Zibby Owens: I'm excited to be interviewing Lori Gottlieb today. Lori is the author of the instant New York Times best seller Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, which is currently being adapted into a TV series with Eva Longoria. She is a psychotherapist, a nationally recognized journalist, and the weekly Dear Therapist columnist for The Atlantic. Lori started her career in the TV and film industry, went back to medical school, and then began her writing career before becoming a therapist. She has written hundreds of cover stories, features, profiles, and more for The New York Times, the LA Times, The Washington Post, Time, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine, Parents, Glamour, and many other publications. She's a frequent guest in the media including on The Today Show, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, CNN, and NPR’s Fresh Air. A graduate of Stanford University, she also attended Stanford Medical School and received a graduate degree in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University. She lives in Los Angeles.
Welcome, Lori. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Lori Gottlieb: Thank you so much for having me.
Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is about? What inspired you to write it?
Lori: I wasn’t originally supposed to be writing this book. I was supposed to be writing a book about happiness. [laughs] Ironically, the happiness book was making me miserable and depressed. It’s not because there aren't great books about happiness out there. There are. It’s that I was starting off as a therapist. I felt like the kind of book that I wanted to be writing was about what was going on in the therapy room, what was going on in people's lives. Happiness as a byproduct of living a certain kind of life is a great thing, but I didn't want to write a book about happiness as an end goal. Every day I would try to sit down and write this book. I couldn't get myself to do it because it felt really inauthentic given what I was doing in the therapy room. Eventually, I cancelled that book contract. I didn't think I would write another book. I had no idea what I would write. Then one day I started writing about what was going on in my own therapy and what was going on with me as a clinician. I decided to bring people behind the scenes into the therapy room. That is what became Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. We follow the stories of four very different patients as they're going through various struggles in their lives. Then I'm going through an upheaval in my own life. I become the fifth patient. We see me go through my own therapy.
Zibby: It’s so good. It’s like your own memoir is weaved in with all these great stories and all this psychological insight for readers for their own lives. It’s the perfect combination. I loved it.
Lori: Great. That's what I was trying to do. I was really trying to help people to see something about themselves through other people's stories. It’s so much easier to see our blind spots when they're reflected in what somebody else is doing. So far, the readers have said, “I saw myself in every single one of these patients even though I'm very different from them on the surface.”
Zibby: I thought it was great how you talked in this book about that happiness book and how you were having such a hard time with it. You didn't even want to tell your therapist about it. Even the book before that, the one about the article about kids and how to keep your kids --
Lori: -- “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.”
Zibby: Exactly, how you passed on that book deal and hated yourself for it. It’s so self-deprecating in a way, but also relatable and great.
Lori: I didn't know when I was writing this book that I was going to include all of that information. With my story, I could pick and choose what I wanted to reveal. In the first chapter, I just revealed it all. First of all, I thought this is the book that's not commercial at all that no one’s going to read, but it’s the book I feel like I have to write. I can be just be free to write whatever I want because three people are going to read it. Of course, that's not what happened. I really felt like I had to walk the walk. I had to show all of the pieces of me that maybe I would choose not to reveal because that's what my patients were doing. I couldn't hold them to a certain standard and not meet that standard myself.
Zibby: It’s so interesting. You also talk about how you got to this stage of your career through a series of shifts or pivots, as people are saying now all the time. You started off when you were at NBC as a development executive. Friends and ER were first launching. Then you decided you didn't want to do that. You end up in medical school after shadowing an ER doctor who you found fascinating for ER. Then you have a child, become a psychotherapist. Now you're this amazing writer on top of it, and best-selling author. How do you think you had the emotional toughness and sense of self to keep listening to what you really believed in through all these little transitions in life? I feel like some people ignore those flashing lights to tell them that they are not happy with what you're doing. You listened to all of them.
Lori: I did. It’s funny. They sound like very disparate careers, but in retrospect, they all have to do with story and the human condition. It’s not that I was switching from one very different thing to one completely unrelated thing, even though it looked that way at the time. I used to always joke that I was either very versatile or very confused. The reality is I'm not that versatile. [laughs] I was really working in the same thing, which was story and the human condition. When I was working at NBC, when we were telling those stories on ER, they were these very, very rich, emotionally laden, interesting stories, but they were fiction. When I went into a real ER with our consultant on the show who was an ER physician, all of a sudden it was like wow, this is the meaning of life right here. This is real life and death. People's lives are changing in a millisecond because you don't end up in an ER if something wasn’t a surprise. That was the world that I felt like I wanted to immerse myself in. I ended up going to medical school. When I was at medical school, a lot of my professors were talking about managed care, this new thing at the time and how it was going to be really hard for me to do this thing that I wanted to which was really immerse myself in my patient’s stories and lives and guide them throughout their lives. The system was not going to be set up for that kind of work in the same way. It would be harder. I really grappled with that.
