The Stories We Tell About Our Families (And Ourselves!) May Need Some Revisions. Best-Selling Author Lori Gottlieb Has the Tools You Need to Do a Courageous Edit
As any of us who’ve ever been in therapy knows, spending time with your family of origin can be a little like going back to the scene of the crime—the place where the stories we have about ourselves originated.
You’re the sensitive one. You’re the difficult child. You’re the reason you and your sister fight.
“When we go home for the holidays, we tend to revert to our old roles—and our roles are stories told about us,” says Lori Gottlieb, psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. “It could be a million stories—whatever you were told about yourself in your family and whatever you’ve told yourself about your family. And then you react to it, and that solidifies the story.”
Gottlieb’s 2019 TED Talk was all about how we are the storytellers of our lives, creating narratives to make sense of what happens to us—narratives that may need some courageous edits when the stories we tell ourselves aren’t accurate. The talk quickly went viral, becoming one of the 10 most watched of the year. And thanks to all of the people who emailed, posted on social media, and came up to her after book readings begging for more, Gottlieb wrote a companion guide: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone The Workbook: A Toolkit for Editing Your Story and Changing Your Life.
I sat down with Gottlieb to talk about her new book, why the holidays are a great time to look at the original stories about ourselves, and how to actually do those hard revisions. “This workbook will teach you to think like an editor by offering you tools to start making the changes you want,” says Gottlieb.
A Conversation with Lori Gottlieb
What do we do when spending time with our families during the holidays that takes us right back into our “old” stories?
What’s important to remember about the stories other people have about us—like our family—is that we didn’t write them! These are stories someone else told us, and they’re much more about the person telling the story than they are about us.
If you had parents who had trouble dealing with their own feelings, for example, they were probably very triggered by your feelings—so the story might’ve been, You’re so sensitive or difficult. If your parents didn’t have a lot of practice resolving conflict—and you wanted to talk about things and resolve issues when they came up—their story about you might be, You can never let things go. But that story isn’t really about you, it’s about their discomfort.
Yet despite these stories not really being about us, we internalize them. And then we go through the world thinking, Oh, I must be so sensitive. And then that story gets told over and over by you, and it affects how you relate to other people—your friends, your romantic partner, even your own kids.
All the work we’ve done to revise our stories can feel like it’s undone when we’re around our family of origin. Why is this—and what can we do about it?
When we’re kids, we adapt to the situation in front of us. Did you shut down in response to what was in front of you, or the stories that were told about you? Did you yell? Did you stick up for yourself? I think it’s important to remember that you don’t have to do that anymore, because now you’re an adult. If you find yourself slipping back into these strategies you used when you were younger, take a breath and recognize you have other resources now that are healthier for you. That might be letting your family have their beliefs without arguing about them. Or very calmly saying something like, “I don’t believe that’s true,” and then let it go.
If someone is dropping something on you—whether it’s guilt, anger, whatever it is—I always say you don’t have to sign for that package. Whatever someone is sending you, you don’t have to accept delivery.
What’s Step No. 1 when it comes to revising our old stories that are keeping us stuck?
When people read Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, it wasn’t supposed to be a self-help book. I intended it to be more of an experience than a blueprint. But after the book came out, everyone said, “I underlined sentences, highlighted sections, and have quotes posted all over my house! How do I use all of this to revise my story?” So, I wrote Maybe You Should Talk to Someone The Workbook, which is a step-by-step guide to ask yourself the questions that will help you edit your stories—including ones you don’t even know you’re telling yourself about yourself!
After all, we’re not always reliable narrators of our stories. Let’s say you have evidence that you’re lovable, and other evidence that you’re not lovable. We usually stick with, Oh, I must be unloveable because of that one person rather than focusing on the dozens of other people who show you that you are, in fact, lovable. We walk around with these stories that aren’t actually our own, and then they play out with others and in your relationship with yourself.
Examining these stories about ourselves that we think are true gives us freedom from them! It helps us see the ways these stories are holding us back and gives us a chance to tell ourselves another more accurate and updated story that feels more freeing.
What if we’re nervous about how our families will respond to the stories we’ve re-written about ourselves?
I think you can expect your family will notice, and ultimately, they’re going to have to respond differently to you. That may not happen immediately. But it’s like a dance with someone: When you change your dance steps, the person you’re dancing with has to change theirs, too, otherwise you’ll trip and fall. You can’t change another person, but you can influence change in someone. When you respond differently to them, they’re going to respond differently to you.
It seems to me like the holidays are actually a great time to work through your new book and practice responding differently.
Yes! It’s a fantastic time to ask yourself, What stories do I tell myself about love, family, my body, my friendships? When you’re with your family, it’s a great time to ask yourself these questions because all of those stories come up again. Watch what happens at Thanksgiving meal, around food and around body image. How do people talk about food at the table? How do people talk about love? How do people talk about other family members? Think of it like you’re doing your research for the first chapter of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone The Workbook! Being around your family will likely bring up things you don’t realize you’re carrying around but that are there all the time.
Remember, you’re an author of your life. This is your opportunity to edit your story and to write what comes next.
Lori Gottlieb is a psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, which has sold over a million copies and is currently being adapted as a television series for ABC. In addition to her clinical practice, she is co-host of the popular “Dear Therapists” podcast produced by Katie Couric and writes The Atlantic’s weekly “Dear Therapist” advice column. She is a sought-after expert in media such as The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, CNN, and NPR’s “Fresh Air” and her recent TED Talk was one of the Top 10 Most Watched of the Year. She is the creator of the brand new Maybe You Should Talk To Someone Workbook: A Toolkit for Editing Your Story and Changing Your Life. Learn more at LoriGottlieb.com or by following her on Twitter @LoriGottlieb1 and Instagram @lorigottlieb_author.