Have a strong handle on the basics: make sure you are sleeping, showering, eating nutritiously, taking your medications, and drinking water at a minimum before adding on anything else. If your oxygen mask is not secure, you cannot assist others. Investing in yourself first reminds you that you are your first priority.
I had the pleasure to interview Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW, a psychotherapist and writer from Philadelphia, PA. She provides individual therapy at the Thomas Jefferson University Physicians Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior in Philadelphia. Previously, Rebecca has worked as a therapist at a residential facility for treating eating disorders and at a methadone maintenance facility, with further experience in violence intervention, Employee Assistance Program counseling, and drug and alcohol treatment research. Rebecca earned a BA from Oberlin College in Creative Writing 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, relationships, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. Information about Rebecca and her work can be found at www.rebeccanewmansown.com.
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.
Stories have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. My first jobs were at the local library and in a video store, where I had ready access to media where I could watch the layers of someone’s story unfold and begin to understand their complexity. This curiosity led me to a degree in Creative Writing, in tandem with developing increasingly meaningful friendships and relationships where a sense of emotional intimacy and confidence were strong. I wondered what it would be like to come off the written page to be with others through their journeys and stories, and decided to pursue social work. Clinical Social Work is all about centering the individual in their story, and now, as a therapist working with people long-term, I find so much meaning in bearing witness and acting as a support to people through the diverse changes in their lives.
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?
I am working on pieces and presentations about the idea of toxic positivity, which is the “silver lining” mindset. The idea that positivity is overall a “choice” and the practice of forcing yourself from one emotional state into its complete opposite can be very damaging to people when there are very real reasons for the distress. Understanding the factors that are contributing to one’s experience and identifying an ideal destination are helpful practices, and I think it is important to build the muscle of emotional coping and tolerating the distress, without trying to change it quickly because it is uncomfortable. Often, we feel the pressure to “be positive” for the benefit of others and not being a “burden,” and I think it is important to center yourself in the experience and work from where you are.
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?
Just as I was starting to find my stride with confidence in college, I had a job for a student organization in which I performed very poorly, and my peers were unforgiving about my failure. It took years for me to separate my poor performance from the emotional impact of my surrounding community thoroughly rejecting me, and in a way, they were two separate healing processes. First, I had to stop punishing myself for how I did in that role, which was a challenge as someone who had linked my sense of self with my accomplishments. Then, I had to heal the pain of rejection by people who were important to me. Gradually, I came to realize that this experience was not a predictor for how I would do in other roles with other responsibilities, and that I have a lot of compassion and generosity to give to others, and continuing to turn that self-loathing inward made it difficult for the generosity to make it to the surface. After I began to let go of that job as the center of gravity of my life, I started the ongoing process of accepting this experience as one of many points in the constellation of my story.
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?
The discrepancy between where you are and where you “should” be is shellacked across everything we consume, from media to food to vacation brochures. We have been absorbing messages about appearance — bodies, skin, hair, teeth, and clothing — since we first became able to categorize as children. Humans categorize to organize the world around us, and because ideal standards occupy such a narrow sliver of lived experience, most people feel like they do not or could never belong in that group. Consequently, we are looking to be simultaneously more or less — weigh less, have less body fat, have more muscle, have shinier hair, have clearer skin, have straighter teeth, the list is endless. Furthermore, it sends the heteronormative gender message that men should become more — stronger muscles, taller, broader, and that women should become less — smaller, weigh less, and by extension, take up as little space as possible. By telling women to disappear and men to take up space, we remain stuck in the hamster wheel of dissatisfaction, with not only our appearances, but also how we exist in the world.
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?
The sense that “I’m a failure” or “I’m not loveable” often plagues our truest senses of self. Because it feels too overwhelming to move through the world with that gaping emotional wound on display, we develop a set of conditions to be “enough,” like maintaining a certain weight, certain attire, academic achievement, job success, relationships, family structure, exercise regimen, diet, or financial success. When our daily life threatens one of those conditions, it is a direct shot to our sense of self, and the epicenter of our insecurities, because these conditions are imperative to our emotional survival. Adopting the internal notion of “I’m okay the way I am” de-escalates the stress placed on the outward-facing conditions, lessening the degree to which they provide a false sense of emotional protection. When we can adopt the belief that “I’m okay the way I am,” we start to operate differently in the world, and rather than making anxious, protective choices based in fear that we will be “found out” as a failure, we can use that self-respect and self-love to make empowered choices.
Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?
It is dramatically easier to stay in something mediocre than to leave, in any setting. A bad relationship is clearly not viable and needs to end, but pockets and moments of good times pepper a mediocre relationship enough to make the choice difficult. Often, you will not realize that you are in a reinforcement schedule with your partner — they are giving you just enough good stuff or kindness to keep you engaged in the relationship through the drudgery most of the time. Our fears about never finding someone else or being alone tend to keep us engaged in the reinforcement schedule of just enough to be not “bad.”
A relationship should facilitate you and your partner in thriving, both as independent parties, and together. Yes, relationships have challenges and require work, although the way you feel most of the time is the actual tone of the relationship. If you find yourself working far more than you’re feeling nurtured or able to thrive, it may be time to evaluate the situation and move on.
When we talk about self-love and understanding we 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?
“If I were looking in from the outside, how would I see this situation differently and what would I tell myself to do?” or “If my best friend were going through this, what would I tell them to do?” Often, our anxieties steep us in a situation that we cannot see alternate perspectives or possibilities, or the impact of our choices and actions on others.
One year, I was thrilled that my best friend (to this day) was throwing me a birthday party at her house. I had previously been apprehensive about celebrating out of insecurity that the event would be under-attended, and it felt good that my friend wanted to celebrate this occasion with me. During the planning stages, she realized another friend’s birthday was close to mine, and she wanted to include him as well. I panicked, thinking I was not going to feel “celebrated enough,” and part of me was making up for time lost to insecurity and doubt. I became increasingly rigid about what I wanted, seeing the only possible solution for me to feel “special” or “important” was to be center stage at this event. We had a heated conversation in which she said, “This makes me feel like I’m not doing enough when I’m trying to celebrate your birthday.” I had a harsh moment of clarity as I saw her upset, feeling like what she was doing was not good enough, and that I could not be generous enough to share with another person. It called me to evaluate the rigidity I displayed, its source, and the continuum of flexibility in a relationship. I needed to see someone important to me frustrated with my behavior to realize the importance of adopting a more selfless attitude.
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)?
From an evolutionary perspective, community is the most important commodity we have. In earlier iterations of human life, we could not survive outside the group. We needed to pool resources, hunt together, shelter with one another, and care for one another. Loneliness taps into our deepest senses of fear that the isolation will be permanent, threatening our survival.
In contemporary society, we are usually able to meet our basic survival needs, but the camaraderie of connection remains one of the greatest needs we experience. Building an understanding that recharging our batteries in solitude can give you the opportunity to explore interests that are meaningful to you without temporarily compromising with others. Evaluating the source of the fear of being alone objectively can clarify that your survival needs are met, and reduce the intensity of the anxiety that you will be “alone forever.” Once you push through that initial panic of loneliness, we are better able to explore our interests, passions, and importance of exploring our own needs independently.
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?
When you have a strong sense of self about your values, desires, passions, and preferences, forming relationships with others that align with those concepts becomes easier and your relationships become more fulfilling as a result. Seeking to understand those ideas about yourself through the lens of another person will likely lead you to make changes within yourself to fit your perception of their needs. A sense of self-love is necessary to maintain an authentic connection with your own values, which in turn, empowers your relationships to be more genuine.
In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?
For individuals, begin by appreciating what makes you who you are, instead of punishing yourself for the ways in which you are not the way you think you should be. Every single person’s shape and form are different, and our brains and personality are equally unique. Societally, we seek similarity in our lives. We get along best with people who share our experiences and beliefs, we find it comforting to consume a certain genre of media, and we eat variations of the same foods or cuisines. By appreciating the elements of the familiar that make you comfortable, you can come to love those parts of yourself, and then in turn, begin to challenge yourself moderately to open up to new experiences, without blaming yourself for not being where you “should” be.
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?
