Jeffrey Stephens: “Cultivating who we are inside is so much more important than our appearances”

Cultivating who we are inside is so much more important than our appearances. As a part of my series about “How To Learn To Finally Love Yourself” I had the pleasure to interview Jeffrey Stephens. A native of the Bronx, Jeffrey now lives in Greenwich, Connecticut with his wife Nancy, where they raised their two […]

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Cultivating who we are inside is so much more important than our appearances.

As a part of my series about “How To Learn To Finally Love Yourself” I had the pleasure to interview Jeffrey Stephens. A native of the Bronx, Jeffrey now lives in Greenwich, Connecticut with his wife Nancy, where they raised their two sons, Graham and Trevor. Stephens is the author of the Jordan Sandor thrillers, TARGETS OF DECEPTION, TARGETS OF OPPORTUNITY, TARGETS OF REVENGE and ROGUE MISSION, and the steamy murder-mystery CRIMES AND PASSION. Stephens has also practiced law for many years, having represented a number of celebrities and other successful people who populate his novels in various guises.

Thank you so much for joining us! I’d love to begin by asking you to give us the backstory as to what brought you to this specific career path.

I have always written, starting with puppet shows in the second grade that my friend and I performed throughout our elementary school. Growing up poor and understanding how difficult it is to earn a living as a novelist, my parents encouraged me to learn a a profession. I worked my way through school, became an attorney and have had an interesting and successful practice. But I was always doing whatever writing I could when I found the time. Around fifteen years ago I met Bob Diforio, an experienced agent, who asked to see some of my work. We were then fortunate enough to have my first thriller published, TARGETS OF DECEPTION, and I now have six novels in print.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you hope that they might help people along their path to self-understanding or a better sense of wellbeing in their relationships?

In addition to my newly released novel, FOOL’S ERRAND, I have three other books ready to be published. Writing has always been my dream, and I am an absolute believer that life is all about pursuing your dreams. Believe in yourself, and God, and never give up, no matter what obstacles you face. Life is a linear journey, not a dress rehearsal, so keep at what you love, and love yourself along the way.

Do you have a personal story that you can share with our readers about your struggles or successes along your journey of self-understanding and self-love? Was there ever a tipping point that triggered a change regarding your feelings of self acceptance?

I have so many stories that illustrate what you’ve asked, but perhaps the challenges I have faced in publishing provide the best example, especially for those who love to write, paint, create music or pursue any other art form. It is a story about having faith and not giving up.

As I say, the release of my first novel was gratifying, but not without heartache along the way. When we found a publisher for TARGETS OF DECEPTION I could not have been more excited. I worked hard with the editor to finish the book, and on the day I submitted the final version — that very day — the publisher filed for bankruptcy. I am not kidding. My editor, a lovely young woman, called me in tears to say that she had just received my manuscript an hour before her boss brought the entire staff together and told them they were shutting down and all of them were out of work. I felt terrible for her and her colleagues, of course, and figured I would have to start all over to find a new publisher. But a couple of days later my agent called me with more bad news. Because my book had already been submitted, it had become “an asset of the bankruptcy” and we could not take it anywhere else!

It took over a year for the bankruptcy to be completed, when a very nice individual bought the assets of the bankruptcy. He told us he was very enthusiastic about my novel and was going to feature it as their first release. The problem — which we did not know at the time — was that he knew absolutely nothing about publishing or marketing fiction. So the book was finally released, a year and a half after I submitted it, but it went nowhere. No bookstores, not even Barnes & Noble, carried the book, and so it sold no copies beyond my friends and family. It was heartbreaking.

I tried to market it myself, but that went no place. The man who had bought it felt so awful that he actually gave me back my rights, but I had no idea what to do next. Then I met a wonderful woman who does public relations for books. Her name is Trish and she owns Ascot Media. She felt so sorry for me that she introduced me to a publisher she knew, who absolutely loved my book. He did something that is almost unheard of — he decided to release the book again, and with his help and marketing from Ascot, the book became a success and I went on to publish three more novels in the series, two of them with Simon & Schuster and the most recent with Post Hill Press.

