Therapist Lori Gottlieb is a testament to the power of her craft—a craft that has brilliantly helped her as much as it has her many patients.

Wheat Field

Lori Gottlieb

THERAPIST / JOURNALIST

2019

THERAPY / THERAPIST / PSYCHOLOGY / JOURNALISM / GRIEF / DEPRESSION / ANGER / FEAR / ENVY / VIKTOR FRANKL / THE ATLANTIC / THE NEW YORK TIMES / NEW YORK MAGAZINE / PEPPERDINE / STANFORD / BEVERLY HILLS / YALE / ER / THREE’S COMPANY / FRIENDS

Lori Gottlieb has been a child savant who haunted libraries; a preteen who went to war with anorexia and came out on the other side; a mathlete; valedictorian; dabbler in the film world; med school student; med school dropout; memoirist—and today, after a medley of still other roles, a practicing psychotherapist.

Her past has been eclectic. It has been, at times, chaotic. It has been imperfect.

Especially when it comes to therapists, we like to think of our doctors as omniscient. Infallible. As unflappable. But as Gottlieb shows, that’s to fundamentally look at it the wrong way. As she describes the role of the therapist in her new book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, “Our training has taught us theories and tools and techniques, but whirring beneath our hard-earned expertise is the fact that we know just how hard it is to be a person. Which is to say, we still come to work each day as ourselves—with our own sets of vulnerabilities, our own longings and insecurities, and our own histories. Of all my credentials as a therapist, my most significant is that I'm a card-carrying member of the human race.”

Every moment of her incredible story is essential to the wonderland of wisdom she offers today. As you explore her past in the latest episode of Design Matters, here are 20 brilliant (and admittedly brilliantly out of context) therapeutic lessons from therapist Lori Gotlieb.

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief


“A common complaint I hear in the therapy room is some version of ‘I wish I’d tried working in the art world/becoming a chef/writing for television/starting a company when I was younger but I was too scared/talked out of it.’ I don’t hear a lot of ‘I regret that I tried’ but I do hear ‘I regret that I didn’t.’ Some might express disappointment that their attempts didn’t pan out, but it’s a different flavor of disappointment from that of not knowing what might have happened had they given their dream a shot. The never knowing—the wondering—is harder to shake.”

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“There’s a saying among therapists: If you keep banging your head against a wall while trying to find an answer to your question, rotate the question. Tilt it slightly to the side, turn it upside down, and that rotated question will lead you to your answer.”

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“One thing we often forget when we’re feeling trapped in a situation is how much choice we actually have in the matter. And you have so many choices here that you don’t seem to see.”

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“One of my favorite maxims came to mind: ‘Insight is the booby prize of therapy.’ Meaning, you can have all the insight in the world, but if you don’t change out in the world, the insight is worthless.”

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“What’s the difference between a criticism and a complaint? The former contains judgment while the latter contains a request. I know that you hear them as criticisms, but that’s mostly due to a quirk of human nature: The complaints of those we’re closest to often contain essential truths, but the discomfort these truths produce makes it hard for us to hear them. In other words, our discomfort with a complaint is largely due to its accuracy, not its inaccuracy. As a general rule, the greater our discomfort, the greater the accuracy.”

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“Many of us are so afraid of being judged that we take any potentially negative feedback as condemnation, as proof that something’s ‘wrong’ with us. But it may be just the opposite: Perhaps the significant people in your life voice their observations because they think you’re fantastic and underneath their words is the desire for you to care about them as much as they care about you. If they didn’t care so much about having a relationship with you, they wouldn’t bother calling your attention to the things about you that bother them—they’d just leave.”

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“We’re all difficult and impossible and imperfect in our unique ways, and the people closest to us will surely notice. When they do, pay attention to your discomfort. Don’t throw it in the bin along with your other trash. Instead, consider it a gift that few other people will be generous enough to give you.”

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“Yes, you are screwing up your kids. Because there are just so many ways to do it that’s it’s almost unavoidable.”