- Have a strong handle on the basics: make sure you are sleeping, showering, eating nutritiously, taking your medications, and drinking water at a minimum before adding on anything else. If your oxygen mask is not secure, you cannot assist others. Investing in yourself first reminds you that you are your first priority.
- Take a day off: Take a day where you do not do what you “have” to do, do things towards which you feel compelled. This is not a day to check off items from your to-do list, or do what would be practical, but to listen to your body and mind. This might lead to doing something “practical,” or entirely based in leisure, or a combination of both categories. The point is to get into the practice of listening to yourself for guidance.
- Trim dead ends to inspire new growth: This applies to everything. We need fresh edges to inspire change. Are you hanging on to things that feel like they are cluttering your space? Are there relationships that you have outgrown, where you could feature those people less in your daily life? Are the ends of your hair looking split and haggard? A houseplant plagued by browning leaves? Trim, trim, trim.
- Look ahead a couple of moves: Yes, a pedicure or indulgent dessert feel like great self-care, but once the experience has ended, they are over. Think about ways that you can make your life and schedule more sustainable. Can you wake up 15 minutes earlier so you do not feel as frantic getting to work every day? Could planning your meals over the weekend cut out some of that Wednesday night anxiety of “What are we going to eat?!” True self-care is making lasting changes that will positively affect your quality of life.
- Set a concrete goal: We have fewer opportunities for achieving a goal as adults outside of our professional spheres. As a child, semesters and grades are the rhythm of life, punctuated by each school year, and our opportunities for concrete accomplishments dwindle as we age. Climb to the top of a rock wall at a climbing gym, train to run a race (of any distance), or resolve to make your kids’ Halloween costumes from scratch. Take a class in something new, try a Great British Baking Show technical challenge, do something that has a clear start and finish to remind yourself that you can accomplish things.
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?
- Dear Sugars/Tiny Beautiful Things: The guidance and advice are thoughtful and beautifully written. When Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond teamed up for the podcast, they complemented each other’s’ styles and sensibilities well. They tell the truth about relationships as they see them, and are forthcoming about their foibles, creating a uniquely human sense of truth to their advice.
- Forever 35: Kate and Doree are two friends who demonstrate how adult friendship is done — they are compassionate to one another while inspiring each other to be a better person and achieve more.
- Savage Lovecast: Relationships are not one-size-fits-all, and Dan Savage is highly skilled at adapting to what his listeners ask him and provides thoughtful insights about how to take care of yourself and those you love.
- Where Should We Begin?: Esther Perel comes to all of her insights about working with couples with an understanding of intergenerational trauma from her own life (her parents were Holocaust survivors), and uses a mix between psychodynamic techniques and real-time interventions to improve communication between parties in a relationship.
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…
“I’m okay the way I am. I can do hard things. Everybody’s life is different.”
Reminding yourself first that you are okay the way you are is essential. Note that this is not a total over-correction to artificial grandiosity or contrived self-confidence. This keeps you from trying to transform yourself fundamentally or take on too many defenses to convince the world that you are “good enough.” No matter what, you are okay the way you are.
We constantly underestimate our ability to do hard things. We tell ourselves a story that we have emotional limits and that we “just can’t,” when the reality is that you have emotionally survived every day of your life so far, and your emotions cannot physically harm you. While they can be uncomfortable, you can survive the emotions, and you can survive the challenges that present them.
The less you expect others’ experiences to look like yours, or your experiences to look like those of others, the sooner you can focus on what brings purpose and meaning to your life. Becoming fixated on the accomplishments or habits of others is a distraction. Your life is yours — live it.
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?
“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
I first read this quote when I was a teenager, and it felt relevant to the uncertainty I felt about what was ahead of me. Was I ever going to find romance? Was I going to get into college? Was I going to grow into my facial features? Would I have a meaningful career? Where was I going to settle and create my own home? As life answered these questions simply by the passage of time, I realize that giving me the answers then would have been spoilers, ruining the excitement of discovery. In retrospect, I could not have predicted these outcomes at the time; they look completely different from what I imagined. It has helped me to keep from making excessive and rigid plans about the future; I know that I can intend to move in a certain direction, and need to be capable of adapting to a sea change along the way.
Thank you for all of these great insights!