Excerpt: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
After experiencing her own personal crisis, Lori Gottlieb–a New York Times best-selling author, psychotherapist, and national advice columnist–ended up on a therapist’s couch herself. In her book, “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed,” Lori offers a deeply personal look behind the scenes of a therapist’s world in which her patients are looking for answers … and so is she. The following is an excerpt from her book and a conversation with her therapist, Wendell:
“So,” I’m telling Wendell, “we get back from a late dinner with friends and I ask Zach (my son) to take his shower, but he wants to play, and I tell him we can’t because it’s a school night. And then he has this complete overreaction and whines, ‘You’re so mean! You’re the meanest!’— which isn’t like him at all— but also this anger just boils up inside me.
“So I say something petty like, ‘Oh, really? Well, maybe next time I shouldn’t take you and your friends out to dinner if I’m so mean.’ Like I’m five years old! And he says, ‘Fine!’ and slams his door— he’s never slammed his door before— and gets in the shower and I go to my computer planning to answer emails but instead I’m having a conversation in my head about whether I really am mean. How could I have responded that way? I’m the adult, after all.
“And then all of a sudden I remember a frustrating phone conversation I’d had with my mother that morning and it clicks. I’m not angry with Zach. I’m angry with my mom. It was classic displacement.”
Wendell smiles as if to say, Displacement’s a bitch, isn’t it? We all use defense mechanisms to deal with anxiety, frustration, or unacceptable impulses, but what’s fascinating about them is that we aren’t aware of them in the moment. A familiar example is denial — a smoker might cling to the belief that his shortness of breath is due to the hot weather and not his cigarettes. Another person might use rationalization (justifying something shameful)— saying after he’s rejected for a job that he never really wanted the job in the first place. In reaction formation, unacceptable feelings or impulses are expressed as their opposite, as when a person who dislikes her neighbor goes out of her way to befriend her or when an evangelical Christian man who’s attracted to men makes homophobic slurs.
Some defense mechanisms are considered primitive and others mature. In the latter group is sublimation, when a person turns a potentially harmful impulse into something less harmful (a man with aggressive impulses takes up boxing) or even constructive (a person with the urge to cut people becomes a surgeon who saves lives).
Displacement (shifting a feeling toward one person onto a safer alternative) is considered a neurotic defense, neither primitive nor mature. A person who was yelled at by her boss but could get fired if she yelled back might come home and yell at her dog. Or a woman who felt angry at her mother after a phone conversation might displace that anger onto her son. I tell Wendell that when I went to apologize to Zach after his shower,
I discovered that he, too, was displacing his anger onto me— some kids at recess had kicked Zach and his friends off the basketball courts. When the yard teacher said that everyone could play, the boys wouldn’t pass the ball to Zach or his friends, and apparently, some “mean” things were said. Zach was furious with those boys, but it was safer to be furious at his mom who wanted him to take a shower.
“The irony of the story,” I continue, “is that we both launched our anger at the wrong target.”
From time to time, Wendell and I have discussed the ways parental relationships evolve in midlife as people shift from blaming their parents to taking full responsibility for their lives. It’s what Wendell calls “the changing of the guard.” Whereas in their younger years, people often come to therapy to understand why their parents won’t act in ways they wish, later on, people come to figure out how to manage what is. And so my question about my mother has gone from “Why can’t she change?” to “Why can’t I?” How is it, I ask Wendell, that even in my forties, I can be affected so deeply by a phone call from my mother?
I’m not asking for an actual answer. Wendell doesn’t need to tell me that people regress; that you might astonish yourself with how far you’ve come, only to slip back into your old roles.
“It’s like the eggs,” I say, and he nods in recognition. I once told Wendell that Mike, my colleague, had said a while back that when we feel fragile, we’re like raw eggs — we crack open and splatter if dropped. But when we develop more resilience, we’re like hard-boiled eggs— we might get dinged up if dropped, but we won’t crack completely and spill all over the place. Over the years, I’ve gone from being a raw egg to a hard-boiled egg with my mother, but sometimes the raw egg in me emerges.
I tell Wendell that later that night my mom apologized and we worked it out. Before that, though, I’d gotten caught up in our old routine— her wanting me to do something the way she wanted it done, me wanting to do it the way I wanted. And perhaps Zach perceives me the same way, try- ing to control him by getting him to do things the way I want too — all in the name of love, of wanting the best for our children. As much as I claim to be dramatically different from my mother, there are times when I’m eerily similar.
