Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019)
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
When Lori Gottlieb’s book, You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, came out, I kept it at arm’s length. As a psychologist in practice for 40 years, I what I thought would be the show-offy tell-all of another therapist.
Why would Gottlieb choose to write her story if not to appear in a good light? Wouldn’t she be self-aggrandizing? Wouldn’t the book reek of fake pseudo-modesty to keep the reader from judging her too harshly? Might her attempts at endearing us be, in fact, manipulations designed to keep us from taking a more penetrating look?
Once I pressed the pause button on my unkind criticisms, I noticed, with horror, how hostile my questions had been. How mean-spirited and intolerant! “Therapist, heal yourself,” said me to me. “Sit back, explore yourself, and set aside those creaky defenses.”
When I did open Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, I found a quote from the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung, a preface to the book: “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls. He/she who looks inside awakens.” Jung, renowned for his theories about the collective unconscious, seems to have visited my psyche to coax me from avoidance to awakening. Thanks, Carl!
Newly disarmed, here’s what I found: Gottlieb courageously reveals her vulnerabilities as a therapist, single mother, patient, and romantic partner by exposing her raw feelings and unvarnished opinions. With candor, she shares her internal sarcastic commentary toward her difficult patient, John – something most therapists would be reluctant to disclose to the public.
Gottlieb weaves in her personal therapy journey, catalyzed by a sudden breakup with her fiancé, with tales of her patients. People can edit their otherwise stuck life stories, believes Gottlieb, and come to embrace themselves. Critical judgments and intolerance, directed either inward or outward, can fall aside in the course of treatment.
“When people come to therapy, I’m listening to their narratives but also for their flexibility with them. Do they consider what they’re saying to be the only version of the story – the ‘accurate’ version – or do they know that there are many ways to tell it? Are they aware of what they leave in or out or how they amend their story for the therapist’s ears?” (22)
Gottlieb’s therapist, Wendell (not his real name), guides her from her stuck-victim stance, as a recently jettisoned girlfriend, toward a far more nuanced and insightful renovation of self. At the same time, John, her most challenging patient, travels down his therapy pathway, evolving from stuck to unstuck, with help from Gottlieb.
John’s favorite indictment of almost every person he encounters is “Idiot.” Gottlieb starts her first chapter with the litany of nasty charges spewed by John: “He’s an idiot. She’s an idiot. My last therapist was an idiot.” Speaking parenthetically, Gottlieb shares her inside thoughts: “Today John just seems like an asshole.” (6) Despite that, she tries to conjure up compassion for him, recalling that her training supervisor had said, “There’s something likable in everyone.” (5)
From shackled selves with brittle protective shells, Gottlieb and her patients crack through feelings of victimhood and despair to forge insights and self-awareness that allow in light, love, and a broad spectrum of fully experienced emotions. Along the way, Gottlieb provides a treasure trove of psychotherapy tidbits like an array of velvet-soft, multi-hued rose petals, strewn throughout the book:
- Therapeutic Relationship: Study after study shows that the most crucial factor in the treatment’s success is the relationship. The experience of feeling felt matters more than therapists’ training, the kind of therapy they do, or what type of problem patients have. (36)
- Working in the here and now: Instead of focusing on a patient’s stories from the outside world, the here-and-now is about what’s occurring in the room. You can bet that whatever a patient does with his therapist, he also does with others. (50)
- Idiot Compassion: I didn’t want to fall into the trap that Buddhists call idiot compassion. In idiot compassion, you avoid rocking the boat to spare people’s feelings, even though the boats need rocking and your compassion ends up being more harmful than your honesty. (51)
- Telling the Truth: Whenever I’m not sure what to say in the therapy room – which happens to therapists more often than patients realize – I have a choice: I can say nothing until I understand the moment better, or I can attempt an answer, but whatever I do, I must tell the truth. Loss of trust is harder to repair.” (29)
- Numbness versus Nothingness: People often mistake numbness for nothingness, but numbness isn’t the absence of feelings; it’s a response to being overwhelmed by too many feelings. (56)
- What therapists do: Therapists listen, suggest, nudge, guide, and occasionally cajole patients into shifting their experience of what’s happening inside and around them. Before long, a common theme emerges, one that might not have been in their field of vision when they first came in. (58)
Gottlieb’s journey from the hurt, wronged victim of her boyfriend to a “more free, more relaxed, and more alive self” alternates with John’s story and the evolutionary tales of other patients. Their growth is concurrent; in this way, Gottlieb presents the fallibility and the strength of all people. She does not put herself on a pedestal. And she is rewarded. At the end of his therapy, John pays Gottlieb a tribute that made her heart sing: “I don’t want your head to get too big or anything, but I think that you have a more complete picture of my total humanity than anyone else in my life.” (401)
Thanks, Lori Gottlieb! You make my heart sing, too.
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