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.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Even psychotherapists sometimes need therapists themselves. My guest Lori Gottlieb is a therapist who realized she needed to talk to a therapist when the man she expected to marry unexpectedly broke up with her. She was in her 40s, the single mother of an 8-year-old son. Her boyfriend had two children who would soon be going to college.
The breakup left her having trouble sleeping or concentrating. She thought she needed just a few sessions to get her through the crisis, but she stayed in therapy much longer and learned more about herself than she counted on. Gottlieb's new book is called "Maybe You Should Talk To Someone." It reflects on the process of therapy from her point of view as therapist and patient. She writes the "Dear Therapist" column in The Atlantic.
Lori Gottlieb, welcome to FRESH AIR. So the book starts with you talking with a patient who's complaining about how everyone he deals with is an idiot. You're stifling yawns. You're taking deep breaths. You're reminding yourself to have compassion and being kind of, like, bored. I always wondered if therapists get bored. And on the other hand, I wouldn't want people to worry about boring their therapists 'cause patients aren't there to be entertaining and colorful. So how do you deal with it when you're bored by a patient?
LORI GOTTLIEB: You know, 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 tangents after tangent after tangent. They - when you try to redirect them, they, you know, 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.
GROSS: So much of your new book is about going into therapy yourself, and the precipitating crisis was a boyfriend breaking up with you when you were planning to get married to him. You were a single mother with an 8-year-old son at the time. He had two children who would soon be going to college. Why did he tell you he was breaking up with you?
GOTTLIEB: He said he was breaking up because his kids were about to go to college, and he had been really struggling with the idea of having, as he put it, another kid under his roof for 10 years. And he was grappling with that without telling me that that was a struggle that he was having. And he really wanted the freedom that he was about to taste with being an empty nester. And if he were to be with me, that would be delayed for another decade.
GROSS: And your reaction was not good.
GOTTLIEB: (Laughter) No, my reaction was shock. And, of course, my reaction - as was the reaction of everybody that I told at the time - was, this guy's a jerk. You know, you dodged a bullet. But once I go to therapy, I start to see - or I'm forced to see the situation and my role in it, too. And I think that's the beauty of therapy - is that, you know, your friends are going to kind of take your side and support you, and they're going to see it through the lens of wanting you to feel better. And your therapist is going to see it through the lens of holding up a mirror to you and saying, I want you to see this situation from another angle.
GROSS: So you had a hard time finding a therapist. What are some of the problems when you are a therapist and you're looking for a therapist?
GOTTLIEB: The thing about therapy is that it's a very unique relationship, and it has to be clean. It can't be somebody that you know in the outside world, even tangentially. So I was in a suite of therapists that I work with. I go to a weekly consultation group where I'm with other therapists where we discuss our cases. You know, many of my friends are therapists. And you can't see any of those people. So some of the best therapists that I knew were people that I couldn't go to.
GROSS: But you found someone.
GOTTLIEB: I found someone. I was, you know, quote, unquote, "asking for a friend" because I was - interestingly, as much as I want to take the stigma off of our emotional struggles, I think that as a therapist, I was worried that people would hesitate to refer to me if they knew that I was going through this crisis and needed to see somebody right away.
GROSS: So you go see this therapist. And you start to tell him about the breakup, and you start sobbing. And I was wondering as I was reading that, did you apologize for crying - 'cause I think so many of us women - it's just, like, instinct. If you cry, you apologize for it.
GOTTLIEB: Oh, absolutely, you know, especially, I think, as a therapist in therapy. And 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. You know, they're these silent losses.
And I think that - I talk in the book about this hierarchy of pain, that I don't think there's a hierarchy of pain, that pain is pain. So even when I was seeing this woman who was dying of cancer, for example, and was, you know, 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. You know, what does it mean to be rejected or unloved by your partner? What does it mean when someone betrays your trust? So I think that often, we minimize our problems. We think, well, yeah, I've been sad for two months, but it doesn't really matter because - or 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.
GROSS: So you start crying in your new therapist's office, and you apologize for crying. How did he respond to your apology?
GOTTLIEB: I think he made it very clear that there was nothing to apologize for, and I think that there's something so liberating about that. I don't think I believed it right away. I think I still felt some shame around, you know, having such a big reaction to a breakup in my 40s. You know, I kept, again, minimizing my pain. And I think that he made it clear that - you're here to talk about what's going on. We're not here to rank your pain. We're not here to judge whether it's worthy of being discussed. It just is.