At the same time, I had been freelance writing to support myself through this career change. I ended up deciding to leave to become a journalist where I could really immerse myself in people's stories, in real-life stories. Then when I had a baby, I think like a lot of new moms, I felt very isolated during the day. I felt like I needed other adults to talk to. I needed my professional identity back somehow. The UPS guy would come. I was always ordering diapers and myriad baby supplies. I would say things like, “How ‘bout those diapers? How's the weather? Do you have kids?” He would literally be afraid to -- he'd hope that I wasn’t home. He would back away to his big, brown truck. I can see the fear in his eyes. You know when someone's trying to avoid you. [laughter]
I called up the dean at Stanford where I'd been in medical school. I said, “Maybe I should come back and do psychiatry.” She said, “You're going to go through all this training. You have a newborn. You're going to then go through residency with a toddler. The work you want to do is not prescribing medication. The work you want to do is the deeper work. You can do that with a graduate degree in clinical psychology.” It was the best advice that I had ever gotten. It was one of those aha moments. The last piece of the puzzle is now placed. You're like, oh, that's the solution. I did that. I feel like I went from telling people’s stories as a journalist to helping people change their stories as a therapist. A lot of what I do in the therapy room is help people to rewrite these faulty narratives, rewrite these stories that they’ve been carrying around for so long that are holding them back.
Zibby: I think I was similarly stalking of my UPS guy when my twins were really little. My son ended up dressing up as the UPS man for Halloween. [laughter] I'm like, I think I am ordering online too many times. Speaking of helping your patients change their stories, one of your patients who is battling cancer at the outset gets upset when a friend of hers gives her advice, which is this story about going to Holland versus going to Italy. I thought that was so relevant. I was hoping you could tell listeners the story. Then I wanted to know what your trip to Italy in life would have been. Are you there, or are you in Holland?
Lori: I love this story. It’s not my story, I should say. It’s Elizabeth Perl Kingsley’s story. She let me include it in the book. She wrote it because she has a child who has down syndrome. She was writing about the experience of what it’s like when no matter what it is, whether it’s having a child with a disability or having something not work out the way that we expected it to work out, and how we make that shift. She likens it to you get on a plane. You're heading to Italy. You're so excited. You're going to have this beautiful vacation in Italy. You think about all the food you're going to eat and all the sights you're going to see and everything that you're going to do in Italy. You've been waiting for this and waiting for this. Then the plane lands. They say, “Excuse me, slight change of plan. We actually landed in Holland. We’re not in Italy.” Holland was not where you expected to be. That wasn’t the plan. You're bummed. You're like, “Wait a minute. I have been planning to go to Italy. I had this whole vision in my head of what Italy was supposed to be like and what that experience would be like for me. I don't want to be in Holland. This wasn’t what I signed up for. I did not buy a ticket to Holland,” but you're there. You're in Holland. She talks about how first, people are really discombobulated by the change in itinerary. You start to notice that Holland isn't this awful place. There are Rembrandts and tulips. There are beautiful things in Holland too. It’s just different from Italy.
In the book, there's a woman who goes on her honeymoon. She comes back. They had wanted to get pregnant right away. She feels something in her breast. The thing that she felt that she thought was a sign of pregnancy is actually a sign of cancer. They say it’s a very treatable form of cancer. She gets through that just fine. Then six months later, she gets her sign-off scan so that she can get pregnant. It turns out that on the scan they find out that she has this very rare, aggressive form of cancer, unrelated to the first they think. It’s untreatable. She is going to die. They don't know whether it’s a year or three years or ten years at the most. Wow, what a change in plans. A friend sends that to her. She's like, “Screw you. This is not helpful to me. This is not the same thing.”
