Interview: Lori Gottlieb.
Lori Gottlieb is a bestselling writer and a practicing psychotherapist. I can't remember how I became aware of her work. Did I meet her at an event? Did I read a magazine story she wrote? Do we have a mutual friend? It's lost in the sands of time, but for some reason, for several years, I've paid particular attention to the career of Lori Gottlieb. I know I read her books Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough and Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self.
Now she has a new book, an instant New York Times bestseller: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed.
She also has a weekly “Dear Therapist” advice column in The Atlantic.
I was eager to hear what she had to say about happiness and good habits.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Lori: Breathing! This might sound strange, but as a therapist, I notice that sometimes people forget to breathe—I mean really replenishing themselves with air. We tend to take shallow, short breaths as we rush through our days, but a simple way to make you happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative is to close your eyes and take a one-minute breathing break (slow, deep breaths) every so often throughout the day. It resets you both physiologically and emotionally. This one easy practice really works wonders!
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I’ve discovered that happiness—a lasting sense of peace or contentment—is simply a byproduct of living your life in a fulfilling way. This will mean something different for each person, and that’s important to remember when comparing your own happiness to what you imagine other people’s happiness looks like. (You’re often wrong.) If you live your life with intention—What am I doing and why am I doing it? Am I really trapped doing what I don’t like or are there other options? Am I wasting time today on people or activities that don’t matter?—the happiness follows.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I started to notice that many of my therapy patients were so unkind to themselves. There were these critical voices in their heads that they weren’t even aware of. I had one therapy patient write down everything she said to herself in the course of a few days, and when she came back the next week, she was almost embarrassed to read it to me. “I’m such a bully to myself!” she said. “If I talked this way to any of my friends, I wouldn’t have friends anymore!”
The more I saw this in my patients, the more I made a concerted effort to be kind to myself. Being kind and having self-compassion doesn’t mean that you don’t take responsibility for your mistakes or what you’d like to do differently. But you don’t have to self-flagellate while you take responsibility. In fact, the kinder you are to yourself, the easier it will be to make the necessary changes.
Also, having self-compassion breeds compassion for others, so being kinder to yourself also tends to improve the other relationships in your life. Hands down, the single most important habit I’ve changed is going from being self-critical to being kind to myself while still holding myself accountable.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
According to the quiz, I’m a Rebel. Not surprising, given that I went from being a film and TV executive to medical student to journalist to therapist! It was a very circuitous route, and people often thought I was crazy to leave what I was doing for something else. But I did what I wanted to do—it was my life to live, after all, not theirs—and in the end, it makes so much sense. Everything I’ve done and continue to do are related to my greatest interests and passions: story and the human condition.
I went from telling fictional stories (in film and TV) to real people’s stories (in medical school), and then from telling people’s stories (as a journalist) to helping people change their stories (as a therapist).
If I hadn’t had some “Rebel” in me, I wouldn’t have taken those risks.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
In the book, I write about my experience treating a young newlywed who’s diagnosed with breast cancer. Her doctors think she’ll be fine—it’s a very treatable form of cancer—and after surgery and chemotherapy, she is. But then, six months later, on a routine scan they discover a rare, aggressive form of cancer, and they tell her she has only a few years to live.
“Will you stay with me until I die?” she asks. It was such a profound experience, looking death in the eye with her in way we normally don’t, and it made me consider my own mortality in a new way, a healthier way. We can deny death completely, even though we’re all going to die one day—and most of us have no idea how or when—or we can have some awareness of it so that we can pay more attention to the time we do have.
There were many lightning bolts moments with her, but one stands out. In a session, she said that because of her illness, she noticed how much other people put things off for the future—I’m going to apply for that job I really want next year; I’ll try dating again after I’m done with this project in the summer; I’ll apologize to my sibling or repair that relationship when I’m not so busy—but what, she wondered, is everyone waiting for? I remember sitting in that session and thinking, “What am I waiting for?” It changed how I approached my daily life—I stopped putting the important things off for “later.”
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
“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.” - Viktor Frankl
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
I think a common misperception of therapy is that you go in, talk about your childhood ad nauseam, and never leave (or leave years and years later). In my book, I wanted to bring people directly into the therapy room to show them what therapy really is. Therapists will hold up a mirror to you so that you can see your reflection more clearly. We all have blind spots, ways of shooting ourselves in the foot over and over and ending up in the same place because of something we’re doing that we aren’t aware of.
Therapy is about helping people relate to themselves and others more smoothly so that they don’t have to struggle so much. We all struggle, of course, but we can change our role in it, and our response to it. That what therapy teaches you how to do. And then you leave—our goal is to encourage your independence, to get you not to need us anymore, to be able to manage life’s universal challenges more easily with the insight and tools you gained in therapy. As the late psychotherapist John Weakland famously said, “Before successful therapy, it’s the same damn thing over and over. After successful therapy, it’s one damn thing after another.”
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