Know Thyself: Taking the time to become acquainted with yourself intimately is essential to mental wellness. This means knowing how much rest, exercise, and food you need to function well, and which combination of the three leads to optimal performance. Learn how to schedule socializing around professional obligations to fill your bucket with positive social connections, while making sure you have enough down-time to recharge.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW. Rebecca is a Psychiatric Social Worker at Thomas Jefferson University Physicians Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, where she provides individual psychotherapy in Philadelphia. Previously, Rebecca has worked as a Primary Therapist at The Renfrew Center and a Therapist the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Program, affiliated with Thomas Jefferson University, with further experience in violence intervention, Employee Assistance Program counseling, and drug and alcohol treatment research. Rebecca earned a BA from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She specializes in working with eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Rebecca! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
When I graduated from high school, along with my diploma, my guidance counselor bestowed upon me the school’s copies of all of my report cards. To my surprise, from a very early age, they described my penchant for storytelling, which was encouraging as I went to pursue a Creative Writing degree. While I value those skills and that training, I wanted to find an interpersonal aspect to my eventual career. I looked to social work as an integrated way of working with individuals towards their greater goals, and as I continued down the path, I developed a passion for psychotherapy, which persists today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Sadly, most of my stories are bound by the confidentiality I guarantee my clients. The stories I hold range from the micro significance of being one of the first people in a woman’s life to learn about a developing pregnancy, to the macro level of working with individuals at various tiers in local and national companies, and often am privy to some of the dramas and tribulations of what will eventually be known to the public.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
More than any one individual person, I feel like my achievement has been the result of many kind people who were looking around and saw me in moments of need. Whether I was floundering academically, personally, or professionally, the teachers, professors, friends, coworkers, and supervisors who saw me and took the time to lend a hand had an absolute positive impact on my success. In particular, my best friend Cecilia has been a consistent source of support in my life for well over 10 years now, and while we have not lived in the same place for a long time, are both invested in staying in contact weekly via email, prioritize seeing one another, and have endured some deep challenges together. Finding a person who is unequivocally in your corner is an essential part of mental wellness. I’m so grateful that I had her cheering me on through my various transitions and moments of growth, and have been able to reciprocate for her.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Self-care has been the most common piece of advice given to caring professionals, particularly to avoid burnout. However, the forms of self-care that are often suggested are indulgence based — a dessert, a manicure, a treat of some kind. However, true self-care is an investment today that will make your life easier in the future. Perhaps it will only make the day 2% easier if you put your keys next to your bag before you go to sleep, and even that is a gesture of self-care. Look for opportunities to invest in yourself day by day, and as a result, you will be more tuned in to yourself and able to respond to your needs when you are approaching burnout.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Generosity is the key ingredient to making people feel like they are valued at work, which will then proliferate into a broader fantastic work culture. Generosity takes the form of little work perks, like snacks and staff outings, but the most valuable piece of a fantastic work culture is the actual way needs are addressed. What is your company’s family leave policy? How are people treated when they take a vacation? Is your workday flexible enough to accommodate the personal needs of your staff? Are people with children given a pass to leave by a certain time, but single people are “expected” to work late? Be generous with your staff in terms of time and resources, and the culture will follow suit.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Know Thyself: Taking the time to become acquainted with yourself intimately is essential to mental wellness. This means knowing how much rest, exercise, and food you need to function well, and which combination of the three leads to optimal performance. Learn how to schedule socializing around professional obligations to fill your bucket with positive social connections, while making sure you have enough down-time to recharge.
- To Thine Own Self Be True: There is so much advice out there about How to Live Your Best Life, including from me right now! However, once you know what works for you, you can continue to read and explore new possibilities as prospective additions. Don’t throw out what already works for you each time a new person gives advice about how to do it better, unless it seems like it might be helpful for you.
- Boundaries Are Kindness: We tend to think of boundaries as something that is mean-spirited, or holding out on someone, or keeping them at arms’ length. However, boundaries are the ultimate kindness; they are telling the other person, unequivocally, “this is how much I can give you and still have enough for myself and my needs.” Once you have a sense of the recurrent shape of your needs, communicate those effectively as boundaries in your significant relationships.
- Be the Ant, Not the Grasshopper: This parable is a classic for a reason. The more we procrastinate, the more difficult a task becomes to complete, and the more ill-prepared we are for something unpredictable. A helpful guide is that if a task takes under a minute to do, do it as soon as you think of it, which will leave room for larger stuff if it comes up unexpectedly.
- Be Involved: Humans are social creatures, and we require belonging and connection to survive. Building connections at home, work, school, and in your community are essential parts of mental wellness. We are often fearful of rejection, so we won’t put ourselves out there seeking belonging. The paradox, however, is that by attempting to shut out the negative outcome of rejection, we are also eliminating the possibility of connection.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Find Meaning: Work theoretically does two things, it gives us a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. Purpose is having somewhere to go when we get out of bed in the morning, but meaning is the broader sense of place and significance we feel in the world. Since you are no longer going to be going to a workplace every day, you may need to find new purpose, but most importantly, you’ll need to find meaning. Perhaps this will take the form of volunteering, spending time with family, adopting a new hobby, or traveling. It is an important pursuit, especially in the early stages of retirement.
- Make Younger Friends: In many ways, age is a simple number and a construct, but the reality is that as we age, the significant people in our lives will become medically compromised and die, leaving us increasingly isolated. I’ve worked with older adults who have struggled with experiencing significant loss of their partners or friends, and finding they don’t have any other supportive people as a part of their network. Loss can happen at any stage in the life cycle, but in general, having friends that are a cohort below you enables you to continue to have support as we lose our peers.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
As a teen, it’s hard to have a barometer for what you truly like and find meaningful. Because what our peers think is important to us, especially as teens, we feel inclined to listen to, watch, or read what is on-trend at the moment. However, your media diet is as important as your nutritional diet in determining your well-being. Especially with social media and reality TV culture, there’s a lot of hostility and negativity available for consumption, and it’s important to decide how much mental space you want to dedicate to that type of content. The thoughts, ideas, and content that you hold in your mind can dramatically shape how you interact with the world, and so it’s important, as a teen, to begin curating your consumption to align with your values and who you want to be in the world.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I read The Little Prince in high school French class, and found the process of understanding it in a different language helpful to truly understanding the deeper themes and messages of the book. A classic for a reason, I love the way that it has important lessons wrapped into seemingly simple scenes. Each time I revisit it and read it again, I get something new from it, often reflecting my own life at the time.
You are a person of great 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 would start a movement that encouraged people to be less fearful of their negative emotions, which leads us to build walls to shut them out. When we do that, thinking we’re protecting ourselves, we also inadvertently block out the potential to experience real joy or connection. By sticking to that tight emotional range of “just okay,” we miss the highs and lows that both make life enjoyable and give us the opportunity to develop the grit we need to persevere.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.” — Herbert Bayard Swope
This quote resonates with me because I see so many people trying to make everyone around them happy, so much so that they end up at the bottom of their own list. Unfortunately, attempts to please everyone are usually futile, as it is impossible to contort and stretch to everyone else’s preferences or needs. We often think of setting boundaries and limits as “being mean,” but really, it is a kindness to set boundaries to make sure that what we give is done sustainably. As I navigated the choppy waters of the internet and adulthood, I learned to set aside the clamor of others and find my own values and limits. If I were under the thumb of others’ expectations, I would not be able to find my own voice to live authentically.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
You can follow me, my work, and various creative endeavors on Instagram @rebeccanewmansown!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!