's something concrete that made them call: a breakup, something going on in their marriage, something professionally that's not working out, something that happened with a parent or a child. In this case, I came in and I told him the whole boyfriend story, and at one point as I was ranting, I said, "And now I've wasted all these years, and I'm in my 40s, and half my life is over, and I don't have time to waste," and he just glommed onto that phrase, "half my life is over."
Lori: And that became what the therapy was about, because what I was really there for, and what I should've been there for even before the boyfriend situation, was I was searching for meaning, and I couldn't write this book, I had these health issues that I was not talking about with anybody also, and I was really worried about, well, what does this mean about how long I have, or what's going to happen to me? At the same time, I was treating this young woman who was dying of breast cancer, it ended up being another cancer, and I was really sort of grappling with, how can I be more intentional about what I want to do at this point in my life? What is my romantic life going to look like? What is my professional life going to look like? What does it mean to be more than halfway done with your life? And have I been kind of skating through and not looking at how I want to spend my time?
Debbie: What did you learn?
Lori: I learned that I hadn't been paying attention in the ways that I wanted to. You know, when things felt like they weren't going as planned, I would just ignore them. And that sounds strange for a therapist, right? You'd think that a therapist would be somebody who really examines things. But it's much easier to look at other people's lives, because we have the vantage point of living outside of them. But when it's your own life, I think we all have blind spots, and one of the things that happened in my therapy, and I think what good therapy does, is it helps you to see your blind spots, and it helps you to see, how are you shooting yourself in the foot over and over in these different situations, and thinking that they're discrete situations, where they're not, it just... It's a pattern.
Lori: It's the reason that I say when people come into therapy, I'm listening for the music under the lyrics, that they're coming in and they're telling me something, and I want to know, "What is the underlying struggle or pattern that got you into this situation in the first place?" And particularly with couples, you see so much of... You know, they come in and they want to talk about the argument of the week. That's a waste of time. I want to talk about, "What is the struggle between the two of you, the process struggle that goes on, that creates these arguments in the first place? We don't have to talk about each argument; we have to talk about what is the underlying fight that's not about the fight kind of up here at the surface level, but the deeper-level fight that you guys keep getting in?"
Debbie: In your book, you write how a therapist will hold up a mirror to patients, but patients will also hold up a mirror to their therapists. In what way? Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Lori: In the book, I write about four very different patients, and I did that because I think on the surface, readers might say, "Well, I don't see myself in these people," or... And even I'm the fifth patient, so, you know, "Lori's very different from those people." But I'm not, and I think that every single person that I write about is making me examine something about my life at that time, and that's why I chose them. So you have this guy who seems very narcissistic, and-
Lori: John, yes.
Debbie: John the television executive.
Lori: Right, and he's... You know, he's insulting to me, he's abrasive, he's very hard to like at the beginning, and yet he's somebody that people come to love the most, I think, by the end of the book, as I did. But you think, "Well, what could he teach me about myself?" Right? But there's this moment when we're at... I run into him out in the world, we're at this Lakers game, and I'm there with my son, and he's there with a friend and his daughter and the other person's daughter, and he's being an asshole. And he's in line, and it's halftime, and he's complaining in this very caustic, sarcastic way about these people who are not moving fast enough in the line.
Lori: And on the one hand, I'm thinking, like, "Who is that jerk?" And then I realize, oh, it's John, of course. And I think, "God, he's..." You know, I just really don't like him in that moment. But at the same time, I want to get back too. Like, I agree with him. I'm kind of cheering him on silently. There are narcissistic aspects of me too, right? We all have these moments where we feel entitled to something, or we feel like we're smarter than other people. And John was an extreme example of that, but he taught me to really notice those moments more, to make sure that I wasn't being John in the world.
Lori: You know, I have that woman who's dying of cancer-
Lori: ... and she made me face the fact that I was going through these health problems and I couldn't deny them anymore, and I needed to deal with them. There's this woman, Charlotte, in the book who, she's in her 20s and she keeps hooking up with the wrong guys, and she can't understand why she can't find somebody who wants a relationship, and then she starts hooking up with somebody in the waiting room.