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“Often, outside of our awareness, we envy our children’s childhood—the opportunities they have that we didn’t; the emotional stability we have the foresight to provide but didn’t get ourselves; the potential they have with their whole lives ahead of them, a stretch of future that’s now in our past. We envy their youth. We strive to give our children all the things that we didn’t or no longer have, but somehow end up, without even realizing it, resenting them their good fortune.”

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“Change and loss travel together. We can’t have change without loss, which is why so often we say we want change but nonetheless stay the same. When you say that it’s hard to let go despite wanting to move on, what you’re really talking about is grief. You’re grieving, but sometimes what we’re actually grieving is the future more than the present.”

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“Yes, change is hard. Yes, it involves taking responsibility for your life. Yes, it requires you to give up the familiar, which no matter how unpleasant can still feel comforting. And yes, change will put you face-to-face with loss. But what’s beautiful about this loss is that while you might have to give up the hope for a better past or a less painful present, the future is squarely in your court.”

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“The funny thing about ‘normal’ is that people tend to worry that they aren’t while simultaneously claiming it’s the last thing they want to be. Normal is boring, they say, which is like saying they never wanted the job they got rejected from in the first place. While I don’t know how typical you are, I’ll bet you share the very typical human need to belong, or you wouldn’t care so much about how normal you are. But there are many ways to belong without losing our distinctive selves. Normal or not, a more important question might be, ‘How can I love who I am?’”

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“It’s common for people with unhappy histories to feel anxious around happiness, to be wary of feeling good because of the fear that joy will always be taken away. They come to expect disaster just around the corner, so instead of leaning into the goodness that comes their way, they become hypervigilant, always waiting for something to go wrong. They believe that the second they get too comfortable—whoosh!—the other shoe will drop. Joy isn’t pleasure; it’s anticipatory pain.”

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“A relationship may seem like it’s just about two people, but it’s about the confluence of your respective worlds as well. How do your larger worlds mesh? How do they add context to the person you see only through your own lens?”

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“Whenever somebody in my office brings up sexual infidelity (confirmed or suspected), my first instinct is to wonder what other infidelities might be going on. I don’t mean other affairs—I mean the more subtle ways of straying from our partners that have at least as much potential to threaten a marriage. The affair, of course, gets the most attention, but it’s the affair that is also often misunderstood. And it’s because of this misunderstanding that the cheating takes center stage—and that the other factors, the betrayals that need the most attention, stay out of the spotlight.”

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“It might be reassuring to know that most people have affairs not because they’ve found somebody better or hotter or more more perfect (perfect people don’t tend to have sex with other people’s spouses) but because affairs make us feel alive and seen; they counteract feelings of numbness or flatness or disconnection that seem like they might kill us, if we don’t kill ourselves first. And since we aren’t up for suicide, we find a work-around.”

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“What I say about forgiveness is this: You can have compassion without forgiving. There are many ways to move on without forgiving, but pretending to feel a certain way is not one of them. Forced forgiveness is false forgiveness for somebody else’s benefit. As therapists, the last thing we want to do is to talk people out of how they really feel.”

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“What people do in therapy is pretty much what they do in their outside lives. In other words, if a patient tends to feel dissatisfied with people in her life, it’s likely that she’ll eventually feel dissatisfied with me. If she tries to please people, she’ll probably try to please me too. And if she avoids people when she feels hurt by them, I’ll be on the lookout for signs that I’ve said something that may have hurt her, too (she cancels her next session, or clams up, or comes late).”

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“There’s always going to be a gap between what the therapist might advise, and what’s best for the patient. A therapist might see a couple and think they should divorce, but some people prefer to be in a highly conflictual marriage than to be alone, no matter how much the therapist might personally champion being alone for a time over a highly conflictual marriage where one partner refuses to change. Our patients’ lives are theirs to live, not ours.”

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“Taped up over my desk is the word ultracrepidarianism, which means ‘the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge or competence.’ As a therapist, I’m trained to understand people and help them sort out what they want to do, but I can’t make their life choices for them. I’m not a real-estate specialist, career counselor or, most important, soothsayer. … Therapists may not give advice, but we do give guidance. And if there’s one thing your therapist knows, it’s that the most powerful truths—the ones people take the most seriously—are those they come to on their own.”

 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman