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Lori Gottlieb on Our Relationship to Happiness

by on April 4, 2019

Perhaps you know Lori Gottlieb from her popular “Ask a Therapist” column in The Atlantic, or her previous bestsellers Marry Him and Stick Figure. In her compassionate and emotionally generous new book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Gottlieb reveals a new side of herself when she pulls back the curtain of a therapist’s world. Part memoir and part case study, the book shifts between Gottlieb’s sessions with five different patients as well as her own work with her therapist, prompted by an unexpected crisis that upended her life. The result is a humane and empathetic exploration of six disparate characters struggling to take control of their lives as they journey back to happiness. People Magazine declared it “an addictive book that’s part Oliver Sacks and part Nora Ephron and Kirkus Reviews labeled it “an irresistibly addictive tour of the human condition.” Gottlieb talked to Brendan Dowling via telephone on March 7th, 2019.

You worked in a variety of fields—television production, journalism—before you became a therapist. What was your calling to be a therapist after working in all these very different industries?

They seem very different. At the time you feel like, “I’m either very versatile or very confused.” (laughs) And probably a little bit of both! But really I feel like I was working in the same area, which is story and the human condition. When I was working in film and television, I was telling stories about the human condition. When I went to medical school, I was seeing real stories of people, but the way the medical model was changing at that time [made it difficult to effect change]. There was this newfangled thing called managed care. Nobody quite knew what that meant, but they said it with a sense of foreboding, for good reason.

I really wanted to be involved in my patient’s lives in a certain way that I felt would be harder to do in the current medical model. [At the same time] I was writing stories and really delving into people’s lives in a deeper way, but I wasn’t changing their stories. Now, as a therapist, I feel like I’m helping people change their stories. What I mean by that is I feel like part of my job as a therapist is to edit people’s stories. I sit there with my editor’s hat on; it’s not unrelated to what I did before. People come in with a very rigid story or a faulty narrative that’s not taking into account of all the other facets of what the greater narrative is. I really help people shed all those old stories that are holding them back.

In the book we get to see the real granular work of therapy, the advances and the regressions patients can make. Can you talk about what you value about the long-term work between a therapist and a patient?

It’s really hard to see ourselves clearly when we’re experiencing difficulty and we don’t know why. Our friends, our family, and the people who love us will tend to agree with our version of what’s going on because they want to be supportive. They’re not hearing another version and maybe they don’t know to listen for another version. Going to a therapist can really help you see the various ways that you might be shooting yourself in the foot in a way that you can take in and reflect on. If someone tells you that in the outside world, you might be like, “I don’t do that!” But I think that with a therapist, the real skill there is how do you hold up the mirror to people and get them to see something about themselves that might be hard to look at so that they can change it?

Without giving anything away, you write about you were originally supposed to write a book based on your article for The Atlantic, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” You ultimately wrote this book instead. What compelled you to write Maybe You Should Talk to Someone?

I think my struggle with the other book was that it happened right as I was getting my bearings as a therapist. I didn’t want to write the kid book, because I felt like I’d said in my article what I wanted to say. I felt like I was just jumping on this bandwagon on what was commercial and popular to write about, but that I wasn’t really going to be contributing [to the discussion]. I was also searching for meaning in my own life—what was my purpose and what would be meaningful, not just for me but for my readers? It just didn’t resonate with me in that way. Then I thought, “Well, I want to write more about adults and what’s happening with our own relationship to happiness. But the more I got into that, the more it felt like I was just scratching the surface. It wasn’t really reflecting what I was seeing in the therapy room. What I ended up writing very much reflects what I wanted to say about our relationship to happiness, but in a very different way than the stupid miserable happiness book, as I called it, would have done. I’m getting at it more indirectly in the book, but in a much more powerful way.

This book gives us a behind the scenes glimpse of a therapist’s world. Why was it important for you to share so much information about the strategies and theories you use as a therapist with your patients in this book?

I wanted to demystify the process. There are so many misconceptions about therapists and what therapy is. I really wanted to make it more accessible for people—even if they don’t go to therapy—to talk about their lives in a much more meaningful way, to realize that we all are essentially very similar.

Even the patients that I chose to write about are all very very different people, but I think that we can all see aspects of ourselves in them, in a part of their story, even if the specifics are different. I really feel that saying, “Here’s what I’m thinking, here’s what I’m doing, here’s why I’m doing this,” makes it less scary for people.

Even though the entire book takes place in the therapy milieu, I don’t really consider it a book about therapy, so much as a book about what it’s like to be a person in the modern world and have these universal experiences of how do we deal with love and regret and things beyond our control. That’s really the book I wanted to write. It does take place in the therapy world, but for people who have no interest in therapy, I still think it will touch them in some way.

The book bounces back and forth between your sessions with your new therapist and the work you do with several patients. What made you choose these specific people who we get to know about and care so deeply about in the book?

I wanted to pick people who were really different from one another. We have someone who’s in her twenties, we have someone who’s turning seventy. We have women, we have men. We have single people, married people, divorced people. I wanted people with very different experiences, very different histories, very different current characterological presentations—meaning that their personalities are all very, very different. I wanted to show that range. You will relate to any of them, even if you relate to one more than another. And then me—I’m one of the quote unquote patients that’s written about in the book. By looking at all of our experiences, that was my way of holding up the mirror to the reader and saying, “Do you see yourself reflected in any of these people?”

Your relationship with your therapist is such an integral one to the book. What was it like to write so openly about the issues that motivated you to go to therapy?

I wanted to show that I’m not the expert up on high, as much as a person. There’s this trope in the culture, which I really wanted to avoid, of the very silent therapist who’s very competent at their job but is a hot mess outside. In the book, I’m going through something. I’m having a normal reaction to going through a crisis, but I’m not a hot mess in the sense that I’m a person who doesn’t have their life together.

I really felt it was important to say we as therapists use our training and have an extensive toolkit. We know what we’re doing professionally—or at least a good therapist does. But I say in the beginning of the book that my most significant credential is that I’m a card-carrying member of the human race, meaning the thing that what I use most to help other people is that I know what it’s like to struggle. I don’t have to know what it’s like to struggle the way my patient has struggled. I don’t have to have had the same exact experience, but I do have to know what it’s like to be human. I wanted people to see yes, we as therapists are effective in the room, but part of the reason we’re so effective is because we live our lives like everybody else.

The Viktor Frankl 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,” plays an important role in the book.” Why has that idea been so meaningful to you? 

I think that a lot of us feel trapped in our circumstances. One of the real benefits that I took away from my therapy was this idea of choice and agency. There are certain circumstances that we don’t have control over, but we have a lot of control over in how we respond to them. How we respond can make all the difference. It becomes circular, because sometimes how we respond can change our external circumstance too, even the ones we feel like we didn’t have a lot of control over. We may have some control we didn’t realize we had. One of the main tasks of therapy is to help people take responsibility for their lives. Part of taking responsibility is to say, “How do you choose to respond to your circumstances?”

And finally, what role did the library play in your life?

First of all, it was like my second home. That was my happy place. For a bookish kid, what could be better than to walk into a place where you were surrounded by free books? You could take any one off the shelf and take it home!

I loved everything about the library—how it smelled with the books and the quiet. There was a special feeling you got walking in because it felt like a home of like-minded people. There was a respect for the written word and for how books can change your life. You would walk in and the hush of the library would calm you down from the noise of the outside world. Your heart rate went down; you were breathing more slowly. The librarians were always people who were as passionate about books as you were. You felt known there. Libraries were everything to me growing up.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.