Growing into ourselves, who we are as people, can often take longer than just the physical process of changing from a child to an adult. For many people, that growth process is assisted by some form of therapy, which one psychotherapist argues can provide comfort and an opportunity for change.
Psychotherapist and writer Lori Gottlieb is the weekly “Dear Therapist” columnist for The Atlantic and New York Times bestselling author. She speaks to us on "Take Care" about her latest book “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.” In it Gottlieb writes about stories from the patients she treats as a therapist and her own journey in therapy as a patient.
Gottlieb said she wanted the book to appeal to two themes: we grow in connection with others, and we are more similar than different.
“I wanted to bring people back into the therapy room to see the patients that I was working with because I think they’d identify with their struggles,” she said. “I also wanted people to see my humanity because therapists go to therapy too.”
One of the things Gottlieb discusses in her book is that stories shape who we are, and people relate better to stories, not facts, which is why it is so important to tell those stories to others.
“Stories have always been the way that we make sense of ourselves in the world and in relation to other people,” she said. “A lot of people are really craving that feeling of being understood.”
Many do not want to reveal their true selves to others, though, and Gottlieb said this is because people feel a fake, pretty version of themselves will be liked by others more than their authentic self. The best way to alleviate that feeling is by sharing our stories and encouraging others to do so, she said.
“There’s a lot of shame around our lives because I think that we don’t see other people talking about their struggles,” Gottlieb said. “If we were more open about the reality of our lives and the different facets of our lives, I think people would not feel so much shame about revealing things about themselves.”
There remains a stigma around emotional issues, which can lead people to place themselves on a hierarchy of pain. Gottlieb said she sees this a lot, when people think they have no right to complain about their struggles simply because someone has it worse, but this hierarchy is not real.
People may be ashamed of their struggle or feel like they are complaining, but therapy can help people see why they are experiencing their pain and find a way to alleviate it on their own terms, she said.
“Therapy makes people look at themselves in a way that they normally wouldn’t want to because of that shame, but there’s nothing shameful about what they find,” Gottlieb said. “People are often pleasantly surprised, in fact, by what they find.”
That insight is only half the battle, Gottlieb said. The second half is taking what the therapist has said and applying their advice to the outside world, even though it can be hard for some to admit they are the ones that have to change.
“People come to therapy and they want somebody else to change,” she said. “The best way to get somebody else to change is to make changes yourself because your change will influence the way they react to you, the way they respond to you.”
Ultimately, growing into ourselves happens when we change the harmful narratives we say about ourselves, Gottlieb said. When she is counseling patients, she said she looks at how people talk about themselves, and often, those people criticize themselves far more than others around them. Then, she offers a way to change that.
“Sometimes people don’t realize that they’re narrating that story in their head every day. And often, people are really unkind to themselves,” Gottlieb said. “Once people start to hear that the narration in their head is contributing to this story, they start to make changes in their story, and then, they start to make changes in their life.”
The best general advice Gottlieb can offer, she said, is to validate those feelings that we normally try to push down. Because of modern technology, there can be a universal feeling of loneliness, but when people talk to each other, they may realize they are not so alone after all.
“Make sure you get out. Make sure that you go and you have coffee with a friend, face to face, without your phones on the table,” Gottlieb said. “Make sure that you’re actually connecting with people in a way that is meaningful.”