Mind Wondering

Curating Curiosity

Category: Quotes

What Do Therapists Really Think?

Therapy elicits odd reactions because, in a way, it’s like pornography. Both involve a kind of nudity. Both have the potential to thrill. And both have millions of users, most of whom keep their use private.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

I truly believe that everyone would benefit from therapy. Speaking personally, it’s as essential for my mind and spirit as eating healthy and going to the gym is for my body, and much more difficult than a Russian deadlift with no weight belt. This notion that people who are “weak” or “crazy” are the only ones that need therapy is utter bullshit. Would you also agree that only fat people should go to the gym? Or only people with learning disabilities should go to school? No, because that is something an idiot would think.

As a card-carrying member of the Counseled Crowd you’d think I’d be immune to these pernicious myths about therapy. But I can’t help but feel my sphincter clinch up anytime I’m telling someone I see a shrink for the first time. Afraid it’ll cause them to view me as “one of those people”, I seek to qualify my system of psychoanalysis…

“I see it as a workout for the mind,” I’ll say. “Most of the time, we talk about things that are going well and discuss the goals I have for myself.”

Underneath these words are the silent plea, “Please don’t think I’m crazy! Please don’t think I’m sad! Please don’t think I’m anxious!”

I’m saying it as much to the other person as I am to myself. Knowing you have multitudes and coming to grips with them are two very different things, and the gift of an introspective nature is thinking your self alternately cerebral and psychotic.

Meditation and creative endeavors tend to make me feel the former and mindlessly distracting myself by scrolling through news feeds the latter. Therapy seeks to reconcile these seemingly disparate aspects of myself.

Despite my years of proselytizing about therapy’s benefits I’d never endeavored to understand the mindset of the person with whom I was sharing my deepest desires and darkest secrets. That is, until I read Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

In Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, therapist Lori Gottlieb masterfully constructs a story featuring as captivating a cast of characters as you’ll find in any book, each with their own Hero’s Journey playing out over the course of the book.

If you’re at all struggling with the myriad issues that come with being a human, you’ll no doubt see aspects of yourself in all of them. And by watching them struggle and come to grips with their own issues, you can’t help but be incepted with certain ideas about how to deal with your own. However, the real joy of the book for me was getting a peak at the woman behind the curtain guiding these lost souls on their journey back home.

The Wizard of Oz

A Therapist’s Thoughts

As someone who’s always been fascinated by psychology and human behavior, I found the inside look Ms. Gottlieb gives us of what it’s like to be a therapist (and someone in therapy) fascinating. Below are some of my favorite musings from her memoir.

What determines success?

If you’re like me, you’ve gotten hung up Googling CBT, MBCT, EMDR, and any other acronym that can serve to postpone picking up the phone and scheduling an appointment. But apparently the method or therapy is far less consequential than we’ve been led to believe.

The most important factor in the success of your treatment is your relationship with the therapist, your experience of “feeling felt.” This matters more than the therapist’s training, the kind of therapy they do, or what type of problem you have.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

I’ve often told friends who are thinking of seeing a therapist that they’ll likely need to go to 4 or 5 before they find one they connect with. In the future, I imagine there will be a match.com for patients looking for therapists. Surely Facebook could cobble together something with all of the user data they have.

Why do people go to therapy?

When Lori started her practice, she assumed the majority of people that saw a therapist went because they wanted to feel less anxious or depressed.

But no matter the circumstances, there seemed to be this common element of loneliness, a craving for but a lack of a strong sense of human connection. A want.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

This echoes recent research suggesting that millennials are facing a loneliness epidemic and what countless studies on happiness have been trying to tell us for years.

“Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Therapists Sometimes Feel Helpless to Help

While there’s certainly a therapist out there for everyone, that doesn’t mean every therapist will be able to help you. After all, they’re human too.

I felt increasingly fatigued in our sessions—not from mental exertion, but from boredom. I made sure to have chocolate and do jumping jacks before she came in to wake myself up. Eventually, I moved her evening session to first thing in the morning. The minute she sat down, though, the boredom set in and I felt helpless to help her.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

I found this insight into the mind of a therapist so relieving. We often give them deity status in our minds and make believe that they’re infallible, but the truth that they’re people who make mistakes and get angry, bored, happy and sad is the reason they’re able to relate to our suffering and provide guidance. It’s also why they don’t always know the right thing to say, “which happens more often than patients realize.” Luckily therapists have been taught how to deal with this.

I do what therapists are taught to do when we’re having a complicated reaction to something and need more time to understand it. I do nothing-for the moment. I’ll get consultation on this later.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

Who do therapists turn to for advice?