What she starts to realize is you don't have a choice. Whatever your reality is, you have to find a way to find joy in your situation despite the fact that it’s not what you signed up for. She does that. She's no saint. We tend to idealize cancer patients. “That person’s so brave. She's a saint.” She hated that. She's like, “I am not brave. I'm scared of needles. What choice do I have here?” She really did things in her life. She took risks all of a sudden that she would never have taken otherwise. She has this very deep relationship with her husband that they probably wouldn't have gone to these places. Would she have traded all that to not have cancer? Sure, but all of these other things happened that never would have. I think “Welcome to Holland” helped to approach the time that she had left in a very different way.
Zibby: Do you feel in your life there's a situation in which you wanted to go to Italy but ended up in Holland?
Lori: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. The most obvious is I had my son on my own. I never imagined doing that. I always imagined that I would have children with a partner. When I was in my late thirties and I had gotten out of a relationship thinking about, “If I meet someone, it would take X number of years before we knew,” even if I met someone tomorrow -- I decided I'm going to have a baby. I had seen so many people wait too long to have children. I didn't want to do that, which was a great decision. At the same time, it was Holland. It wasn’t Italy in the sense that I wanted to do it with a partner. I didn't have a baby with a partner. I had a baby on my own. I would say that would be my Holland. You can see the great joy in that. The best thing that could've happened was for me to have my son. At the same time, it looked different.
Zibby: I loved how you talked in the book about how you arrived at that decision and the process you went through including propositioning some guy you had met at a networking conference at Urth Café. That was amazing.
Lori: It was my sperm donor date. We went through that process of thinking that maybe he would donate sperm. He was onboard. Then he wasn’t onboard. Then I ended up getting the sperm that I wanted through the sperm bank.
Zibby: Your little George Clooney.
Lori: Yes. They said he looked like a young George Clooney. That was their selling point.
Zibby: One of the patients who you wrote a lot about is John, who you find kind of annoying. He's calling everybody an idiot all the time and even orders food into your session, which I couldn't not believe he did. I guess I could once I got to know him a little in the book. He was talking about how his wife was depressed and he was actually upset by that, annoyed by that himself. You said, “As the saying goes, before diagnosing people with depression, make sure they're not surrounded by assholes.” [laughs] I was hoping you could talk to me a little bit more about narcissistic personality disorder for anyone who’s dealt with an asshole in their life and what you should do if you happen to be in a relationship with somebody like that. How do you know if it’s the people around you causing you to feel sad and depressed in general or if it’s something inside yourself?
Lori: I should say first of all that one of the things that I felt was really important to do in the book was that I portrayed people the way that they presented themselves to me, and same with me presenting myself to my own therapist. The way that you feel about these people changes drastically by the end of the book. It mirrors my evolution with these people too. At the beginning, John was extremely unlikeable. He was really abrasive. He was insulting to me. He certainly had narcissistic traits. As I got to know him -- I always know that someone's behavior is their way of coping with something unmanageable to them, something painful to them. In John’s case, I'm not going to spoil it, but there was something incredibly traumatic that he reveals later that explains some of why he protects himself by keeping everybody at a distance with his behavior. It’s hard to get close to him because of the way he presents himself. That's by design for him.
When we first meet him, he and his wife, they’ve had this mutual tragedy in their lives. They don't talk about it. He is very upset that she can't get past it and is very depressed. He's like, “We’re not going to do this to our kids. We’re not going to be this couple who can't get past this tragedy.” He has the whole stiff-upper-lip attitude about it. I never met her, but I imagine that she felt very alone. That can be really depressing. He went through life as a protection against -- his mother had died when he was six. He kind of thought it was his fault because of the circumstances of how it happened. He protected himself by -- he had been his mother’s favorite. She always said he was so special. He went through life thinking, “I'm so special.” That was his way of going through the world. On top of not being able to meet his wife where she was with talking about her depression, he went through life thinking, “Everybody else is an idiot. They're the cause of my problems. Why can't they just do things this way?”
I think that for people who are with someone like that, it’s really important that -- they really needed to be in couples’ therapy. There's a very nice place that they get to which is really gratifying. Going back to that quote from the book, there are times when people will come in and they’ll tell me something like, “The problem is my boss or my mother or my partner or my child,” or whomever. Often, they're not looking at their own role in the situation. Often, they can't see that they're contributing to the situation, either in the way they respond to it or in the fact that they're still engaged in it. Other times, if you really are surrounded by assholes, that can be really depressing. Remove yourself from the situation. Why are surrounding yourself with these people?
