I didn’t quite know how to take it when a publishing friend excitedly thrust a copy of celebrated psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone into my hands and exclaimed: “Erin, this is a book for you!” (Did I mention a couple colleagues were present and did not receive the same recommendation? The same colleagues who were just then nodding?). But I’m so glad he did. Giving the reader a behind-the-scenes peek from both sides of the couch, it’s a witty, relatable, moving homage to therapy—and just being human. While therapists are required to see a counselor themselves as part of their training, Gottlieb enlists an experienced ear when an unexpected breakup lays her flat. Working through her issues with the enigmatic “Wendell” helps Gottlieb process her pain, but it also hones her professional skills; after all, a good therapist possesses the ability to empathize with their patients (four of whom she chronicles in funny, frustrating, heartbreaking and profoundly inspiring detail). Like Gottlieb, you will see yourselves in them--in all their self-sabotaging, misunderstood, unlucky, and evolutionary glory. So, for those of you thinking: self-help books are just not my jam…They aren’t mine either (trust me, my woo-woo detector is very sensitive). But Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is so much more expansive than that. Everybody, this is a book for you.
Erin Kodicek: I can’t imagine how many patients you’ve seen over the course of your career. You chronicle four of them in this book. Why these particular four?
Lori Gottlieb: I chose them partly because I didn’t want to write about patients I was currently seeing; I thought it would be hard to be both working and writing about them at the same time. I also chose them because I wanted to follow the stories of a variety of different people who are very different, at least on the surface, from one another: They’re different ages, different genders--they have different family histories and personalities...And I should add that I’m the fifth patient, because it also follows me and my own therapy. And so you have these very different people, seemingly, but I think we can find aspects of ourselves in all of them.
The title of the book is actually in reference to you. You were going through a tough time and a friend said, Hey, maybe you should talk to someone. What was it like to be on the other side of the couch?
It's interesting when you go to therapy when you’re a therapist because the instinct is to backseat drive; You want to have your therapist hat on, but you can’t. You just have to be a person in the room. And I had such a similar reaction to my therapist that I think my patients have to me where I wanted him to like me, and I kept secrets from him...And if someone was in the waiting room when I was leaving I wondered, Oh, my session was such a downer--I bet he’s really looking forward to hers…Does he look forward to her sessions more than mine? When you’re in the therapy room, as much as you want to pretend that you’re a professional, that’s not why you’re going there and you would be wasting your time if you were.
You gave yourself a really hard time for googling your therapist and I thought, well, of course she did. I would too! It’s second nature for many of us these days. Why was that something you struggled with?
I was really ashamed of the fact that I’d done it, and the reason why I had done it too: A colleague calls the internet the most effective short term non-prescription painkiller out there, and I was doing it, basically, for that reason—to alleviate my anxiety. It was a big distraction, and I went down the internet rabbit hole. It wasn’t just that I’d googled him; I’d spent several hours following every link and every lead, and, I’d been a journalist before I was a therapist, so I went quite into depth and I learned a lot of things about him—none of which were weird or surprising. But it did cause me to edit myself in the therapy room, because I learned that his father had died at a relatively young age of a heart attack and I had been waxing poetic about my wonderful relationship with my aging father. People google me, too, and inevitably slip up; They’ll say things like, “What’s it’s like to have a middle school boy?” and I never told them that I was a parent, or how old my child was, or what gender.
You write: “In any given year, some 30 million American adults are sitting on a clinician’s couch and we’re not even the world leaders in therapy.” Why do you think that is?
We place a lot of value on being strong and keeping a stiff upper lip. And, we're embarrassed by our problems; We think #FirstWorldProblems--that if you’re experiencing some emotional pain, well, it’s really not that bad because you have food on the table and a roof over your head. I also think we do things differently with our emotional health than we do with our physical health. If we’re experiencing chest pain we’re gonna go to a cardiologist and get that checked out. But if we experience emotional pain, we wait until we have the emotional equivalent of a heart attack to go see somebody and then it’s harder to treat--and you’ve suffered unnecessarily for longer.
All of the stories in the book are very moving and profound, but Julie’s really punched me in the heart. What did she teach you?
Julie was a young woman who had just gotten married and on her honeymoon she felt something on her breast that she thought might be a sign of pregnancy but it was a sign of cancer, and ultimately, when she gets a terminal diagnosis, she asks me to stay with her until she dies. I learned so much from her and that experience. The main thing was that we try to avoid hard things, talking about hard things, and she really made sure that we were going to look death in the eye--we were going to look at her situation for what it really was--and make the most of it. I also learned that it doesn’t take a terminal diagnosis, or it shouldn’t, to make us think about our mortality because that helps us to become more aware of how we want to spend our time--it reminds us that time is limited, and we don’t know when we’re going to die. And so a lot of people are waiting for something, like, in three years this will happen, or next summer we’ll do that, or I’m going to wait five years to apply for a new job…It’s like, what are you waiting for?
Before you became a therapist you worked in television and rumor has it that ABC and Eva Longoria are developing Maybe You Should Talk to Someone into a series. Will you be involved?
I will. I’m a producer on the show. It's interesting because clichés and stereotypes of therapists often abound in television portrayals and I don’t want the show to be about the quote-unquote therapist. I want it to be about a person who happens to be a therapist.
This Q&A was adapted from a podcast and edited for length and clarity.
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