Actor Harvey Fierstein once said: “Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.”
Often, we move through life as if we had no agency. When bad things happen, it’s easy to become victims of those circumstances and feel like we have no control. When we do that, we let shame, fear, or anger become the authors of our own story.
It becomes even more challenging if you struggle with mental illness, like depression or anxiety, or have experienced trauma in your life. Those things can feel so binding and make you feel so small. It’s like you’re just being thrown around life without any control at all. And if you’ve gone through something traumatic, that experience can easily sabotage your happiness.
When bad things happen, we are faced with a choice. Do we let those moments define us? Or do we rewrite our story?
Friends, we have much more agency than we realize, and it all has to do with our mindset. We can’t always keep bad things from happening — COVID-19, the death of a friend, mental illness — but we can control how we respond to those things.
“If we don’t rewrite our story, we relive our story.” – Lori Gottlieb
My guest today is Lori Gottlieb — one of the wisest women I have ever met. She’s someone who truly understands the value of writing your own story in life and writing it well.
Lori Gottlieb is a renowned psychotherapist who writes the weekly “Dear Therapist” column in the Atlantic. And now, she’s out with a New York Times best-selling book called Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, which weaves Lori’s experience doling out advice with her decision to seek counseling herself. This book is also being adapted as television series, so stay tuned for that in the coming months!
In addition to her clinical practice, she writes The Atlantic’s weekly “Dear Therapist” advice column and regularly contributes to The New York Times and many other publications. Her recent TED Talk, “How Changing Your Story Can Change Your Life,” is one of the top ten most-watched TED talks of the year. I highly suggest that you check it out after listening to this episode. In it, Lori explains how we can break free from negative, repetitive stories and rewrite our narrative from a better, different perspective.
As a member of the Advisory Council for Bring Change to Mind and advisor to the Aspen Institute, Lori is a sought-after expert in shows such as The Today Show, Good Morning America, The CBS This Morning, CNN, and NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
She is also the co-host of the new iHeart Radio podcast, Dear Therapists, produced by Katie Couric. With fellow therapist Guy Winch, Lori invites you to be a fly on the wall and listen to raw, transformation sessions with real people and learn about yourself through the lens of others’ experiences.
I’ve wanted to have Lori on this podcast for a long time now, and we had an amazing, wide-ranging discussion on how her decades of wisdom can translate to a better life. In this interview, we talk about how anybody can rewrite their story, let go of shame, and have better, healthier relationships. You’re not gonna want to miss this one!
When someone’s struggling with trauma, mental illness, or loss, they usually seek therapy for one universal reason:
How can I be in less pain?
And that makes sense, right? Why else would we go to therapy other than to feel relief from suffering and find healing? In her counseling sessions, Lori is asked this question 24/7, and she’s provided so much counsel and wisdom to hundreds of people. But when it comes down to it, Lori explained that transformation only happens when it comes from within the person.
“They come to realize that they’re going to have to make changes, and I think that people don’t realize how much agency they have. They don’t really know that they can choose their response to their circumstances. … And I’m not saying that there aren’t incredibly daunting circumstances right now in the world … but then, how do you respond? What are you going to do about it? And I think that’s where people get stuck.” – Lori Gottlieb
When you’re deeply hurting, it’s easy to feel like you have no power, and you’re just a victim of your circumstances. But according to Lori, you actually choose to be a victim. This choice is usually supported by things in your past, traumas you’ve experienced, or a mental illness that you struggle with. The pain keeps us trapped in a negative narrative, and over time, we begin to believe the story is true.
“Whatever that version of the story is, we carry [it] with us, and we never revise it. And so you create a story when you’re younger, for example, about something that happened in your life. And then as an adult, you’ve never looked at that story through the adult lens. … And so that’s why I say that when people come in, that we’re all unreliable narrators … and the thing is, these are usually faulty narratives.” – Lori Gottlieb
What story are you telling yourself? Are you the hero or the villain in your own story? Are you a victim or a survivor? When bad things happen, I try to interpret them as “neutral events” that can teach me something. My response to those events dictates their effect on me, so if I can work on controlling my response, I end up being the author of my story.
