The Secret Lives Of Therapists
The Oprah Magazine|July 2019
The Secret Lives Of Therapists

Ever wonder what she’s thinking— and writing on that clipboard? L.A. psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb tells all.

Lori Gottlieb

WHEN I TELL PEOPLE what I do for a living, I brace myself for awkwardness. “A therapist! Should I spill my guts about my childhood?” People who say that are kidding—but also not. Then there’s “Can you help me with my mother-in-law problem?” And “Are you going to psychoanalyze me?” (The answers, by the way, are “Please don’t,” “Possibly,” and “Why would I do that here? If I were a gynecologist, would you ask whether I was about to give you a pelvic exam?”)

Of course, I understand the curiosity. Before I got my clinical psychology degree and started seeing patients ten years ago, I wondered about my own therapist: What’s going through her head as she listens to me talk about the thoughts swirling in mine? Is she judging me? Does she like me? Are there things she isn’t telling me—about me? Wait, did she just stifle a yawn? Therapists can be as confounding as they are helpful. So pull up a chair, and let’s chat about what everybody wants to know.

“How do you decide what personal information to share?

Most therapists nowadays aren’t what Freudians call blank slates. For example, we might tell a patient how an interaction with her makes us feel—especially if it’s a behavioral pattern that shows up in her relationships outside the office and we want her to become aware of those patterns. Or we may bond over a TV show we both like (better to admit I watch The Bachelor than feign ignorance and then name-check a character you haven’t mentioned). We’d rather be a “regular person” than a cipher. But we are strategic. One therapist I know told a patient whose child was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome that she also had a son with Tourette’s, and it deepened their therapeutic relationship. Another colleague counseled a patient whose father had died by suicide, yet decided it felt too personal to reveal that his own father had died the same way. Even just mentioning our families can be unhelpfully distracting (a patient distressed over infertility might fixate on her therapist’s three kids, for example). In each situation, we weigh the risk: Is this information beneficial to the patient? Or could sharing these details be perceived as inappropriate or self-indulgent? We’re taught to avoid the latter, which could cause a patient to shut down or even flee.

“Do patients ever bore you?

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July 2019