Therapy is a touchy subject. Lots of people think they’re probably fine but are not sure, while others want to talk to someone about their problems but don’t really know if therapy would work. We asked Lori Gottlieb, therapist and author of the new book , to answer some common — and sometimes uncomfortable — questions about counseling.
Does everyone need therapy?
: I don’t think everyone needs to do therapy. I think that pretty much everyone can benefit from therapy. For people who are motivated to change, are curious about themselves and maybe want to see what trips them up in ways that they don’t realize, I think it can be incredibly useful.
We change in relation to others. It’s very hard to change in isolation. In therapy you get that on steroids because the therapist is holding up a mirror to you and saying, “Look at your reflection. I want you to see the ways that you might be shooting yourself in the foot and ending up in the same place over and over.” You can’t do that if another person isn’t there to observe you and then to very gently help you see that observation.
Sometimes I’ll have some people do an exercise. They have to write down everything they say to themselves, the critical voice in their head. And even though they know that they can be critical, they don’t realize the extent of it. They’re embarrassed to read it back to me. The way that they talk to themselves—they’re like bullies. And I think therapy can help you become more aware of that and maybe see patterns in how you relate to other people that hold you back from having the kinds of relationships you want.
What should a person look for in a therapist?
: I think it depends what you feel like in the room with the person. Did you feel understood? Did you feel comfortable talking to this person? It’s all you want to know that first time.
Are some people beyond help?
: I think when people come to therapy, they have to realize that they’re going to have to see themselves in a way that they maybe prefer not to be seen. I can’t help people who aren’t curious about something that recurs in their lives. So I think that if you’re going to go into therapy, you have to know that no one is accusing you of anything. We’re just trying to help you see something so that we can help you feel better faster.
Say you couldn’t afford therapy. What would you advise?
: Go to a low-fee clinic because they have sliding scales and you’ll talk to people who are training to be therapists. It’s better than not doing anything.
Why can’t your spouse help you change?
: Because you don’t want to get a divorce! When you tell other people who are invested in you in that way that they need to make a change or that you notice something about them, you have an agenda. Part of your agenda is their well-being. But part of it is that this person is making your life difficult by what they’re doing, and so you want them to change partly for you.
People don’t want to change for somebody else. It has to be intrinsically motivated. In therapy, people know that the therapist’s agenda is not, “I want you to change for me, the therapist.” It’s, “I want you to see something about yourself, and it’s up to you if you change. I have no horse in this race.”
Could a parent do what a therapist does?
: When children are younger and they really trust your judgment, and if you do it in a loving way, not in a way that feels critical—”You’re always doing this”—but “I notice that you and Emma keep getting into arguments in school and what do you think that’s about?” you can help them see something.
Is there one thing that people could do to make themselves more mentally healthy without a therapist?
: The best tip that I can give is that they need to connect more in real life with people that they care about. Because so many people are feeling depression, anxiety, loneliness. Even when they’re happily married. Even when they have families or good friends. With their partners, they’re co-computing at night. The phones are always out. They don’t have just the face-to-face time. So go have coffee with a friend and don’t just “like” something of theirs on Facebook. Go have experiences with other people face-to-face where there are no screens, no phones, nothing pinging or vibrating.
Is it wrong to Google your ex?
: I love that you ask that, because a lot of people think that when you break up with someone, they’re sort of gone. And I think that every single person we are in relationship to in our lives lives within us in a way. I don’t mean that we dwell on them or even think about them all that often, but I think it’s very human to think about the people who were significant to us at a certain time in our lives.
When we’re Googling exes, there’s something nostalgic about it, kind of bringing back a time in our younger years. We don’t just live in a particular moment. We have all this history that comes with us. So yeah, I think there’s nothing wrong with being curious about exes.
But when people are looking because they don’t have enough of their own life, or they want to feel connected to this person even though there isn’t that connection anymore, or they wish they were in that person’s life, it’s not very healthy.
What is the best thing that you can do to help somebody who’s crying?
: The instinct is to make them stop. We feel uncomfortable because we feel helpless. We feel like they’re in distress, and the way of helping them is to get them to stop crying. Or to say something that will make them feel better.
But what they really need in that moment is someone to just sit there with them and meet them where they are. And where they are is they’re very distressed. Trying to give them a solution to their problem at that moment is not going to be that helpful. And it makes them feel incredibly isolated when you say it’s not really that bad. I’m hysterically crying, but it’s not really that bad?
People say this to their children all the time, but to the child, whatever they’re feeling right then really feels like that. Don’t try to talk people out of their feelings. Their feelings are their feelings. And it’s ok that they’re experiencing pain. Feelings are like the weather. They blow in, they blow out. If there’s a storm, there’s a storm. The storm’s not always going to be there. You know that in your head. They can’t see it right now, but let them be in the storm, sit in the storm with them, and weather the storm together.