Zibby: Good point. [laughs] Can we go back to your son for a minute? You have a big breakup with Boyfriend at the beginning of the book which propels you to seek out your own therapist. You have to tell your son that Boyfriend is not going to be around any longer. He had become quite attached to him. You're dealing with it in this wonderful way as a therapist and also a mom. You say, “The upside of being a therapist’s child is that nothing gets shoved under the rug. The downside is you'll be totally screwed up anyway.” I wanted to know what you feel about airing everything out, having your kids be open with their feelings and really getting into everything with them, how much it helps. Basically, what as a parent do you think is the most effective in helping out your kids have great mental health?
Lori: In terms of airing everything out, I think it’s letting your kids have their feelings, but that doesn't mean that I shared my feelings with him. For context, at the beginning of the book, my boyfriend and I were planning to get married. He tells me that he had decided that he doesn't want to live with a kid under his roof for the next ten years. At the time, my son was eight. He had not been hiding in the closet the entire time that we were dating. My version of this story -- I very purposefully say “my version of the story,” meaning I wasn’t seeing a lot of things until I went to therapy. My version of the story was clearly, he’s a sociopath. Who dates someone for all this time, just the day before says, “I just checked with my HR to make sure that when we get married, I can get your son on my insurance policy,” and all this stuff that has been going on for a long time, who does that? His kids were about to go college. If they don't want to continue to be a parent, who gets involved with someone who, when we first met, has a six-year-old?
When he did that, I didn't tell my son, “Oh, look. He broke up with me because” -- I didn't even say he broke up with me. I didn't say, “He broke up with me because he doesn't want a kid around.” I said, “We broke up.” There's a scene in the book where I explain it. He has a lot of questions. I tell the truth, but I don't add details that are not going to be helpful for him to hear at that time. It’s really important that I didn't try to cheer him up. He was sad. He was grieving in his own way. I wasn’t like, “Hey, let's go to Disneyland! Hey, let's go see that movie.” Our instinct as parents is that we want to -- it’s hard for us to see our children in pain. We want to take away their pain, but they need experience feeling their feelings and knowing that they will get through them. He was going to have to be sad about this. He was also going to know that I was available to him if he wanted support or to talk about it. It wasn’t one discrete conversation. It’s not like when you talk about things, “Well, we had that conversation. Phew. That's over.” It’s a process.
Feelings are like the weather. They're like weather systems. They blow in. They blow out. There's going to be a storm. Then the sun’s going to come out. Then it’s going to be cloudy. Then it’s going to be mild. Then it’s going to be cold. They're just weather systems. It’s okay that he's feeling sad. Then he's with his friends and he's happy. That's what it’s like. There are other times where we’re going to have many more conversations about it because those feelings are going to blow back in. That's what's important. So many times, especially nowadays, we’re so afraid for our kids to experience any kind of discomfort that we try to make it more comfortable for them. We’re not really doing them a service by doing that.
Zibby: Totally. I have to keep that in mind with my kids. I feel like I'm always trying to make everything better. Obviously, that's impossible.
Lori: I think too that they know how to make things better in a lot of ways if they have support. A kid will come home from school and say, “This happened at lunch today.” The parent’s instinct often is to say, “Why don't you tell her this? Why don't you do this next time?” as opposed to just letting the kid keep talking, like, “Oh, yeah. That must have been hard.” They’ll say, “Yeah.” Then they’ll go on. “She did this and that.” Then, “Well, what do you think was happening?” just asking them questions. Then they come up with their own solutions that not only are probably better solutions than you would come up with because they know these people better -- they know what they're doing. You have to trust them. Also, it’s a better solution because they came up with it. It gives them agency. Even if what they try doesn't work out so well, they know that they can try something else. When it does work out well, they have the confidence to know that they are able to come up with a solution. That's so important for the many, many, many things that they will encounter throughout not only their schooling years, but also in life when they graduate.
Zibby: I have so many more questions. I do want to make sure to get to the process of how you write. I am really curious as to how long it took you to write this book and where you were. Do you write at home? Do you write in your therapy office? I want you to paint a little picture for me of where you get all of this done and how you fit it in with the rest of the things in your life.