Where does this consultation come from? After all, therapists work in a vacuum and aren’t allowed to discuss the particulars of their clients to the outside world. Are they just burying the heads in a Freudian tower of text? Maybe not…

Consultation groups are a fixture of many therapists’ lives. Working alone, we don’t have the benefit of input from others, whether that’s praise for a job well done or feedback on how to do better. Here we examine not just our patients but ourselves in relation to our patients.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

For some reason, this was one of the things that fascinated me most about the book. It made me picture a group therapy session full of therapists all talking about the issues they were having with helping people deal with their issues. It also just made sense. Why wouldn’t a therapist consult other therapists if they were struggling to solve a problem with their patient? The advice of someone who’d helped a patient through something similar would be invaluable.

There are no right answers, only better questions.

One of the things that surprised me as a therapist was how often people wanted to be told what to do, as if I had the right answer or as if right and wrong answers existed for the bulk of choices people make in their daily lives.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

The value of asking better questions is espoused by many experts in the self-help space. One of my favorite multi-hyphenates (author/entrepreneur/podcaster/etc.) Tim Ferriss has gone as far as writing an entire book around influential figures’ answers to the 11 questions that changed his life.

In her practice, Lori has found the process of getting people to ask themselves the right question the best way to initiate change.

Therapists aren’t persuaders… We can’t convince people not to be self-destructive, because for now, the self-destruction serves them. What we can do is try to help them understand themselves better and show them how to ask themselves the right questions until something happens that leads them to do their own persuading.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

Social Media Ain’t Real Life

I imagine anyone reading this has hung out with a friend in a miserable mood or a bickering couple whose online lives show them living and loving it up. Depending on your own mood this can be both funny and infuriating to witness. But if you think your friend’s Instagram selves are a much shinier version of their real lives, imagine what their therapist thinks…

If you ever want proof that what people present online is a prettier version of their lives, become a therapist and Google your patient… I saw images of her receiving a prestigious award, smiling at an event standing next to a handsome guy, looking cool and confident and at peace with the world in a magazine photo spread. Online, she bore no resemblance to the person who sat across from me in that room.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

This isn’t to say you should start posting arguments with your spouse in Stories or taking selfies of shitty situations, but I do think it’s important to consume media outside the sheen of social media. Something that’s got a little grit to it. Speaking personally, I feel more in common with almost any character in a book than I do with the characters my friends play online.

This was certainly true of Julie, John, Rita, Wendell, and Lori, and the rest of the people in this wonderful book.

What “The Humans” Taught Me About Humanity

Sometimes it’s hard to look at humanity and see anything other than the ugliness and greed that seems so pervasive in our world right now. The last few days have been particularly difficult, as politicians have placed power over people. They struggle to push through their agendas, relying on grandstanding rather than fact-finding in their quest to… what, exactly?

Make the world a better place?

If that’s the aim, then both sides are doing a shitty job. I’m a liberal, but being from Oklahoma I also have conservative friends, and I know if we talk long and honestly enough, we see that we basically want the same things.

The news we see blasted on our screens is polarizing because that’s what gets ratings, and it’s starting to make our thinking binary. But the world isn’t ones and zeroes, black and white, or any other simple metaphor we can come up with to pit one group against another.

The world is π.

It’s Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionism painted by Bob Ross in real-time. Angry. Happy. Simple. And frenetic as hell.

There are as many possible iterations of humans as there are of stars, and I guarantee we’re all as fallible, fascinating, and flawless as the next.

I see this most clearly not when I’m stuck in the liberal echo chamber of Los Angeles or shaking my head at the misplaced fury of Fox News. The nuance of our nature certainly doesn’t show up on Facebook or Instagram where algorithms and curated lists of friends and followers only confirm what we already believe. And don’t even get me started on the hate-fueled Rage Fest that is Twitter.

I see it in the stories we tell. Not only to each other, about our days, our hopes, dreams, fears and failures. I see it in the ones that a wonderful group of people called authors have written down for posterity.

There are numerous studies that have shown a link between reading fiction and increased empathy and emotional intelligence. The idea is that stories that focus on the interior lives of characters stimulate an area of the brain used for enhancing theory of mind, the ability to intuit what’s going on in another person’s mind.

But what if a story could help us see what’s going on in all of our minds?

That’s what The Humans, a fantastic novel by Matt Haig, did for me. The book follows an alien who travels to earth and assumes the identity of an illustrious Cambridge University mathematics professor named Andrew Martin. His mission is to rid earth of the information that would allow for interstellar travel. The reason is simple: humans are greedy, violent, self-centered beings and allowing them to travel among the stars would have deadly consequences for the Universe and its inhabitants.