GROSS: So your idea is you'd see a therapist for a few sessions just to go - to get over the crisis of this breakup. Your therapist was skeptical. He thought...
GROSS: ...There's probably, like, issues underneath this breakup that you're not recognizing yet. So let's try to get to those. Is that typically the case - that people, for instance, will come see you, and the reason why they're there isn't, like, the real, real reason that they're suffering?
GOTTLIEB: Yeah. I think often, the reason that they 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.
GROSS: So part of what a therapist does is help you change the narrative or see a different version of the story. And your therapist did that with you. Your idea was like, he knew I had a son. And suddenly, suddenly, now he's saying, well, I don't want to be in that kind of father situation for another 10 years, so, like, I'm done with the relationship. But your therapist suggests - you know, at the beginning of the book, you describe how, in some ways, he was just, like, the perfect boyfriend. Like, he was generous. He was funny. He did things for you. And then you start to see - your therapist actually starts to suggest that maybe that was a bit of a cover. You know, all the banter and the romance talk was a bit of a cover for the things you weren't talking about and the things you didn't know each other - know about each other or the ways you weren't relating. Did you come to agree with that perception?
GOTTLIEB: I did. In the beginning, I was really upset by his suggestion that I might be somehow responsible or, you know, have a role in what happened between us because 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. You know, 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 defended. And I think what he was talking about was my avoidance.
You know, I kept saying, well, you know, my boyfriend must have been so avoidant to never bring this up in the two years that we were together. But what Wendell was pointing out was that I was avoiding things, too.
GROSS: You know, you mentioned wise compassion. I feel like that's something people shouldn't try at home, (laughter), in the sense that...
GROSS: ...Often the things that somebody might intend as wise compassion just come out as, like, horrible criticism that really hurts. You know? And like you say, like, therapists have a very skillful way of doing it. Most of us don't have a skillful way of delivering wise compassion.
GOTTLIEB: And the other advantage that we have as therapists is that we don't have the same agenda that somebody in their lives might have. So usually when somebody says to another person, hey, here's something that you're doing, partly, they want to help the other person, but partly they're doing it because whatever that person is doing is making their life very hard. So if you want to change your partner, partly there's a self-interest in that. A therapist doesn't have a self-interest in trying to get their patient to change.
GROSS: I have to say, I probably wouldn't want to be your boyfriend reading this book. It's not like you're that critical of him or anything, but I always feel like, well, he's got his own story to tell. He's got his own version of the story. Maybe he's told it to his therapist. (Laughter). So what's it like for you to write a story that is, in part, about, you know, somebody who you had been very intimate with and you are no longer, and who knows who you are and will probably either hear about this book or read it himself?
GOTTLIEB: Well, I think the trajectory of that story really helps people to have compassion for both of us. And I'm definitely - you know, when I portray him at the beginning, I talk about how wonderful he was as a boyfriend because he was.
And I think what happens is the more I become aware of my role in not addressing this big issue between us about lifestyle and what we wanted, the more sympathetic he becomes to the reader. And the more sympathetic he became to me. And so even I say in the book, later on, I say that, you know, my friends still want to, you know, portray him as kind of a jerk, and I'm defending him. You know (laughter)?
I'm, like, I had a role in this, too, and here's my role in this. And I'm actually doing the opposite. I'm convincing people that he's a really good guy, that he was just confused the way I was confused, and we both, you know, wanted to be together for a lot of reasons but also somehow knew we couldn't because of these lifestyle issues and maybe even other issues. And we just never talked about them, and we're equally responsible for that.
GROSS: OK. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lori Gottlieb, and she's the author of the new memoir "Maybe You Should Talk To Someone" that's both about her life as a therapist and her work in therapy after her boyfriend broke up with her. She also writes the Dear Therapist column for The Atlantic. We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Lori Gottlieb. She's the author of the new book, "Maybe You Should Talk To Someone," and it's about being a therapist and how she works with people who are in therapy with her. But it's also about going into therapy when her boyfriend of two years broke up with her when she was in her 40s and had a son who was 8, and it was quite a shock to her when the breakup happened. That's why she went into therapy. She also writes the Dear Therapist column for The Atlantic.
So you asked your therapist a question I was really surprised that you asked. You asked him, do you like me? Now, you're a therapist. I mean, you must have known that's not, like, the question you're supposed to ask your therapist 'cause you're not a patient to be liked. That's not why you're there. And he's not there or she's not there - whoever the therapist is isn't there to express their appreciation of you. So what led you to ask your therapist, do you like me?
