Judith Ruskay Rabinor: “Relationships are complex”

Relationships are complex. All people have limitations, shortcomings and flaws. There is saying from neuroscience that helps me understand something profound: the brain has Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for the good. When we are hurt we are wired to hang onto our grudges and traumas to stay safe. Hanging onto our wounds protects […]

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Relationships are complex. All people have limitations, shortcomings and flaws. There is saying from neuroscience that helps me understand something profound: the brain has Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for the good. When we are hurt we are wired to hang onto our grudges and traumas to stay safe. Hanging onto our wounds protects us from being hurt again. We are wired for safety. Healing involves creating a safe place where we can becoming curious about ourselves. Both therapy and writing can help us create a safe place.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Judith Ruskay Rabinor, PhD.

Rabinor is a clinician, author, writing coach, speaker, and workshop leader. In addition to her New York City private psychotherapy practice, she offers remote consultations for writers, clinicians and families. She has published dozens of articles for both the public and professionals and has authored three books, The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother (She Writes Press, 2021), A Starving Madness: Tales of Hunger, Hope and Healing in Psychotherapy (Gurze Books, 2002) and Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and Yes, Your Ex (New Harbinger Publications, 2012).


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

When I was 12, my grandmother took me to the Broadway production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Sitting in the dark I was mesmerized by the earnest, scared girl, hiding from the Nazis. By the time the knock came on the annex door, and the curtain fell, I was overcome with grief. The next day I began my first journal. To this day I regard my grandmother, Sophie Leibowitz Ruskay, as my writing muse.

Looking back, I see my grandmother seemed to intuitively know that I would cherish the satisfaction writing can bring. She herself had published a memoir in 1949, a unique achievement for a woman in those days. Throughout my life she served as a loving and inspiring role model.

When I graduated college, I wanted to become a writer. After getting an M.A. at Columbia Teachers College, I became a high school English teacher which offered me an opportunity to study and appreciate great literature. Later I would learn that teaching English was not really a pathway to becoming a writer. Within a few years I returned to graduate school and became a psychologist.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

As a psychologist, the first patient assigned to me on my first job developed anorexia — a condition I knew nothing about and was poorly understood by professionals back in 1979. I was an inexperienced therapist dealing with a life-threatening patient — how daunting. I immediately began intensive training and my career as an eating disorders therapist was born. Shortly thereafter, I felt an urge to write about my work with patients (mostly young girls and women) who were tortured by these challenging problems. I loved both the clinical work and the writing — and still find both satisfying and invigorating. That was the beginning of my two-pronged career: clinician and author. My new book elaborates my journey as a wounded healer working with mothers and daughters. In the book I describe my approach as a therapist and how helping others ultimately helped me heal my relationship with my mother.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

My biggest challenge was facing a very difficult editor without becoming totally demoralized. Early in my career I was invited to write a chapter for a prestigious book. I had an editor who was critical of everything I wrote, from my ideas to my sentence structure. Every draft I submitted was rejected. My confidence and self-esteem took a daily beating. I felt like giving up. Finally at the advice of a friend, I spoke to the publisher. Eventually I was assigned a new editor. Finishing the chapter went easily! The lesson: never give up!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

After publishing my first book, I gave a lot of talks about eating disorder prevention. My messages always emphasized the importance of helping sufferers prioritize inner beauty vs. external appearances. After one lecture, a woman came to the podium and introduced herself as a classmate from my college days. As she was departing, she said: “I didn’t want to embarrass you but check out your boots.” What could be wrong with my new black boots, I wondered? I looked down and omg: my boots didn’t match! We both had a good laugh — but I was a bit embarrassed and hoped no one else had noticed. How could I have been so…ditsy? Only later was I able to weave this story into a lecture about the importance of self-acceptance. It became one of my favorite talking points and I always linked it to a beautiful Maya Angelou quote: “People will forget what you said, forget what you did but will never forget how you made them feel!” We are all imperfect beings and learning to laugh about ourselves matters!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Right now, I’m absorbed in launching my new book The Girl in the Red Boots, out on 5/4/21. I’m learning about the power of social media, blogging and e-mail campaigns. I’m working on a new book about aging, working title: You’re Never too Old to Publish a Book or Climb a Tree. I love learning and new things. After watching “The Queens Gambit,” my husband taught me to play chess and now, we play regularly. I’m looking for a chess vacation in an exotic location for us to attend as soon as the world opens up again. Another new project I’m excited about is creating a writing retreat with my colleague Laura Zinn Fromm. We’re exploring locations in Mexico or Italy to host a one-week retreat winter 2022.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your new book The Girl in the Red Boots?