Debbie: The Dude.
Lori: The Dude, because we don't know his name, because I can't talk to my colleague about this person. And she says, "Well, at least he's in therapy." She thinks it's a step up, and it's not. And so, she helps me to see my own patterns that went on with Boyfriend. Different issues and different patterns, but she helped me to say, like, "You can't not look at the fact that you avoided the fact that he didn't like kids. There were signs, and you just looked the other way, and you didn't want to see that. Neither of you did, right?" So I was doing something in my relationship too.
Lori: And then there's that older woman, Rita, who's about to turn 70, and her whole thing is her adult children are estranged from her. She made significant mistakes as a parent, she wants their forgiveness, she's not going to get their forgiveness. Completely isolated, and she says, "If things don't get better in a year, I don't want to live anymore." And you have this juxtaposition of Charlotte, who has this vast landscape of life ahead of her, she's in her 20s and she can make different choices, and then Rita, who's already made these choices that she can't change, and I'm right in the middle of them. And so they both hold up the mirror to me from the vantage point of the past and the vantage point of the future.
Debbie: You write about how most people are what therapists call unreliable narrators. What is an unreliable narrator?
Lori: I mean that we all have a lens through which we view our situations, and it's hard for us to take into account other people's perspectives on the same situation. So, often when people come in and they say, "Tell me what to do," they want advice, there are many reasons why I won't give advice. One of them is that I don't have the full story. I know that you're telling me something, and I have limited information. If we got the other people that you're talking about in this room to tell me their perspectives, I might have much better advice for you. But I will probably give you bad advice, because I only have one person's perspective on this. It's a little bit like with my Dear Therapist column. I get a letter, and I know that I'm only getting that person's perspective. But unlike the therapy room, I can't ask follow-up questions.
Debbie: You write, "An interesting paradox of the therapy process is this: In order to do their job, therapists must try to see patients as they really are, which means noticing their vulnerabilities and entrenched patterns and struggles. Patients, of course, want to be helped, but they also want to be liked and admired. In other words, they want to hide their vulnerabilities and entrenched patterns and struggles." So how do you as the therapist deal with these dualities?
Lori: You feel very vulnerable when you come in. I mean, you're going to come in and you're going to talk about all these things that you don't generally share with other people, and you want to feel like that person likes you. I had the same experience as a patient. When I went to see Wendell, I very much wanted him to like me. I'd see this other woman when I would leave, sometimes she would come early for her appointments, I'd see her in the waiting room, and I'd think, "I wonder if he likes her more than me, because I was such a downer today." You know, "Does he dread my sessions?" It's human, and we know that when people come in, that we're going to... It's going to take a while to get to know them. And I don't mean a while like years, I mean it's going to take a little bit before they kind of let me see the truth of who they are without feeling like they're gunning for me to feel a certain way about them.
Debbie: I learned a lot reading your book. For example, I learned that "High-functioning is therapist code for 'a good patient,' the kind most therapists enjoy working with." I'm assuming that the four patients that you write about in your book are high-functioning. Would that be correct? Or maybe not John so much; he seemed very resistant at first.
Lori: Yeah. I don't know, I wouldn't call John high-functioning. He was very high-functioning professionally, but emotionally not so much. He was really struggling emotionally.
Debbie: That brings me to a really interesting point. You talk about how John was high-functioning in his career as a producer, writer, et cetera, in television, very, very high-profile job. We never find out who John really is or the television shows he's so famous for, but clearly he's at the top of his game in his career, yet his personal life is falling apart. How often do you see that type of delta between who someone presents in the outside world and who they really are internally?
Lori: So often. My very first client, she walks in and she starts telling me how depressed she is, and she's extremely depressed. She's like 30 and very depressed. She looks disheveled, like she hasn't maybe showered, and she really seems like she's not functioning at all. At some point during that session, I find out that she is a very successful person in her field, and I'm trying to put together the person in front of me and the person she's describing herself to be, and because I'm a complete newbie, I think, "I wonder if she's psychotic." I'm thinking, like, "I wonder if she's maybe thinking that she's more successful than she is." I didn't think she was making it up out of whole cloth, but I thought, "Well, maybe she's exaggerating how successful she is."