GOTTLIEB: I think that being a patient, you do all the things with your therapist that I did, that my patients do with me. So I think people want to be liked by their therapists. I think people are curious about that. You know, when I would leave and I would see somebody else in the waiting room, I'd think, you know (laughter), 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 sit all the time with people, and I know what it's like to feel affection for them, to actually like them. But I think that by like, 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. And 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.
And I think what they discover in therapy is that the truth of who they are is what draws people to them. And I think that's what happens even with John - that person we were talking about at the beginning, who's very abrasive, that patient who is very hard to connect with - that when he tells me the truth of who he is, that's when I truly start to like him. And what he didn't realize was everything he was hiding from me were all of the things that drew me to him that made me like him. And if he had continued to hide them, I probably never would've liked him very much.
And so I think, you know, when people show you who they are, they're saying, I see you and you see me, and can you understand me? And I think we can all find pieces of ourselves in the truth of who another person is. So all of that shame that we feel is really, you know, not doing us any favors in terms of what we really want, which is we want to be understood, accepted, liked, loved.
GROSS: So when you ask your therapist, do you like me, how did he respond?
GOTTLIEB: You know, he didn't - what I liked about him was he didn't stand on professional ceremony. You know, in our internships where we're trained on, how do we respond to certain things like that? And I think that patients feel that that's fraudulent. You know, because you are two human beings together in a room. And so we have boundaries, and we're very intentional about what we say.
But I think we're also real and human. And if we want to be a good therapist to that person, we are going to be a real person when people ask us questions like that. And so he said - yes, I like you. And he could've - if he didn't like me - done a lot of different things with that. But instead, what he said to me was it's not - I don't like you for the reasons that I think you want me to like you.
It's not that I like you because you're smart or funny or entertaining, because that's not what I'm interested in here. He said, I like your neshamah - which is the word that means your soul or your essence - said, I like who you are. And I think that's what we all want to be liked for.
GROSS: What do you tell patients who ask you - do you like me?
GOTTLIEB: It depends on how I actually feel about them. So if John had asked me in the beginning if I liked him, I might be - I might tell him the truth of my experience with him. Because it would help him to know that, that he was - his whole thing was he kept people out. He pushed people away, and he was brilliant at doing that because it kept him safe. He couldn't get close to people, he was terrified of that.
You know, a lot of people who experience trauma - or who have some kind of traumatic history - they expect disaster around the corner, that any kind of connection or joy is very, very threatening to them. And it was for him too, but I didn't know what his trauma was because he was keeping me out.
So I might have told him about my experience with him, that it would be hard to know if I liked him because I couldn't really get to know him. That might be what I might've told him.
GROSS: In real life, like, outside of the therapy room, it's sometimes really hard to end a conversation without seeming rude. So how do you end a session when you know the time is up but maybe you're still in the middle of a very, like, emotional moment with your patient?
GOTTLIEB: 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 session 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.
GROSS: So you kind of deaccelerate toward the end of the session?
GOTTLIEB: Yeah. 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.
GROSS: My guest is Lori Gottlieb. Her new memoir is about being a therapist and being in therapy. It's called "Maybe You Should Talk To Someone." After a break, we'll talk more about being a therapist in therapy. And we'll talk about her article "How To Land Your Kid In Therapy," which went viral a few years ago. Also John Powers will review the new PBS Masterpiece series "Mrs. Wilson." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU's "JOHN BOY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist who went into therapy five years ago when she was 47 after her boyfriend, who she expected to marry, broke up with her. Her new book "Maybe You Should Talk To Someone" reflects on her experiences as a psychotherapist and as a patient in therapy. She writes the "Dear Therapist" column for The Atlantic.
So when you went to therapy sessions, did you make mental notes beforehand of, like, the talking points you wanted to bring up? Did you try to go into the session with some kind of agenda that you thought reflected what your emotional needs at that moment were?
GOTTLIEB: That's so funny that you ask that because I think that so many people come in, and they're driving over to therapy, and they've kind of decided what their opener is.
GOTTLIEB: And, you know, because they feel like - well, you know, here's what I want to accomplish in this session. We're going to talk about X today. And usually we don't end up talking about X in the way that they had expected.
So usually, when people come into me, I'll have them - before they start talking, we'll just sit together for a minute and kind of transition from the outside world into this quiet space where we don't have any distractions. And we'll see where their mind goes.
And often, they really, really want to say the thing that they had imagined saying in the car on the way over. And maybe they'll say that, but then we'll probably go somewhere else.