When someone doesn’t rewrite their story, they’re stuck in a time-loop, which just creates more and more pain.
“If we don’t rewrite our story, we relive our story, over and over, over and over … We are stuck. … And you see it in everything.” – Lori Gottlieb
For example, maybe someone cheated on you during a serious relationship. That heartbreak and anger have stayed with you for years, and instead of working through that pain, you decided to treat yourself as the victim. Years later, you notice that you are sabotaging all your relationships because you never feel like you can trust anyone. You can trace that issue right back to that story you tell about yourself: “I’m not worthy of love, and I can’t trust anyone.”
Are you in one of these negative thought loops? I think it’s safe to say that all of us have some false narratives swirling around in our heads. Lori recommended that we ask ourselves “the miracle question” to get back on track:
“There’s this thing called ‘the miracle question,’ [and] it’s used in therapy. And the ‘miracle question’ is, ‘If you could have the kind of life that you want to have, what would that look like? And what is keeping you from having it? What is in the way right now that you can do?’ Write down … [that] scenario and what steps [you] need to take to get there. … We always like to say that the [biggest] transformations come about from the tiny, almost imperceptible steps that we take along the way.” – Lori Gottlieb
After you ask yourself the miracle question, don’t feel the pressure to get all those steps completed in one day. In most cases, it’s going to take time to finish that process. But, if you can choose just one small step and work on that, you’ll be amazed by the power it has. Slowly but surely, you’ll begin rewriting that narrative in your brain and reclaiming agency over your life.
And if you need help doing this, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone. This is where therapy is extremely helpful. When these stories are engrained deep within us, we often have an emotional block that keeps us from rewiring, and therapists can help with this. Remember: There is nothing braver than asking someone for help.
For many years, I was telling myself this story:
“If other people knew that I had been sexually assaulted, they would not love me.”
If you’ve been following The School of Greatness for a while, you know that as a child, I was sexually abused by a man I didn’t know. For 25 years, I held onto that secret because I was so ashamed. I thought that if anyone knew, they couldn’t possibly accept me. This was the story I was writing in my head, and I had never felt more alone in my life.
How do we let go of shame? How do we keep it from writing our life story? Maybe you’ve done something in the past that you’re not proud of, or something has been done to you that’s made you feel ashamed. How can you begin to heal from that? I asked Lori this question, and this was her answer:
“Well, I think they [should] do what you did, which is you started talking about it. And I think you have to choose your audience, which is really important, especially as you’re just starting out. … You have to really choose someone who’s safe, and if you don’t have those people, I think a therapist is a really good place to start.’ – Lori Gottlieb
When you can share that false narrative with someone you trust, you kick shame out of the driver’s seat. Sharing my experience for the first time was terrifying, but the relief I felt afterward was incredible.
Vulnerability is the key to letting go of shame, but unfortunately, it’s not always easy — especially for men.
“I do think that it’s harder for men to talk about anything, whether it’s sexual abuse or just sort of like anything they feel vulernable about. … Men start to associate ‘tough’ and ‘strong’ with not feeling [anything]. ‘I’m not going to feel the pain of my broken wrist. I’m just going to keep playing’… ‘I’m not going to tell people about the pain of my sexual abuse because I going to be strong.’ And what they don’t realize is that strength is actually being able to talk about these things.” – Lori Gottlieb
Men often like to put on a mask that hides their vulnerability because it’s supposedly a weakness. But this could not be further from the truth. Guys — vulnerability is not a weakness. It is courage. It is strength. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable about your shame, you can finally begin to heal, not only yourself but others, too.
“Part of toppling the patriarchy is allowing men to have feelings because it gives women more equality, too. … To be able to be who you are [gives] men … this space to make room for women. It is something that privileges everybody.” – Lori Gottlieb
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, shame no longer has the upper hand. For all you men out there, know that vulnerability doesn’t make you weak — it makes you stronger. It lets you have healthier relationships with the people around you, and it creates a community of mutual support. Love will defeat shame every single time.