The most interesting story in The Girl in the Red Boots is how I came to recognize my own blind spots. I’m not proud to admit it, but for much of my life I hung onto a “Bad Mommy” story; I held my mother accountable for “following doctor’s orders” and unwittingly contributing to a traumatic childhood experience. In writing the book I realized that I had followed in her footsteps: when my father was dying, I went along with the secrecy his medical team recommended. Recognizing my own limitation was one gift that writing this memoir gave me: compassion for my mother and self-compassion as well.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Relationships are complex. All people have limitations, shortcomings and flaws. There is saying from neuroscience that helps me understand something profound: the brain has Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for the good. When we are hurt we are wired to hang onto our grudges and traumas to stay safe. Hanging onto our wounds protects us from being hurt again. We are wired for safety. Healing involves creating a safe place where we can becoming curious about ourselves. Both therapy and writing can help us create a safe place.

Based on your experience, what are the 5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author? Please share a story or example for each.

Frankly, I’m not sure I’m yet in the “Great Author” category, but I am an author.

  1. Anticipate rejection. It’s part of the process. It’s easier to bear negative feedback when you are prepared. It’s necessary to develop a thick skin — a first draft is never the final draft; revision can be a never-ending process.
  2. Read voraciously. Everything counts! Newspapers, blogs, books and even audiobooks. Notice what themes and language move you.
  3. Keep the success stories of authors like Stephen King, John Steinbeck and J.K. Rowling the author of Harry Potter alive. Practically homeless, Rowling sent her finished manuscript to 12 different publishers only to be rejected by them all. Today she has sold over 450 million copies world-wide and is worth over 1 billion dollars. Never give up hope!
  4. Practice self-compassion. You will undoubtedly face negativity, failure and rejection from teachers, editors and publisher. Remind yourself you are worthy and loveable even when your work isn’t praised.
  5. Create a mantra. Whisper it to yourself repeatedly. Twenty-five years ago, when I married my second husband, I created two mantras, and both have come to fruition: #1. My writing is going smoothly. #2 I’m getting along with my honey. The power of self-talk is underrated.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e., perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

The habit that has contributed to my writing success is knowing my own inner timetable. My brain performs best in the early morning hours. I love to start the day writing. My husband remains stunned that I can turn on my computer before brushing my teeth — and even sometimes, before turning on the coffee. I believe this early morning practice seeds my brain with the issues I struggle with in my writing. While I can and do write at other times during the day as well, it’s the early morning that fuels my creativity.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

In the years I’ve been writing this book, my literary diet has been heavily memoir. I admire Dani Shapiro’s writing style, especially her last book, Inheritance. Other books I’ve loved are Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive, Kate Mulgrew’s How to Forget and Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover and Me. All these books are daughter’s memoirs. When I read, I love to jot down works and lines that inspire me. I write on the last pages of the book. Often, I use these lines as prompts when I’m not sure where to go with my own writing. It always thrills me to pick up a book I’ve read and see my notes: it’s like having my own memoir in the back of every book.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d love to help people experience the joy of writing. It’s an art and a craft and a skill that’s accessible to all of us. Its free and you don’t even need a journal — you can write on the back of an envelope, a scrap of paper, on your phone or a computer. I think of writing as a spiritual practice that quiets my mind and helps me slow down and reflect. We live in a fast-paced world and slowing down would benefit most of us. I teach a 2-hour writing class and every class starts with a 6–7-minute free write. Students are always amazed with what pours out of them in just a few brief minutes.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My website: https://judithruskayrabinorphd.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/girlinredboots

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DrJudyRabinor

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/drjudyrabinor/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/drjudyrabinor/

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