GROSS: So you didn't come on with talking points?
GOTTLIEB: In the beginning, I very much did. And my talking point was - look what a jerk my boyfriend is (laughter).
GOTTLIEB: You know, and please agree with me so that I'll feel better when I leave. And I think that the other thing is, people expect to feel better when they leave - and sometimes you do, but sometimes you don't. And I think that we really need to learn how to tolerate pain better.
You know, we have a very limited capacity to tolerate pain. And we try so hard to avoid it, but confronting our pain makes it so much easier to bear. So sometimes you're going to talk about painful things, but only because it's going to make things easier for you.
GROSS: You know, I see a therapist, and I love the experience of it. I found it, like - I find it so incredibly helpful. And after I've finished talking in a session about all the things that are really, like, weighing on me and troubling me and confusing me and upsetting me and I've put it on the table and shared it with her, I feel like I leave some of it on the table.
I feel like I walk out with much less of it than I had before - like, less of the fear or trouble or anxiety about it, that somehow bringing it out in the open with somebody who isn't going to, like, judge me about it and who's just going to, like, listen with an open mind and help me understand what's going on. It's a relief.
GOTTLIEB: It is a relief, and I think people change when they feel understood and accepted for who they are. And that's when people will bring those things up in therapy.
GROSS: So one of the things you did that you came to regret doing was you Googled your therapist.
GROSS: Why did you do it, and why did you come to regret it?
GOTTLIEB: So sometimes we can misinterpret what our therapists are saying, and he was saying that I was really distracting myself by Googling my boyfriend and making up stories in my mind about, you know, his wonderful life post-me. So I tried not to do that, and instead, I just, you know, typed in my therapist's name. And I didn't expect that I would go down the Internet rabbit hole, but I did.
I think it's a distraction. I think - one of my colleagues had said that the Internet is the most effective short-term non-prescription painkiller out there. And I think that's what I was doing - is I didn't know how to deal with my anxiety.
And I just kept, you know, looking and looking, and I did it for, you know, probably a couple of hours (laughter). 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.
And 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 was not helpful to the work we were doing.
GROSS: Would you advise our listeners not to Google their therapist (laughter)?
GOTTLIEB: I would say Googling anyone is sort of dangerous because there's the story that they put out there, and there's the story that you get when you - when you're face-to-face with somebody else.
But yes, I think Googling your therapist is - you know, 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.
GROSS: Now, I want to ask you about another thing that you wrote. This was an article for The Atlantic from 2011. It's called "How To Land Your Kid In Therapy: Why The Obsession With Our Kids' Happiness May Be Dooming Them To Unhappy Adulthoods." So just explain the premise of the article - about, you know, seeing patients who were in their 20s and 30s and the kind of anxiety that they were dealing with.
GOTTLIEB: A lot of the people that I was seeing as I was starting out were people in their, you know, post-college years. And they seemed to have this sort of emptiness or confusion or anxiety or depression. And they couldn't understand why because their lives had gone very smoothly as far as they could tell, and they felt very protected as they were growing up.
But the problem was that they were too protected. They didn't get to experience things like disappointment or failure or setbacks because they were smoothed over by their parents. And now they were adults, and they were experiencing real life. And it was a jolt for them, and they didn't really feel equipped to deal with it.
GROSS: You know, you compare seeing people in their 40s and older who were complaining about how - complaining about their parents - you know, about how their father didn't pay enough attention or that their mother was too possessive or whatever and the kind of distance and conflict that they felt with their parents.
But a lot of your patients in their 20s and 30s - they were describing their parents as, like, their best friends. They would tell you how much they adored their parents. And you were trying to figure out this generational difference in how they saw their parents and how that was connecting to the different kinds of unhappiness, generationally. So can you expand on that a little bit?
GOTTLIEB: Yeah. I think for the people in their 20s and 30s, their parents really wanted to be liked, and they didn't want the normal things that kids feel. Kids get angry at their parents. Kids are disappointed with their parents. Kids hate their parents momentarily or for a day or longer. And I think that the parents really couldn't tolerate that.
And so I think that the kids grew up where, you know, parents wanted to make sure that things were smoothed over for them. And it wasn't helping the kids to develop the kinds of skill with their own feelings so that when they did feel these things later on, they would know how to cope with them.
GROSS: And did you have patients who were those parents - the kinds of parents you're describing who wanted to be liked, to be best friends with their children?
