The Awkward Intimacy of Therapy

The practice may require vulnerability, but being heard can bring healing: Your weekly guide to the best in books

An illustration of a chair and a couch both made out of books.
The Atlantic

When Lori Gottlieb, the author of The Atlantic’s “Dear Therapist” column, started her first therapy session, her client started crying almost immediately. The experience was “simultaneously awkward and intimate,” Gottlieb wrote in her book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone—and a reminder of the ultimate humanity of the therapeutic relationship. Although Gottlieb entered the room concerned about “how to apply the numerous abstract psychological theories I’d studied over the past several years to the hundreds of possible scenarios that any one therapy patient might present,” she left with a more basic imperative—to be authentic and to sit with the patient in their suffering.

At its core, therapy is about the healing power of hearing and being heard, even though such acts require vulnerability between patient and practitioner. Barbara Taylor, for example, describes the intense emotions she developed for her analyst in the memoir The Last Asylum. From the other side of the chair, Stephen Grosz captured the burden of bearing witness to such painful confessions in The Examined Life. More recently, reality shows such as Couples Therapy have promised viewers an unfiltered glimpse into these typically confidential conversations. Though watching shows like those is no substitute for actually going to therapy, they can help viewers to see their problems in a new light or simply remind them that they are not alone. In fact, some tragedies, especially those that impact whole communities, actually demand communal healing, Resmaa Menakem argues in My Grandmother’s Hands.

If watching and reading can help you heal by letting you see yourself in others, then it follows that writing might let others see themselves in you. Perhaps it is for this reason that writing can be another way of “reducing the pains of living,” as Melissa Febos puts it in her book Body Work, “or if not, at least making them useful to myself and to others.”

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

illustration of a woman crying while another sits in a raft floating on the river created by her tears

Sarah Wilkins

How I bombed my first therapy session

“Unless you’ve sat alone in a quiet room with a sobbing stranger, you don’t really know how simultaneously awkward and intimate it feels.”

illustration of a rorschach test

Adam Maida / The Atlantic

And how do these books make you feel?

“There’s both threat and promise in the therapeutic encounter: the ineffable, fallible, and intimate play between two strangers, one witnessed and one witnessing, talking it out.”

a therapist counsels her clients


Therapy voyeurism really might be doing some good

“Therapy voyeurism is not real therapy—but that doesn’t mean it’s totally pointless either.”

🎥 Couples Therapy

illustration of a book with a hand sticking out of it

Matt Chase

The self-help that no one needs right now

“In spite of their popularity, trauma books may not be all that helpful for the type of suffering that most people are experiencing right now.”


Najeebah Al-Ghadban

Trauma is everywhere. Write about it anyway.

“When trauma is a near-universal experience, is that trauma still interesting? It is—of course—but it can be hard to feel that. To find the creative spark in a difficult moment can be extraordinarily liberating.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she just finished is Body Work, by Melissa Febos.

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