Now, talking about my phone conversation, I don’t bother telling Wendell what my mom said or what I said because I know that’s not the point. He won’t position me as victim and my mom as aggressor. Years ago I might have deconstructed our pas de deux, trying to garner sympathy for my predicament: Can’t you see? Isn’t she difficult? But now I find his more clear-eyed approach comforting.
Today I tell Wendell that I’ve begun saving my mom’s phone messages to my computer, the warm and sweet ones that I’ll want to hear, that my son may want so that he can hear his grandmother’s voice when he’s my age— or, later, when we’re both gone. I tell him that I’m also noticing that the nagging I do as a parent isn’t for Zach as much as it is for me; it’s a distraction from my awareness that he’ll be leaving me one day, from my sadness, despite my wanting him to do the healthy work of what’s called “separation and individuation.”
I try to imagine Zach as a teenager. I remember my mom dealing with me as a teenager and finding me as alien as I might one day find Zach. It seems not that long ago that he was in preschool, and my parents healthy, and I was healthy, and the neighborhood kids all ran outside to play every evening after dinner, and the only thought I had about the future at all was the sense of Things will be easier, I’ll have more flexibility, more sleep. I never thought about what would be lost.
Who knew that a phone call with my mother could bring all this to the surface— that underneath the old mother-daughter frustration was not a wish for her to go away but a longing for her to stay forever?
I think of something else Wendell once said: “The nature of life is change and the nature of people is to resist change.” It was a paraphrase of something he’d read that had resonated with him both personally and as a therapist, he told me, because it was a theme that informed nearly every person’s struggles. The day before he said this, I had been told by my eye doctor that I had developed presbyopia, which happens to most people in their forties. As people age, they become farsighted; they have to hold whatever they’re reading or looking at farther away in order to see it clearly. But maybe an emotional presbyopia happens around this age too, where people pull back to see the bigger picture: how scared they are to lose what they have, even if they still complain about it.
“And my mother!” Julie exclaims in my office later that day, recalling her own morning conversation with her mom. “This is so hard on her. She said her job as a parent was to make sure that her children were safe when she left the planet, but now she’s making sure I’m leaving the planet safely.” Julie tells me that when she was in college, she got in a fight with her mom about Julie’s boyfriend. Her mother thought that Julie had lost her natural buoyancy and that the boyfriend’s behaviors — canceling plans at the last minute, pressuring Julie to edit his papers, demanding that Julie spend the holidays with him instead of with her own family — were the reason. Julie’s mom suggested that she check out the campus counseling center to talk this over with a neutral party, and Julie exploded.
“There’s nothing wrong with our relationship!” Julie shouted. “If I go to a counselor, it will be to talk about you, not him!” She didn’t go to a counselor, though now she wishes she had. A few months later, the boyfriend dumped her. And her mom loved her enough not to say I told you so. Instead, when Julie called crying, her mom sat on the phone and simply listened.
“Now,” Julie says, “my mom will have to go to a therapist to talk about me.”
Recently, one of my lab tests came back positive for a marker for Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease most common in women over forty, but even so, my doctors aren’t sure I have this because I don’t have its chief symptoms. “It could be an unusual presentation,” one doctor explained, then went on to say that I may have Sjögren’s and something else or just something else that hasn’t— still — been determined. Sjögren’s, it turns out, is difficult to diagnose, and nobody knows what causes it— it could be genetic, environmental, triggered by a virus or bacteria, or some combination of those factors.
“We don’t have all the answers,” this doctor said, and while the prospect of still not knowing scared me, another doctor’s comment frightened me even more: “Whatever it is will present itself eventually.” That week, I’d told Wendell again that my greatest fear is leaving Zach without a mother, and Wendell said that I had two choices: I could give Zach a mother who’s constantly worried about leaving him motherless, or I could give him a mother whose uncertain health makes her more acutely aware of the preciousness of their time together.
“Which scares you less?” he’d asked rhetorically.
His question made me think of Julie and how initially I’d hesitated when she asked if I would see her through her death. It wasn’t just my inexperience that gave me pause, I realized later— it was that Julie would force me to face my own mortality, something I wasn’t ready to do. Even after agreeing to her request, I’d been keeping myself safe in that relationship by never comparing my mortality to hers. After all, nobody has put a time limit on my lifespan in the same way. But Julie had learned to live with who she was and what she had— which was, in essence, what I’d helped her to do and what we all need to do. There’s so much about our lives that remains unknown. I would have to cope with not knowing what my future held, manage my worry, and focus on living now. This couldn’t be just a piece of advice I’d given Julie. It was time for me to take my own medicine.
Excerpted from MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb. Copyright © 2019 by Lori Gottlieb. Published and reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
This excerpt was featured in the April 14th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.