GOTTLIEB: Oh, absolutely. And I think what they were coming to me for was that their kids no longer felt that way about them. So, you know, their kids were now adults. And their kids were saying, hey, I'm really lost, or, I'm confused, or, I wish you hadn't done this. I wish you had let me try this. And the parents are really confused because they think, well, I tried to give you a happy childhood. And instead what they gave them was a very kind of confused adulthood.
GROSS: So what can you offer a parent who comes to - and you're saying to them, you know, you gave your child a confusing adulthood that's leading to the anxiety they're feeling now. Like, how is that helpful after the fact to tell the parent?
GOTTLIEB: I wouldn't talk to them about it that way, necessarily. I would talk about the relationship in the present. What can you do now? How can you guys have a relationship now?
GROSS: So the things we were just talking about - about, like, parenting so that your child likes you and sees you as best friend and things that can go wrong with that - how has your understanding of that affected you as a parent?
GOTTLIEB: I think it really has made me more aware of the difference between being a therapist who knows this information and being a parent who sometimes has trouble putting it into action. But I'm very aware of it. And I think sometimes people think that, in some ways, I'm a negligent parent because I allow my son certain freedoms that I think a lot of parents today don't. You know, I'm here doing this interview, and he's by himself right now.
And I think a lot of parents would say - you're letting a 13-year-old, you know, stay home by himself? - whereas when I was 13, I was babysitting four people. So I think that there - you know, I definitely try to practice what I preach.
GROSS: Are there any other ways that you incorporated into your own parenting what you learned about over-parenting?
GOTTLIEB: Yeah. I think when my boyfriend broke up with me, it wasn't just me who was grieving. It was my son who was grieving, too. And I think that the instinct, as a parent, is to try to protect them from that pain - is to say, hey, let's go to Disneyland. And I think instead, that I let him sit in his sadness. And I sat with him in his sadness.
And I let him work out grief the way kids do, which looks often different from the way adults do. And I think that that helped him through it much more than my trying to make it better for him or make him - you know, distract him from his sadness and his pain.
GROSS: So what was his way of working through his grief?
GOTTLIEB: He wanted to give away the game that he used to play with my boyfriend to Goodwill. He sometimes wanted hugs. Sometimes he wanted to - he was angry and he would talk about the anger by saying, you know, if - you know, by bringing up these non sequiturs, like, if you pull a banana from a tree, are you hurting the tree?
But really, he was talking about himself. And so you had to kind of listen for the metaphor. And I just let him work through his feelings the way he did without saying, like, yes, we broke up; but hey, we're still going to go and have pizza night.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
If you're just joining us, my guest is Lori Gottlieb. Her new book, "Maybe You Should Talk To Someone," is about her work as a psychotherapist. It's also about the period of time when she saw a psychotherapist after her boyfriend of two years broke up with her when she was in her 40s. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Lori Gottlieb. She's the author of the new book "Maybe You Should Talk To Someone." It's about her work as a psychotherapist. It's also about seeing a therapist when she needed help after her boyfriend broke up with her. And at the time, she was in her 40s, a single mother of a son who was 8 years old. And I should also mention that Lori Gottlieb writes the "Dear Therapist" column for The Atlantic.
So you wrote a book - an article a few years ago with a very controversial title - "Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr. Good Enough." You got a lot of pushback on that, I think, mostly from women who thought that you were basically telling them to settle for somebody who they didn't feel passionate about, who they didn't fully love, just so that they could settle down and have somebody responsible to raise a family with.
You write that you had to keep the - that you didn't like the title. You've said this - I think it was in an interview you said this, that you didn't like the title but the publisher made you - (laughter) made you use it. So do you feel like the title misrepresented what you were trying to say in the book?
GOTTLIEB: Oh, absolutely. I lost that battle with the publisher. And we pushed really hard to get that title changed because it doesn't reflect what the book is. The book is actually - it's not my opinion. It's a researched book. I did it - I wrote it as a journalist. And my story's in there. But it's very much about the research for what makes for happy, lasting marriages, which includes love and passion and really wanting to be with the person.
I think the book is really, ironically, about having higher standards about the things that matter, like the character qualities, generosity, kindness, reliability, and not getting so hung up on things like, you know, whether you're going to go on a second date with a guy because of how he dressed.
And these things sound really trivial. And a lot of people think, well, that's not me; I would never do that. But the fact is, so many people do because we have so many perceived choices. And what happens is people don't get to know people. They don't get to spend a little bit of time with someone to see whether they might actually connect with that person.