Lori: And so I actually Googled her, and I was told after that, "Never, ever do that with a patient ever again," by my supervisor, and I never have. But I did it because of the disconnect between who she presented to me in the room and who she was, and it turned out she'd been in these magazines, and she was glamorous, and there she was with the boyfriend she had been talking about, who was this successful, gorgeous person. And I thought, "Wow, this is a great lesson for... At my very first therapy session, I am so glad I learned this."
Debbie: This seems to be so prevalent in our culture now, when we look at the life stories of people like Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade, where on the public surface it seems like they have everything, and then we find out, no, in fact, they don't. Why is it so hard for people to be who they really are? One of the things that I found so interesting as I was reading your remarkable book is how much more I began to like the people who you were writing about, the more they revealed who they were. And I can't think of a situation in real life, so to speak, where that isn't the case, where the more you see the softness or the sadness or the realness, the vulnerabilities of a person, the more you love them. And yet, we are so closed down as a culture in being able to feel like we can share that publicly.
Lori: People come in, and they want to hide the truth of who they are. And that was the case with John, in particular, right, where he was just putting up every wall so that I could not get to know him. And he thought he was charming and funny. I thought he was obnoxious.
Debbie: So did I.
Lori: He thought he was hilarious. And by the way, he was a great writer, so he was very hilarious, but not to me.
Debbie: No, he actually was really disrespectful in a lot of ways, and I was really... I don't even know the right word for this, but just admiring of how you were able to keep that thick skin on and not let him get to you.
Lori: You know what, one of the things you learn as a therapist is that people's behavior is a way of protecting themselves. It's how they cope. So when John would act that way, I would say to myself, "This is how he's protecting himself. This is how he's managing his pain. I don't know what that pain is yet, because I can't get to it." It was so hard to get in there with him in any way. "But I know it's there, because he wouldn't act this way if he weren't in such pain." So you don't take it personally. In real life, "in real life" meaning outside the therapy room, not that therapy isn't real life, but... You know, we don't have the patience for that. We're not going to wait around to find what that person's pain is; we're going to avoid that person.
Lori: But back to your question about... You know, when people actually show you who they are, that's the glue that draws us toward them. I think, as you were saying, not just in the therapy room, but when you get to know somebody and they tell you something about themselves, not in the sense of TMI, like just some disclosure that feels like it's too much information and it's gratuitous, but when you're actually connecting with someone and you're saying, "This is who I am," and the other person says, "This is who I am," you find that you're drawn toward each other, because there's something so human about that, something so universal. I think, you know, I say at the beginning of the book that we should get the world leaders into a room and have them share their formative experiences and their pain, and then all of a sudden, people would get along.
Debbie: Puppy pile.
Lori: Right. You know, I think that that's what makes people relatable, and I think that's what makes people in the book relatable too.
Debbie: Now, you mention this about John, the way in which he was sort of acting out, and you talk about how "The things we protest against are most often the very things we need to look at." Why is that? How does that manifest in our behavior that way?
Lori: Those are the most tender things for us. Those are the things that feel the most delicate. So, when Wendell said, "Half your life is over," and I'm like, "What are you smoking? I'm here for a breakup, I'm here for crisis management. Everything else in my life is great. Look at my son, look at my family, look at my friends, look at my career. Everything is great." I protested against that for quite a while.
Debbie: You talk about there being a difference between pain and suffering.
