Want to get ahead at work? Prioritize your mental health

Therapy and positive mental health has little to do with your childhood—and everything to do with your future

Nearly five years ago, author Lori Gottlieb was at a crossroads—and facing a crisis. An author-turned-psychotherapist who had achieved best-seller status with 2010’s Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, Gottlieb was juggling a broken heart from a bad breakup, an overdue deadline, and a full caseload of clients. The results of that tumultuous year became Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, a current New York Times best seller.

In the memoir, Gottlieb gets real about what goes on in her head as a psychologist and as a client, shattering the misconception that therapists have all the answers. Here, Gottlieb shares five lessons she’s learned from both sides of the couch on the importance of making time for mental health no matter how busy your Google calendar, how to listen to your gut, and why your therapist doesn’t care (that much) about your childhood.

Therapy is about your present and future—not your past

“People who come into therapy assume that it’s talking about your childhood ad nauseam,” says Gottlieb. But Gottlieb sees therapy as a mini-lab where you have a safe space to explore your emotional responses. “It’s gaining an awareness of yourself and how you may shoot yourself in the foot over and over again,” she says. “A therapist is holding up a mirror to your behavior, helping you see yourself more clearly.” While your childhood can offer insight into how you currently manage relationships, most psychotherapy is more concerned with the here and now of your life.

Quitting isn’t failure

Gottlieb was on contract to write a nonfiction book on happiness—and had written about three-quarters of the draft. But every time she sat down she felt a sense of dread. “I felt I had to do it. I was a single parent, I had grad-school loans, and my agent was telling me I would never write a book again if I canceled the contract,” says Gottlieb. “But I didn’t want to do it.” Despite protests from the people around her, Gottlieb canceled her contract—without a plan B. “One of the things my own therapist was telling me is that we think we’re in this cage, but even though there are bars in front of us, there’s empty space to the right and to the left.” Gottlieb is aware that not every “I quit” action has a happy ending, but finding these escapes is key. “We feel we don’t have a choice due to outside constraints, but there is always a choice.”

Mental-health care can lead to professional success

“If you were having chest pains, you would go to the ER, right?” asks Gottlieb, who wishes people would view mental health with the same urgency. “People justify: They think that they have a job, a roof, food on the the table, friends, and they’re doing fine. We minimize the importance of our emotional health.” Gottlieb emphasizes that you don’t need to be in crisis to seek mental-health help—it can make what’s already going well in your life go even more smoothly. “Our emotional health is so crucial to our wellbeing. It’s crucial to our physical health, and it’s also crucial to our success. For people who want success, I would say focusing on emotional health is a key factor.”

Marie Kondo the ‘shoulds’ from your life

Working with one young woman with terminal cancer made Gottlieb more proactive in how she lived her life. “This client noticed so many of her friends were putting off plans for the next year or next five years,” she says. “But she didn’t have that luxury.” That changed the way Gottlieb approaches her own life. “We spend so much time doing things that aren’t engaging. Why?” asks Gottlieb. It’s also equally important to take stock of what we have right now—rather than focus on what we want to have in five years.

Share vulnerabilities at work

While mental-health stigma still exists, says Gottlieb, the conversation is slowly changing as people admit their vulnerabilities. If you’re in a leadership position, make mental health part of the conversation at the office. Designate mental-health days and share your own highs and lows, as appropriate. “No matter how charmed someone’s life may be, the human experience is about struggle,” notes Gottlieb. “Getting away from screens, having face-to-face conversations and human connections is one way to see there’s nothing shameful or isolating about struggle.”

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