The other day, I posted something on Twitter that said, “If I can’t touch my face soon, I might need to go to therapy.” A lot of people laughed and responded to do that. It might sound trivial, but it’s part of what’s going on in this very surreal situation. And one person tweeted back, “Not funny.”
What I tweeted back to that person was, “Sometimes when we’re facing a horrible situation, humor is a balm. We need to give our souls room to breathe.” It’s the concept of both/and. My son is doing remote learning right now because the school is closed. I’m so happy to see him all the time and I’m not happy about the circumstances under which I’m needing to see him. I recently wrote about a client who had cancer in my “Dear Therapist” column for The Atlantic. She and the people around her felt like they couldn’t laugh or joke about things, because then they’d be minimizing the fact that she has cancer.
And, yet, what they needed so much was to have some normalcy alongside the horror, frustration, and anxiety. That’s the both/and that we need to live in right now. I’ve also been talking a lot about the difference between productive anxiety and unproductive anxiety. The former is adaptive—if something isn’t right, we need to feel anxiety so we can respond to it. We need to be worried about this pandemic or we wouldn’t be practicing physical distancing, washing our hands until they’re chapped, and all those things. We need to do that. That’s productive anxiety.
Unproductive anxiety is excessive rumination. Thinking about something that has not happened yet. We can’t let all our emotional real estate be there in these really challenging times.
I write an advice column, so of course I love advice columns. I think there’s so much good advice out there and I love that so many people want to reach out and get help with their problems, as opposed to just ignoring or minimizing them. Too often people feel like, well, I have a roof over my head and food on the table, so my sadness, my anxiety, my grief, my relational difficulty or whatever it might be, it’s not that big of a deal. But I always tell people that there’s no hierarchy of pain. Pain is pain, and suffering is suffering.
People tend not to do this minimizing with their physical health as much. If you have some discomfort in your chest, you’ll probably think, I’m going to get this checked out before I have a massive heart attack. But when we feel emotional discomfort, we often wait until we’re having the equivalent of an emotional heart attack before we go talk to someone about it. By then, they’re in a crisis, and the issue is harder to treat, and they’ve suffered unnecessarily for however long they felt like the problem wasn’t big enough to get help with. These days, with all this physical distancing, I think that’s more important to counter than ever.
One of the main reasons I wrote Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is because I wanted to normalize our struggles, to make people realize that they aren’t alone. But sometimes therapists need things normalized as well, because our work can feel very isolating. We have our consultation groups, sure, but so many therapists show up to my book events and just want to talk about how much their lives look like mine. We don’t really get a forum to talk in that way very often.
So when we chat, it’s often about just being a real person in the world. A lot of therapists, for example, when they go to a dinner party, or they’re out in the world, get confronted with all the weird ideas people have therapists. Someone will say, “Oh, you’re a therapist?” And the therapist will get very self-conscious. How do I appear right now? Do I look professional? Am I acting appropriate? But you have to be able to say to yourself, Yeah, I’m out having a fun time at this BBQ. I’m having a drink. I’m having a hot dog. I’m laughing and joking around. I’m wearing my cut off jeans. And that’s also me.
I talk a lot about my personal experiences like that in my book. And because a lot of therapists want to be writers—I think just naturally, we’re storytellers—they want some advice on that. Now especially, while we all have some time at home on our hands, is a great time to write. So the first thing is you have to do is just write. It sounds obvious, but to be a writer, you have to write. Second, you have to get the audience out of the room, out of your head that is, and write for yourself. And I think that third thing—and this is the most important—is you have to be honest. If you’re honest, you’re going to have something to say. If you’re trying to entertain, if you’re trying to be liked, if you’re trying to write a bestseller, if you’re trying to get a lot of traffic on a blog post, you’re not going to if that’s your goal. Be honest. And mostly be honest with yourself.
Beyond the writing, part of being honest in life—and it’s worth emphasizing this now—is taking care of ourselves. I feel so grateful to be able to sit with people who trust me with all their troubles, all their anxieties and worries. As valuable as it may be for them to sit down with me, it’s valuable for me to sit down with them. But do it this work, we have to take care of ourselves. Protect your schedule. Eat your meals. Interact with colleagues if you can in between sessions. Make sure that you have a full life outside of the therapy room, virtual or otherwise.
You’re going to need to live your life in order to help other people live theirs. Self-care has become sort of like a throw away word, but we really have to practice what we want other people to be doing more of in their own lives. And for some reason, many therapists are not very good at self-care. They just don’t prioritize it. They pay lip service to it, but they don’t actually do it.
So now and looking beyond coronavirus times, how do we make sure we’re doing the things we want to do? Are we giving time to our relationships outside therapy? What are we doing about our own passion and dreams? If you want to be a writer, are you writing? Do you block out time for that? It’s about living our lives as fully as we can. Part of our lives is being a therapist, but it’s not the whole thing. We need to remember that.
Photo © Lori Gottlieb
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. 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 also 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.