Lori: This is something that Wendell taught me, which was... He was talking about how everybody experiences pain. We can't escape that. But at the same time, we do have some agency over how much we suffer, and he was saying that I was really marinating in the suffering. And there are all kinds of choices that we can make. What do we do with our pain? How do we manage our pain? And I wanted to manage my pain by endless suffering, Googling my boyfriend every night, fantasizing about what he might be doing. That was creating much more suffering. I didn't have to bask in the suffering. Wendell said at one point that I was trying to seduce him with my misery, that every week I would come in, and I would try to say, "Look how miserable I am. Look at what he did to me." And that that was some... And he's like, "I'm not connecting with you on that. I want to know more about this part, about these other things in your life that are going on."
Debbie: You also talk about the difference between grief and depression, and I thought that was brilliant. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Lori: There are so many misconceptions about what grief is. Grief is not this concrete thing where you go through these stages, the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross stages of, you know, depression, anger, bargaining, you end up in acceptance. And people really have trouble with that, because they feel like something's wrong with them if they don't get to "acceptance." There's this other model that I think is so much more helpful, which is about how do you integrate the loss into your life, so that you're not feeling like, "Well, I have to not feel my grief anymore"? So many times, people come into therapy, and they'll say, "Help me not to feel. Help me not to feel this grief anymore." And what I want to say to them is, "You're going to feel some grief. This loss is part of your life experience. But there are also other things. There are ways that it can be less painful. It will be very painful at times, but it doesn't have to feel so sharp all the time."
Debbie: Why, as humans, do we do almost everything we can to avoid having to confront that pain, or really feel that pain?
Lori: Because it hurts. I think that our feelings are like a compass; they tell us what we want. So when people say, "Oh, I don't want to feel this anger," that's good that you're feeling that anger. What is it telling you? Something isn't working in your life. Let's find out what it is. If you're feeling sad, what is that sadness about? If you're feeling anxiety, what is it about? That's giving you information. Our feelings are information, we should pay attention to them. If you try to suppress your feelings, they actually get bigger, and that's what people don't realize, so people usually end up in therapy once that feeling has said, "I must be heard," and that's when they end up there, but they struggled unnecessarily for all of that time.
Debbie: You say that "People want to be understood and to understand, but for most of us, our biggest problem is that we don't know what our problem is. We keep stepping in the same puddle." And you ask, "Why do I do the very thing that will guarantee my own unhappiness over and over again?" And that's something that I've contended with quite a lot through my life, and have now begun to understand. It's this need to sort of correct the past, this repetitive nature to try to get an outcome to come out differently. Where does that come from? Why do so many people do that over and over again?
Lori: It has to do with this fight that's going on inside that we don't even realize is happening, and it's a historical fight, it's a fight with someone where it didn't work out before. It could be your parents, it's whatever happened before, and so people... It usually comes out in relationships, so in Charlotte's case in the book I talk about, it's repetition compulsion. She keeps choosing these guys who, one minute they're really into her, and another minute they're kind of not very reliable, and the next minute they're really into her, and the next minute they're not really reliable. That was how she grew up. Her parents were either very present or very absent, and they would toggle between those two extremes with her, and she would choose men who would do exactly that.
Lori: And you think, "Well, why would someone do that? Wouldn't they want something much more stable and consistent, given that they didn't get that when they were growing up?" But she doesn't know what to do with consistency. It's like a moth to flame, because what happens is you do that because you want to win this time, right? You lost so badly before, and so this time, you say, "Well, I'm going to get this person to love me in the way that I wasn't loved before." And of course, it never works out that way, because you have to choose a different kind of person, and that person will love you in a way that you weren't loved before.
Debbie: You write how "Therapists use three sources of information when working with patients: What the patients say, what they do, and how you, the therapist, feels while we're sitting with them." Talk about that last part. I find that almost like a peek under the hood, especially in thinking about my own therapeutic experience. Like, I never really thought about how my therapist is feeling while I'm talking. I mean, I want her to like me, and I've spent really long, long, long time with her, and hoping that she finds me interesting, but I didn't really think about that until I read your book. Like, "Hm, wonder if she's bored out of her mind listening to these problems year after year after year."
Lori: Yeah. So, when we get bored, it's generally because we can't get to know you.