Along the way I obviously had doubts, fear, sadness and wondered if I would ever make it, but I never lost the core faith in myself or the people who were helping me, and so there was a happy ending at last.

According to a recent study cited in Cosmopolitan, in the US, only about 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women are “very satisfied with their appearance.” Could you talk about what some of the causes might be, as well as the consequences?

Since I am a novelist, I suppose I should say, “Never judge a book by its cover.” 😊 From the earliest age we are bombarded by impossibly great looking actors and actresses on television and in the movie, as well as models in magazine. Our culture idolizes these people, their perfect physiques and flawless faces. But to what end? I have been fortunate enough to have known a number of celebrities and have casually met even more. Believe me, without their hair stylists, makeup artists and talented photographers, most of them look like you and me. But that is not the point!

Cultivating who we are inside is so much more important than our appearances. Saying this, I do not mean to suggest we should be less than the best we can be. Work out. Stay in shape. Put on the best look we can manage. But never forget, it is who we are as people that really matters. Someone once said something like, “People will never remember what you said, how you looked, or even what you did, but they will always recall how you made them feel.” Never forget that.

Someone else — the Beatles in fact — said, “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” I think I’ll stick with that idea rather than trying to look like a movie star.

As cheesy as it might sound to truly understand and “love yourself,” can you share with our readers a few reasons why it’s so important?

Not cheesy at all, it is the key to happiness in life. As I said above, you have to love to be loved, and you cannot love anyone else until you first cherish who you are. It’s that simple. You evert notice how nasty people, if you get to know them at all, are usually insecure? Even self-loathing? Let that sink in.

Do not let those people poison you. Do not let them wound you with their negativity. Take a moment to look in the mirror every now and then and think, “This is you. You are magnificent. You are God’s most perfect creation. You can spread joy and love and generosity.” Why not try that approach to life?

Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?

That question could be a whole interview in itself, so I will be as brief as I can. People stay put in lousy relationships because of their own insecurity. They may have a fear of loneliness, and the prospect that you will never find anyone else. They may have concerns that the problems in the relationship are their fault, rather than the result of how they are both interacting.

Be sure of this — anyone who does not see all the things about you that are wonderful and valuable are not worth your time! You have flaws, we all do. Maybe you are fat. Or short. Or perhaps you don’t look like a runway model or a movie idol. But what about all of the assets that you are discounting as you beat yourself up over your shortcomings? Focus on the positive, both in yourself AND in others. Love and happiness will find you along that journey.

When I talk about self-love and understanding I don’t necessarily mean blindly loving and accepting ourselves the way we are. Many times self-understanding requires us to reflect and ask ourselves the tough questions, to realize perhaps where we need to make changes in ourselves to be better not only for ourselves but our relationships. What are some of those tough questions that will cut through the safe space of comfort we like to maintain, that our readers might want to ask themselves? Can you share an example of a time that you had to reflect and realize how you needed to make changes?

I felt I needed to get in better physical shape. In the beginning I dreaded those morning workouts. I preferred sitting with a bowl of cereal or a stack of pancakes to doing pushups and sit-ups. But once I committed to a routine, I found myself almost addicted to the process. I saw the weight come off, Saw myself shaping up. Felt more energy. And, as a friend predicted, a good workout released endorphins that actually made me feel happy about myself.

In a way it is like writing a novel. You cannot do it without committing to a routine. You are not going to put together a coherent story of 300 pages without staying with it on a regular basis.

This will sound cheesy perhaps, but what is stopping you from being the best you that you can be? Guess what — only YOU!

So many don’t really know how to be alone, or are afraid of it. How important is it for us to have, and practice, that capacity to truly be with ourselves and be alone (literally or metaphorically)?