We all know that relationships can be hard — even if both people open up and are vulnerable with each other. Lori works a lot with couples, so I was curious to know why so many people struggle in intimate relationships.
“There’s sort of this hierarchy of pain. … So someone will say, ‘I feel so neglected … in this marriage … [or] I take the kids all day’… And [there’s] just this hierarchy of whose pain is greater, and that gets to be addressed and … there’s no room for the other person’s pain because I’m the one who’s in immense pain. My pain is so much worse than your pain.” – Lori Gottlieb
When we start comparing pain, things get messy, and we end up hurting the relationship. Lori explained that there’s no hierarchy of pain — pain is pain. But if you start comparing pain on a scale of one to ten, then it becomes a competition.
“Then it’s kind of like, ‘Well, you need to do this thing to minimize my pain,’ as opposed to, ‘what can we do together? … what can we do to help each other?’ We don’t think about that. It’s like, ‘You need to do this for me.'” – Lori Gottleib
Does this sound like your relationship? Are you and your partner in a constant battle of whose needs should be met first? I know I’ve been there, and so to follow up, I asked Lori what three things every successful relationship needs. If you’re struggling in your relationships right now, read on!
“Flexibility is a big one. … If you are a flexible person, your relationship is going to have a much better chance of weathering the vicissitudes of life than if you’re a really rigid person.” – Lori Gottlieb
Being flexible doesn’t mean you have to be a push-over — flexibility is really about being open-minded, willing to change and adapt, and consider your partner’s needs as important. When two flexible people are in a relationship, they know how to stay attuned to one another’s needs without comparing pain.
#2. Emotional Stability
“[If] you’re with someone who hasn’t kind of worked out their stuff, they’re going to be fighting not just with you but lots of other people from the past.” – Lori Gottlieb
While there are some issues that can be worked out within a relationship, there are others that require individual attention. If we haven’t started working through our own pain, then it’s likely that it will spill over onto the other person’s plate. For example, if you have unresolved family issues that you’re ignoring, you’re probably bringing those into your romantic relationship as well. Emotional stability is huge when it comes to relationship success — the couples who work on personal growth are the ones who make it.
“Nobody’s perfect in a relationship, right? So you have to have five positive interactions for every negative interaction that you have.” – Lori Gottlieb
As Lori said, every relationship is going to have its rough patches, which is completely natural. It’s important that in these moments, we intentionally seek out positive experiences. If you and your partner get into a fight because you’re both burnt out on work, maybe plan a fun date night in the future! Remember: You have way more agency than you realize, and when you take the initiative to right a wrong, then odds are, you’ll succeed.
This interview was especially powerful for me, and I learned so much from Lori’s wisdom about rewriting your story, letting go of shame, and cultivating healthy relationships. There was so much more that we talked about, so make sure to listen to the full episode!
I want to take a second to acknowledge Lori for constantly thinking about humanity. Her passion is to help people better their stories and get on the road towards healing, and that’s a beautiful mission. The work she’s doing is truly changing lives. I’m so grateful that we have people like her in the world.
Her definition of greatness is simple and profound — “Wholeness.” At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much money we have or whether we’re famous. What matters is that we worked through pain towards healing and, in the process, served those around us.
If you want to hear more for Lori, definitely check out her podcast Dear Therapists and read her column in the Atlantic. She provides wonderful advice and insight on mental illness, trauma, and relationships that you can easily apply to your own life. Also — don’t forget to grab a copy of her New York Times bestseller, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone! It’s an excellent resource for anyone considering therapy.
If this interview impacted you, please share it with someone you know needs to hear it. You also can tag Lori, @lorigottlieb_author, and me, @lewishowes, on Instagram with a screenshot of the episode and your greatest takeaways. We would love to support you!
Remember: You are loved. You are worthy. You matter.
Friends, join me on Episode 1013 to learn how to overcome shame, process pain, and maximize your mental health with the amazing Lori Gottlieb!