GROSS: So one of the things you write is, you know - (reading) marriage ultimately isn't about cosmic connection. It's about having a teammate. Even if he's not the love of your life, it's better than not having one at all.
But I think a lot of people might disagree with that because they get divorces.
GOTTLIEB: Right, so...
GROSS: A lot of people think that having no partner at all is better than this relationship that I'm in.
GOTTLIEB: Right. So I think you're reading from the article. Is that right?
GROSS: Yes, I'm reading from the article. Yes.
GOTTLIEB: OK. OK. Very different from the book.
GROSS: Is it? OK.
GOTTLIEB: Yes. So the article was supposed to have a lot of humor in it for effect because I wanted to make a point. But those statements were not meant to be taken literally. That was hyperbole to get people to think about this question of, you know, what does settling really mean?
The article is not representative at all of the book because, in the book, I'm not being funny. I'm actually being quite serious. And I don't say anything like that in the book because, clearly, the article was misperceived and I failed, you know, on a grand scale, in terms of the tone and what I was trying to get across in the article.
GROSS: So what was the lesson you learned from the article?
GOTTLIEB: What I learned from the article was that I'm not a humor writer (laughter)...
GOTTLIEB: ...At all. Don't attempt that again.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
GOTTLIEB: I'm not a good satirist.
GROSS: So is the advice you gave in the article and the research that you reported on in the book advice that you've followed in relationships that you've pursued?
GOTTLIEB: In the book. I mean, again, the article is, I think, just very misconstrued. In the book, I talk about really, you know, what are the qualities that make for a good partner, and how do you find them? And what are the patterns people get into, where they keep going after the same kind of person that is always going to end in disappointment, that is always going to end in heartbreak? And those are the things that I wanted people to see.
And it's similar to - in "Maybe You Should Talk To Someone," where I want people to see their patterns. And I talk a lot about attachment and the - you know, the relational difficulties that people have in "Marry Him." So I think that, in some ways, the two books are related, but definitely not the article.
GROSS: You write the stories of several patients in your book, kind of case studies. One of those patients books are related, but definitely not the article.
GROSS: You write the stories of several patients in your book - kind of case studies. One of those patients has died of cancer, and you were - she was your patient during that final stage of her life. But what do you do when you want to write about a patient? Do you ask for permission? How do you promise to maintain their confidentiality? What is that agreement like?
GOTTLIEB: I'm in the unique situation where I was a writer before I became a therapist. And I knew that I often write - I had written about psychology and culture for many years, and I knew that I would continue to write. And so in my informed consent before people come in, I make it very clear that I can write about anything that happens as long as I protect their confidentiality. And there have been people who have decided that they did not want to come in, and I completely understand that.
But most people kind of, like - you know, when a microphone goes away when you're doing an interview - you know, they're OK with that because they've read things that I've written. And they know that I handle the confidentiality well, and I take it very seriously.
GROSS: What do you do to disguise a person when you're writing about them?
GOTTLIEB: It's interesting how much you have to disguise because any little detail nowadays with the Internet could reveal something about someone else. So you have to disguise a lot of those surface ways of describing people. But most things are so generic, and I think that the feelings underneath them are what I'm really getting at.
And so, you know, the things that they've told me in the therapy room, they probably haven't told a lot of other people, like a dream they had or a situation or something that happened between us that only happened between us. They're probably not talking to other people about that, and it's certainly not available widely, you know, through a Google search.
GROSS: What happens when you're out in the world at a store or a restaurant, walking on the street, in a movie theater and you run into one of your patients? How awkward is that, and how do you handle it?
GOTTLIEB: I think it's awkward for both people. It's awkward for me because I'm exposed, in a way. Nobody sees my life outside. And I might be with my child - and what might that bring up for them? - or I might be with a significant other or, you know - it's kind of like when you're a kid and you see your first-grade teacher in Best Buy. And she's got a family and a life. And you're sort of like, wait. You don't sleep in the classroom? You know, you start to see another side of that person.
And I think for the patient - you know, I don't say hi to them first because they might be with someone that they don't want to introduce me to or have to explain, oh, that's my therapist.
GOTTLIEB: But I will - if they say hi to me, I will say hi back, and I'll just go on my way. I won't get into a conversation with them.
GROSS: Well, Lori Gottlieb, thank you so much for talking with us.
GOTTLIEB: Oh, thank you so much, Terry. It was a pleasure.
GROSS: Lori Gottlieb's new book is called "Maybe You Should Talk To Someone." This is FRESH AIR.
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