As stated, I am a novelist, so spending a lot of time alone comes with the territory. You cannot write in a crowd. But other “alone time” is also valuable. Reading. Walking. Making entries in a diary. “Self time”, in my view, helps foster that sense of self love.

How does achieving a certain level of self-understanding and self-love then affect your ability to connect with and deepen your relationships with others?

As already observed, we love others best when we love ourselves first.

In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?

With all the hate and division right now, I wish I had that answer. Unfortunately, I do not think mass acceptance can result from some edict. It is about each of us, one at a time, practicing things like caring, generosity, understanding and forgiveness — starting, of course, by bestowing all of those things on ourselves first.

What are 5 strategies that you implement to maintain your connection with and love for yourself, that our readers might learn from? Could you please give a story or example for each?

Wow, that could take pages and pages, but I will do my best to keep it short…

  1. I have felt much better physically since committing to getting into shape and taking care of myself through regular exercise and a reasonable way of eating — not a “diet”, by the way, since they always seem to end up being short-term. There is a great book about all this for your readers over 40, called Younger Next Year. Do not miss it!
  2. With all the stress we deal with in a face-paced world, I took up meditating a couple of years ago. If you knew me you would probably laugh, since you would think I am not the type. But I signed up for Headspace, not expensive, very easy, very common sense, very rewarding.
  3. I have a little song I created, just a ditty based on a common tune, for which I created my own words. Corny? Yes. But when I am feeling down at all I sing it out loud and feel much better. If my mood is not so great, my wife has even gotten to the point where she will say, “Go sing your song.” Hahahahaha
  4. I do all I can to look my best. I am no fashion model, but even during the pandemic I make sure to shave, shower, clean up and put on something decent, even if it’s just casual or workout clothing. Sloppy is as sloppy does, if you see what I mean.
  5. This last one is so important, and yet so simple. I make sure that I tell the people closest to me that I love them. I give them sincere compliments, which is so easy to do and rewarding. I spend time, especially with the youngest people in my family, and give them my full attention. This week, I took time with my grandson — who is just turning 5 — to write a short children’s book about his love for dinosaurs. Give love, receive love, it’s a simple deal.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources for self-psychology, intimacy, or relationships? What do you love about each one and how does it resonate with you?

Headspace, the meditation site mentioned above. Anthony Robbins. Almost any of his series, but I particularly like Get the Edge. I am not keen on his books geared for business, just the ones dealing with self-improvement. Younger Next Year, the book I mentioned above. As for podcasts, websites and so forth, there are too many to name — including yours. The important thing is for people to find people and sites that resonate with them. If they do not connect with you, hit delete and move on. Finally, a quick shout-out to Joel Osteen, who for my money is more a promoter of positive thinking than a religious pundit.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? Maybe we’ll inspire our readers to start it…

In my view, minorities in the U.S. continue to get the short end of the stick. The welfare state is a form of bondage, and our leaders need to step up and change this pernicious cycle of dependency, poverty, violence, drug addiction and so forth. As I said, I grew up poor, in a neighborhood with a mix of people of all colors, religions and hyphenated nationalities. But as kids, we all played together on the street, we were all equals, and there was none of the hate that comes later as we grow up in our society.

My path out of that poor background was through education!

We need to stop encouraging people to remain dependent on the state and get everyone the education they deserve. There are geniuses in the ghetto that are not realizing their potential. There are artists, doctors, scientists and business leaders who will never be, because they are not getting a fair education or a true sense of what is possible. The American Dream is for all of us, let’s get that done!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you use to guide yourself by? 
Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life and how our readers might learn to live by it in theirs?

“Straight shooter always win.” My father always said that and it’s true. Be honest. Have integrity. Treat people fairly and with respect. And, if you want a fuller understanding of all that, please read my novel, FOOL’S ERRAND. It is fun, an international treasure hunt with danger, intrigue and romance, but in the heart of it, the story is all about that motto 😊

Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!

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