Lori: I'm sitting in that place right now. It’s not a pretty picture. [laughter] If people only knew, right? I only do therapy in my therapy office. What I love about being in my therapy office is I work in a suite of therapists. In between sessions, you can go in the kitchen. You can talk to people. You see people in the hallways. It’s social in that way. I need that. I love that. When I'm writing, I need complete privacy. Yeah, I could close my door at the office, but I'm hearing voices when people leave their sessions. There are too many distractions. I write at home. I take my writing days. That’s what I do. Today, I have to write my TED talk, actually. I'm a person who leaves the writing things generally for the last minute, and this is not an exception.
Zibby: So the TED talk is later today. No. [laughs]
Lori: I'm at home. That's where I write. My process is that I usually need a little warmup. I need to do something else first. I'm not like I can just wake up and sit down and write. I need to loosen up a little bit, whether that's replying to some emails or hanging out with my kid depending on whether it’s summer or not, whatever it is, or I'm taking care of other things that I need to take care of, bills, this is not fun stuff, but just in doing something else. Then all that is off my plate. I don't have to think about all the other things that I need to do that day. Then I can sit down, and I can write.
Zibby: This is now going to be a TV show? Maybe You Should Talk to Someone on TV?
Lori: It’s being developed for television by Eva Longoria’s company at 20th Century Fox.
Zibby: So exciting. I saw, by the way, on your website that now you actually offer yourself as an expert to other TV shows and movies, that you're doing your own. It’s the perfect thing. You're going to be this total expert for yourself and your own show.
Lori: I've always done that, actually. I've consulted for shows before. A lot of times they're looking for, “Can you tell me about grief? Can you tell me more about teen depression?” whatever’s going on in the certain show, the way that we had a consultant on ER who was an emergency room physician. The shows really want them to be accurate. They want to do a good job of portraying whatever they're portraying. Often, they’ll get experts to come in and say, “Tell me more about this. What would this be like? How would someone react in this situation?”
Zibby: One last thing. You're probably the most prolific journalist I've ever come across. You've written articles everywhere. I was wondering how you do that. Do you have a zillion ideas all the time? Are you always jotting down notes for articles you want to write? Tell me a little two-second thing about that part of your life.
Lori: Usually, there's something that I see going on in the culture that seems really obvious. Some examples, the “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” this thing about sex in marriage, and egalitarian marriage. When I see something going on in the culture that everyone's talking about but no one has really thought about in a certain way, that's what I love to write. I love to say, this thing is going on. Everyone's talking about it. Nobody's really looking at it from this angle. I want to create the lens through which to look at this is in a different way. In my Dear Therapist column that I write every week, which is different from the features that I write, that's what I help people to do too, is to say, “You've got this problem. You're looking at it this way. I want you to look at it through this other lens. I think that will help you.”
Zibby: Are you working on any other books now?
Lori: No. [laughs] This book is so new. I'm still on book tour for a while with this book.
Zibby: Last question. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors out there?
Lori: One of the things that people often say to me is, “How did you know you had a story? How did you know that your story was going to be something that would resonate so strongly with people?” I always say to people, everybody has a story. Everybody has a story. Your story is inherently interesting. That's such an important thing for writers to think about. So often, they try to make something up. Sometimes, that's great. If you're writing fiction, obviously that's what you're doing. I also think that even if you're writing fiction, it’s based on something in your experience. Even if the characters look very different from your experience, there's some emotional truth to the characters that you're writing or else you won't write a good novel. There's something interesting in all our lives and all of our stories.
The job of the writer is to tell it in a way that is real and raw and vulnerable and in terms of pacing and structure, makes sense to the reader so they can see it as a mirror for themselves. One of the things I always say to writers too is don't tell the play-by-play of that scene. So often people will say, “Here's the truth of my scene.” Oh, my god. It’s like with the therapy room, you got the highlight reel in my book. You didn't get the full fifty minutes every time that I was writing about a therapy session. You got the highlight reel. “Here were the important dets in the story.” You're getting them. You're getting them as they really happen. You're getting the authentic version of it, but I'm not giving you every single line that is spoken.
Zibby: Right, that makes sense. Awesome. Thank you so much, Lori, for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books” and also for your fantastic book.
Lori: Thank you so much. It was such a fun conversation.
Zibby: By the way, my therapist loved it. I wanted to say that. [laughs]
Lori: I'm so glad. I've been hearing that a lot.
Zibby: Thanks so much. Have a great day.
Lori: Take care. Bye.