Lori: A lot of people think when we look at the clock, we're bored. We're looking at the clock because we're gauging the rhythm of the session. If you're talking about something very intense, and we have 10 minutes left, I want to put you back together before you have to go out in the world. So that's why I'm looking at the clock, not because I'm bored by what you're saying.
Lori: But I do talk about a patient who bores me in the book, and that very much was about how I felt in the session, which was she would come in every week, she would complain about this person and that person, and all the people who are rejecting her, and she would tell me that I was not helping her, and yet she didn't want to go see a different therapist. So it was this double bind that I was put in, and I wondered, "Do other people feel this way with her?" Because what people do with a therapist in the room is very much what they do with people out in the world. You can bet that whatever is happening between you and your patient is what somebody else in the world is experiencing with them.
Lori: But I really wanted to check out, "Is what I'm feeling about me?" Because there was a little bit of my mother in there. Right? You know, sometimes people will come in and they'll have like a big sign on their head: "I remind you of your mother." And you've got to get therapy and consultation so that you aren't having your own stuff bleed into that relationship. But I wasn't, in this case, but we very much use how we're feeling because we know that's how other people in this person's life probably feel when they're around this person.
Debbie: You say that "Anger is the go-to feeling for most people because it's outward-directed; angrily blaming others can feel deliciously sanctimonious. But often it's only the tip of the iceberg, and if you look beneath the surface, you'll glimpse submerged feelings you either weren't aware of or didn't want to show: fear, helplessness, envy, loneliness, and insecurity." I think that's just absolutely beautiful, and I think back to my own experiences of those feelings, and wonder how much I was just sublimating in an effort to avoid what was really happening.
Lori: Yeah, it's so much easier to get angry with other people than to look at what might be going on inside of us. It was so much easier for me to say, "Look at what my boyfriend did," than to say, "Oh, I was dealing with these questions that I didn't want to face."
Debbie: When I start to get angry, what I end up doing is crying, because I think it's actually a lot of sadness masking as anger, that was a lot easier to be angry than it is to be sad.
Lori: It is, it is. I also think that sometimes people are afraid of their anger. Again, just like when I say to people, "Follow your envy, it tells you what you want."
Debbie: That was mind-blowing. Talk more about that. I loved that sentence, it was one that I wanted to ask you about.
Lori: I think sometimes we're so afraid of whether it's anger or envy, whatever it is, and it's great information. If we don't have access to our feelings, it's like we're driving without a map, you know, we don't know where we're going. That's what our feelings are, they're a navigation system.
Debbie: Why envy specifically?
Lori: Oh, because when you envy somebody, you're saying, "I want that. I want that." And so you spend so much time following what they're doing, but you're not looking at, "Well, what can I do to get that?" Instead, we're looking at, "Oh, look, they got another accolade. Oh, look at them." And you're spending all this time outward-focused on what's going on with them, following everything that's happening, stewing, as opposed to saying, "Oh, wait, that's telling me I need to spend more time trying to figure out a way to get something like that for myself."
Debbie: One passage in the book that has stayed with me and resonates so much is about the things that we're afraid of. I actually wanted to read a paragraph from the book, and then talk a little bit about that. You write: "What are we afraid of? We are afraid of being hurt. We're afraid of being humiliated. We are afraid of failure and we are afraid of success. We are afraid of being alone and we are afraid of connection. We're afraid to listen to what our hearts are telling us. We're afraid of being unhappy and we are afraid of being too happy. In these dreams, inevitably, we're punished for our joy. We're afraid of not having our parents' approval and we are afraid of accepting ourselves for who we really are. We are afraid of not having control and afraid of our own power. We are afraid of how briefly we are alive and how long we will be dead. We are afraid that after we die, we won't have mattered. We are afraid of being responsible for our own lives. Sometimes it takes a while to admit our fears, especially to ourselves."
Debbie: How do we make sense of all of these fears and live a fulfilled, meaningful life?
