‘The stories we tell ourselves’: Therapist-journalist on revising our emotions
Many journalists are covering cultural, physical and mental health crises while coping themselves. Writers Elizabeth Flock and Lori Gottlieb examined how journalists can work through these pivotal moments and emotions during a National Press Club Journalism Institute program on June 24. Flock and Gottlieb shared insights on the stories journalists are telling themselves, how these stories affect their emotional lives and, consequently, the stories being reported and written.
Dear journalist: It’s OK to be human
Gottlieb: We’re in this unique time where we have this universal stressor. Normally, everybody has their own unique stressors. We have this universal stressor — we have many of them, actually, right now in the world. And yet everybody’s reacting to them in their own unique way. But I think the more we talk about the fact that it’s hard, the more we normalize that, it’s like you can breathe again. You feel like I’m not alone, I’m not the only one.
Flock: I think as journalists we often feel that we need to sort of project this air of having it all perfectly together. I know when I published a piece for The Atlantic, I was worried that no one would ever hire me again because they think that, oh well this person has depression and anxiety so they’re not going to publish, or something like that. But I found that so many journalists reached out to me and said that they were feeling the same way. I felt that actually just even acknowledging that feeling lifted the burden a little bit.
There’s a time for writing, and a time for experiencing
Gottlieb: I think everybody’s writing even if they’re not putting anything on the page — meaning everybody’s collecting these experiences or they’re doing the prewriting right now. That’s a crucial step in the writing. So if you’re just trying to publish, you might not be putting out something that will be as meaningful or important or resonate as widely as you will later on when you’ve had some time to really sit in your experience.
Flock: Part of writing a story is crafting a narrative and controlling it into this tidy thing that we’re presenting to the world. But allow ourselves in this time to take things day by day, and focus on the things we can control as humans and journalists and as writers. … Treat it as a possibility instead of what’s been taken away.
Let uncertainty guide you in new ways
Gottlieb: I think when there’s uncertainty, like there is right now, we tend to fill in the story with something negative. We don’t generally use that moment of uncertainty to say, “I’m going to fill it in with something great that’s going to happen.” As humans, we don’t tend to do that. So, I think that the stories that we make up about things that have not happened yet and may never happen, can really impact the way we go through our day.
Flock: I’m an investigative journalist, so I’m drawn to sort of the dark places. But as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, there’s also ways in which our society may be reshaping itself and transforming in positive ways. I think exploring that kind of frame as a journalist, and exploring why you’re perceiving it in a certain way, and what sort of evidence you have, can be really helpful.
Find joy — and express it
Gottlieb: People feel like they can’t experience pleasure in the midst of so much pain. And the truth is that in the human condition, they’re all mashed together. I think that we feel guilty or we feel embarrassed by any kind of pleasure that we’re experiencing right now. And as much as we’re talking about protecting our physical immune systems from the coronavirus, we need to protect our psychological immune systems just as much.
Flock: My whole identity was wrapped into being a journalist. That sort of forced me to think about what else am I besides a journalist? There’s so much more to all of us as humans, and I think coronavirus has also forced me to be like, “Oh, OK, I also enjoy gardening, and there’s also ways that I can use my journalistic skills to advise a friend or respond to this moment and have a discussion with a family member.” Just because we’re journalists doesn’t mean that we have to be publishing all the time. Allowing ourselves to just like be a little more human and take time off, take a full day to just do something else, can feel actually really enlivening and be really helpful for your mental health.
This program is one of an ongoing series of free conversations. Click here to see our upcoming programs, or to watch a recording of a previous event. Please contact Journalism Institute Executive Director Julie Moos with questions.