How Changing Your Story Can Change Your Life: Lori Gottlieb (Transcript)

Here is the full text of psychotherapist and advice columnist Lori Gottlieb’s talk titled “How Changing Your Story Can Change Your Life” at TED conference.

Lori Gottlieb – Psychotherapist

I’m going to start by telling you about an email that I saw in my inbox recently.

Now, I have a pretty unusual inbox because I’m a therapist and I write an advice column called “Dear Therapist,” so you can imagine what’s in there.

I mean, I’ve read thousands of very personal letters from strangers all over the world. And these letters range from heartbreak and loss, to spats with parents or siblings. I keep them in a folder on my laptop, and I’ve named it “The Problems of Living.”

So, I get this email, I get lots of emails just like this, and I want to bring you into my world for a second and read you one of these letters.

And here’s how it goes:

“Dear Therapist,

I’ve been married for 10 years and things were good until a couple of years ago. That’s when my husband stopped wanting to have sex as much, and now we barely have sex at all.”

I’m sure you guys were not expecting this.

“Well, last night I discovered that for the past few months, he’s been secretly having long, late-night phone calls with a woman at his office. I googled her, and she’s gorgeous. I can’t believe this is happening. My father had an affair with a coworker when I was young and it broke our family apart.

Needless to say, I’m devastated. If I stay in this marriage, I’ll never be able to trust my husband again. But I don’t want to put our kids through a divorce, stepmom situation, etc. What should I do?”

Well, what do you think she should do? If you got this letter, you might be thinking about how painful infidelity is.

Or maybe about how especially painful it is here because of her experience growing up with her father. And like me, you’d probably have some empathy for this woman, and you might even have some, how should I put this nicely, let’s just call them “not-so-positive” feelings for her husband.

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Now, those are the kinds of things that go through my mind too, when I’m reading these letters in my inbox. But I have to be really careful when I respond to these letters, because I know that every letter I get is actually just a story written by a specific author.

And that another version of this story also exists. It always does.

And I know this because if I’ve learned anything as a therapist, it’s that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives. I am. You are. And so is everyone you know. Which I probably shouldn’t have told you because now you’re not going to believe my TED Talk.

Look, I don’t mean that we purposely mislead. Most of what people tell me is absolutely true, just from their current points of view. Depending on what they emphasize or minimize, what they leave in, what they leave out, what they see and want me to see, they tell their stories in a particular way.

The psychologist Jerome Bruner described this beautifully — he said, “To tell a story is, inescapably, to take a moral stance.”

All of us walk around with stories about our lives. Why choices were made, why things went wrong, why we treated someone a certain way — because obviously, they deserved it — why someone treated us a certain way — even though, obviously, we didn’t. Stories are the way we make sense of our lives.

BUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE STORIES WE TELL ARE MISLEADING OR INCOMPLETE OR JUST WRONG?

Well, instead of providing clarity, these stories keep us stuck. We assume that our circumstances shape our stories. But what I found time and again in my work is that the exact opposite happens.

The way we narrate our lives shapes what they become. That’s the danger of our stories, because they can really mess us up, but it’s also their power.

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Because what it means is that if we can change our stories, then we can change our lives. And today, I want to show you how.

Now, I told you I’m a therapist, and I really am, I’m not being an unreliable narrator. But if I’m, let’s say, on an airplane, and someone asks what I do, I usually say I’m an editor.

And I say that partly because if I say I’m a therapist, I always get some awkward response, like, “Oh, a therapist. Are you going to psychoanalyze me?”

And I’m thinking, “A: no, and B: why would I do that here? If I said I was a gynecologist, would you ask if I were about to give you a pelvic exam?”

But the main reason I say I’m an editor is because it’s true. Now, it’s the job of all therapists to help people edit, but what’s interesting about my specific role as Dear Therapist is that when I edit, I’m not just editing for one person. I’m trying to teach a whole group of readers how to edit, using one letter each week as the example.

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