Lori: I think it's one thing to acknowledge our fears, and another to feel incapacitated by them. There's this great moment when I'm seeing Wendell, and he says to me... You know, I'm talking about how trapped I am by all of these things, and a lot of it has to do with my fears. He said, "I saw this cartoon, and you remind me of it. It's of a prisoner shaking the bars, desperately trying to get out, but on the right and the left, it's open." And it was one of those moments where it's so tied into this issue of fears, right? Why do we not look to the right or the left? And part of it is that with freedom comes responsibility. Now I will have to be responsible for my life. It's so much easier to be the victim, to say, "I'm going to be the prisoner shaking the bars, and all of these things are out of my control, and all these things are happening to me." But if we walk around those bars, we have to face our fears.
Lori: And they're not so scary. I always think it's interesting that people are so afraid of talking about their fears, but they're so afraid not talking about them that when you talk about them, all the air returns to the room. And so, I think it's really important for us to say we don't have to be afraid of our fears, that talking about them makes us less afraid of them.
Debbie: You write that "Everyone wages this internal battle to some degree: child or adult? Safety or freedom? But no matter where people fall on those two continuums, every decision they make is based on two things: fear and love. Therapy strives to teach you how to tell the two apart." For those that might be listening today that are struggling between those two continuums, or on that continuum, what advice would you have for them?
Lori: Sometimes we don't realize why we're doing something, and sometimes we make decisions based on fear. It was why I said, "I'm going to do the happiness book." It was why, even though I knew that my boyfriend wasn't a kid person, I just, within a millisecond, would just put it out of my mind. That was fear. Fear of, "Well, if I acknowledge this, we're going to have to break up, and I don't want to do that."
Debbie: I particularly loved your references to Victor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning, and you quote him in the book, and this is the quote: "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." And I think that that's one of the most significant things that I've learned over being in therapy for as long as I have, that moment where you can decide how you want to behave, that moment you can decide about how much you want to believe in your old truths or your new truths. And it's not even so much as the truths changing, is just your understanding of them that I find to be so revelatory. How do you get to a place where you can help guide somebody to understand that power to choose their response?
Lori: I think the fact that we have a choice comes as a surprise to so many of us. You know, there's this chapter in the book about my mother, and I talk about how in the past, my fight was, "Why can't she change?" And all of a sudden, the question had changed for me, which was, "Why can't I?" Right? She's not going to change, so why don't I have a different response to her to make it easier on myself? And the freedom, as we say, using the Frankl quote, the freedom that comes from the power of choice is enormous. I get to choose in those interactions how I can do things differently. I don't have to engage in that same 50-year-old argument with my mother anymore. And it completely transforms a relationship.
Debbie: One of the things that I just read probably 15 or 20 times, and will probably get a tattoo of somewhere on my body, is when you say, "You might have to let go of the hope for a better childhood, but that's only so that you can create a better adulthood." How do you get people to look in a different direction?
Lori: Because I think so many people want to come in and they want a redo on their childhood, and they think, "If I come to therapy," somehow they're going to get a redo. You know, "You're going to help me blame my parents. You, the therapist, are going to help me blame my parents. And somehow you, the therapist, are going to provide for me whatever my parents didn't provide for me." And in some ways, that's true. We will provide a very different relationship for you that can give you a sense of what kind of relationship you can find out in the world. But we can't redo your past, and we're not going to blame your parents. We're going to help you understand how, as an adult, your childhood still informs a lot of what you do, and a lot of the ways you feel trapped.
Debbie: You talk about the fallacy of a forced forgiveness, and I really like that. You don't have to forgive everybody.
Lori: No, you don't, and so many people feel this pressure that if you forgive somebody, you will feel lighter. No, not if it's not real, not if you actually don't forgive them. You will feel like, "I am being assaulted, almost, emotionally assaulted, like someone is forcing me to feel a way that I don't feel, and I had so much of that already," is most people's position, "that now it's like I'm being re-traumatized." So, in the case of Rita, where she wants her kids to forgive her for things that are just not really forgivable for them.
Debbie: Yeah, I thought Rita might have been my mother, but then she didn't live in LA, so...