At first, alien Andrew is disgusted by the people of earth. Not only are their looks repulsive, but they act in completely incomprehensible ways.

He’s baffled by the popularity of magazines…

Magazines are very popular, despite no human’s ever feeling better for having read them. Indeed, their chief purpose is to generate a sense of inferiority in the reader that consequently leads to a feeling of needing to buy something, which the humans then do, and then feel even worse, and so need to buy another magazine to see what they can buy next. It is an eternal and unhappy spiral that goes by the name of capitalism, and it is really quite popular.

He sees social media as a news source for narcissists…

On Earth, social networking generally involved sitting down at a nonsentient computer and typing words about needing a coffee and reading about other people needing a coffee, while forgetting to actually make a coffee. It was the news show they had been waiting for. It was the show where the news could be all about them.

And only realizes the error of his thinking when he remarks that getting drunk on a park bench “seems like a good way to solve problems,” and that the homeless man next to him must enjoy it because otherwise he wouldn’t do it.

Of course, this was a little bit disingenuous of me. Humans were always doing things they didn’t like doing. In fact, to my best estimate, at any one time only point three percent of humans were actively doing something they liked doing, and even when they did so, they felt an intense guilt about it and were fervently promising themselves they’d be back doing something horrendously unpleasant very shortly.

Reading these passages reminded me of another excellent book, Stumbling on Happiness, whose main premise was to show why humans are so terrible at predicting what will make them happy in the future. In it, Author Dan Gilbert argues that the best predictor of future happiness is not facilitated in our imagination like most of us think, but rather by using other people’s experiences as indicators of what our lives will look like.

This is precisely what Andrew does throughout the book. His first introduction to love involves a conversation with a student he stumbles across in the dining hall of the university who has “thin, orange-pink scars on her arm” and a t-shirt with the Vonnegut quote, “Everything was beautiful (and nothing hurt).”

“What about love? What is love all about? I read about it. In Cosmopolitan.”

Another laugh. “Cosmopolitan? Are you joking?”

“No. Not at all. I want to understand these things.”

“You’re definitely asking the wrong person here. See, that’s one of my problems.” She lowered her voice by at least two octaves, stared darkly. “I like violent men. I don’t know why. It’s a kind of self-harm thing. I go to pubs a lot. Rich pickings.”

“Oh,” I said, realizing it was right I had been sent here. The humans were as weird as I had been told, and as in love with violence. “So love is about finding the right person to hurt you?”

“Pretty much.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness. That was …someone.”

That someone was philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche, who also wrote the words, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”

Haig is no stranger to suffering. In his best-selling memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, he details his struggles with depression and the ways he’s overcome the disease. One of those is through writing and the hope that his pain will not have been in vain.

Haig’s understanding of pain is present throughout The Humans. In a poignant acknowledgement of its universality, our protagonist states…

I knew there was one rule that held fast across the universe: if you wanted to get someone on your side, what you really had to do was relieve their pain.

And yet, he’s also able to understand that acceptance is often the best way to find relief…

Just to feel pain, sometimes, was enough to cancel it.

…and perceive the different ways people deal with pain…

Some humans not only liked violence but craved it, I realized. Not because they wanted pain, but because they already had pain and wanted to be distracted from that kind of pain with a lesser kind.

Following along as someone discovers these insights, especially in a first-person narrative that allows the reader to place him or herself in the shoes of the character, is both enjoyable and enlightening in the best possible way.

Later in the The Humans, Haig returns to the concept of love as his main character starts to discover it in himself. Sometimes it’s coupled with pain…

That’s what starts to happen, when you know it is possible for you to feel pain you have no control over. You become vulnerable. Because the possibility of pain is where love stems from.

Sometimes fear…

Love is scary because it pulls you in with an intense force, a supermassive black hole, which looks like nothing from the outside but from the inside challenges every reasonable thing you know. You lose yourself, like I lost myself, in the warmest of annihilations.

But always with another human…

This was, I realized, a beautiful planet. Maybe it was the most beautiful of all. But beauty creates its own troubles. You look at a waterfall or an ocean or a sunset, and you find yourself wanting to share it with someone.

For me, reading books like The Humans has been, and still is, the best way I’ve found to rejuvenate a withered psyche after a dispiriting week. When everything and everyone around me seems at conflict with some ill defined “other,” stories like these remind me that all I have to do to see our shared humanity is look a little closer.

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