Lori: But you can also see her humanity, and I think that that's really hard, because she's not your mother, right? You might be able to see another side of her that maybe her kids even have a hard time seeing. I was able to see another side of my mother through her, because I found her very likable, even though she had done these things that were very difficult to understand as a parent.
Debbie: You write in the book how everyone is likable, to some degree, in some place. Everyone has something likable about them.
Lori: Well, if you can see who they are, they become very human, and very relatable, and very likable. I genuinely liked Rita. If I had just heard the stories of what she had done with her children, I would not like her at all, but once I got to know her, I very much liked her, and those two things can coexist. The people who are harder to like are the people who, like Becca, who I write about in the book, she's called Becca, I couldn't get to know her, so she was very unlikable. But I'll bet if she had let me in, I would've found lots of things to like about her. It wasn't that I didn't like her, it was that I didn't know if I liked her because I really didn't know who she was. She wouldn't let me see her.
Debbie: The last thing I want to ask you about is the upcoming television show based on your book. I'm so hoping that whatever the show ends up being, that it helps people see that we all go through these things, that we all have these inner narratives, or so many of us, I don't want to say all. There are a few lucky ones out there that don't, but so many of us have these narratives, so many of us experience self-loathing and fear and meaninglessness. Talk about how the television show is coming along, and how you're going to be presenting some of these issues.
Lori: One of the things I love about television, and I loved when I worked in television, is the reach that it has. I'm glad people are reading this book, and there's the reach of that, but I think that-
Debbie: I mean, it's been on the bestseller list now for months.
Lori: For eight weeks, yeah.
Debbie: It's amazing. Congratulations.
Lori: Thank you, thank you. But I think that there's something about watching something visually too, where you see yourself in those characters. One show that I love right now is This Is Us. I don't know if you've seen it.
Lori: And I love the complexity and the messiness of their lives, and I think it's done in such a beautiful way. What we want to do is we want to do a show about a person, and you meet her and her patients and her life and her family, and all of those things, and she just happens to be a therapist. So it's not a show about therapy, even though her workplace is a therapy office, but you see so much more.
Debbie: Will you see the inner workings of the patient/therapist relationship?
Lori: Yes, absolutely.
Debbie: Oh yeah, that's [crosstalk 01:06:32]. I'm so hopeful that this can begin to change the public view of what therapy can do. Talk therapy takes a long time, and we live in an age of what I call 140-character culture, where we expect instant gratification, instant solutions, and I'm really hoping that people can see the beauty and the artistry and the necessity of having therapy in your life.
Lori: You remind me of... There's a chapter in the book where I talk about... A supervisor said that we were moving so fast and not paying attention to what was going on, and she said, "You know, the speed of light is outdated. Now everybody moves at the speed of want."
Lori: And I think the same is true with our emotional lives, that people want a quick fix, they want... Somebody said to me once, he called up for a consultation, and he said, "I need to decide by Valentine's Day..." It was around Christmas time. "I need to decide by Valentine's Day whether I'm going to marry my girlfriend. Can you guarantee that I'll have an answer by then?" I know nothing about this person at that moment. I don't know his history, I don't know their relationship, I don't know anything about him. And I said, "You know, we will work as quickly as possible, but I don't know that you're going to have... I want you to make a good decision, and I don't know how long that's going to take until I meet you and know something about you." And he made an appointment, and then he canceled it before he came in, and said, "Oh, I found a life coach who could guarantee me four sessions."
Lori: And that might sound like an extreme example, but I think so often that people don't realize that time is a gift, that when you take the time to really understand something, often the rewards will be so much greater than if you went with the immediate gratification route.
Debbie: Lori Gottlieb, thank you for writing such an important, such a meaningful, such an honest book about what humans can be in the world.
Lori: Well, thank you for the conversation. I love your podcast.
Debbie: Thank you, Lori. Lori Gottlieb's latest book is titled Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed. It is a magnificent book that made me cry. You can find out more about Lori and her books and her writing on her website, lorigottlieb.com. This is the 15th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.