Judith Ruskay Rabinor, Ph.D. joined us for an interview on her book, The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother. What follows are our questions in italics, and her thoughtful responses.
Your most recent book, The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother is a remarkable exposé of many areas. How would you like your readers to view it?
Most therapists write about how they have facilitated the patient’s healing process and certainly I am in that tradition. However, my book adds another dimension by including not only the stories of my patients but my own story as well. My goal was to present the therapist as a human being and to humanize the therapeutic journey. I describe how witnessing and listening to my patients afforded me the unique space to reflect on my own relationship with my mother. I show how not only patients benefit from the inner exploration but so do therapists. For as long as I’ve been a therapist, people have asked me, “How can you listen to people complain all day?” Psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, MD coined a now famous and often quoted phrase when he said “All of us are much more human than otherwise.” He was one of the first to underscore the similarities of patients and therapists and to minimize the stigma of psychological suffering and mental illness. I would like readers to understand that emotional problems are universal and that the process of self- reflection can help all of us understand ourselves.
What are some of the emotions you experienced while you were exploring your relationship with your mother?
What are some of the emotions I didn’t experience might be a better question! I really experienced so many emotions –excitement and frustration, joy and sorrow. My own inner turmoil after my mother’s death drew me into writing this book. I knew I loved my mother and yet…I was very angry about certain things that had occurred between us. My “Bad Mommy” stories were easily triggered and could replay. Meanwhile, I was also aware I tenaciously loved my mother! My emotions confused and frustrated me—was it possible to feel so loving and so angry simultaneously? While writing the book I felt like I was on a roller coaster, swinging wildly from happy positive moments to dark places. Robert Frost has a famous quote that I taped up above my desk: “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” Writing this book pushed me to review and reappraise my life, the high and the low points.
Why did you feel it was important for your readers to learn about your own complicated experiences with your mother.
For many years I have written professional articles emphasizing the healing power of self-disclosure. Early on in my work as a therapist I learned that therapist self-disclosures promotes patients’ self-disclosure. Early in The Girl in the Red Boots, I discuss how when I shared my own experience being bullied as a teenager, a patient disclosed the heretofore undisclosed depths of her eating disorder. We all—therapists and patients—experience a lot of pressure to appear “fine.” One of the things that bothered me about my own mother was her inautheniticy—her reliance on the philosophy “everything is fine, and everything will certainly turn out fine” was maddening. Giving advice and support to others carries more weight when the author or therapist has walked the walk. One of my goals was to universalize the mother-daughter relationship as complicated and rich.
You pose a reflective question before each chapter. Please tell us about your goals here and what you reached for in yourself.
A key to growth is the ability to be reflective. The exercises I incorporated into my book require people to slow down and either meditate or write about something which may be novel. In the prologue of my book I explain why I keep a sand-art picture on the window of my office: its purpose is to engage my patients in being curious. We all can get stuck in a one-dimensional story of our lives and these reflective questions are aimed at shaking up the stories we tell ourselves. I often have to remind my patients and myself as well that the stories we tell ourselves are just stories and as we go through our lives we have the posisiblity of revising our stories and knowing ourselves on a deeper level. On my website I state, “Change Your Story, Change Your Life.” Both writing and psychotherapy can help us expand our stories and our lives.
The examples you share of your work with clients speaks to the trust and intimacy in the therapeutic relationship. What are some of the steps you take to establish an atmosphere of safety?
From the first session, I encourage a new patient to pay attention to all their feelings being here with me—in this moment. The phrase “in this moment” is key. It probes self reflection. When a new patient begins with “their story” I often ask a question that focuses us on the present moment and our relationship, such as, “Before we just into the deep water, what’s it like being here with me?” I encourage people to speak authentically about the level of comfort they are experiencing. “I welcome all your thoughts and feelings—even the ones that aren’t so pretty,” I’ll say with the goal of normalizing negative feelings.
You are quite straightforward in discussing the questions therapists ask themselves and the vulnerabilities they experience as they do the work of therapy. What kind of feedback have you received?
Thank you for asking this question. Frankly, I was a bit nervous about exposing so many of my own vulnerabilities, and was delighted with the response of so many esteemed colleagues. For example, Dr. Amy Banks, coauthor of Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Strong, Healthy Relationships wrote “In this captivating book, Dr. Rabinor lifts the therapeutic veil…” Interestingly enough, Banks continued, “Immersing myself in The Girl in the Red Boots felt like entering a secret sorority resulting in an enhanced appreciation and longing for my own mother.” I believe Banks was referring to the fact that most therapists are in a secret society where keeping your own personal issues hidden is the norm. Judith Brisman, PhD, author of Surviving an Eating Disorder: Strategies for Family and Friends, wrote: “Read this book slowly. Your own mother will seep into the pages . . . and you will want to push her away. Judy’s story helps us look deeply at our own mothers, to see what we may have missed, to quiet our anger. She helps us start to forgive. A compelling story not just about the author but also about you.” In a lengthy review, Carolyn Costin noted how important it was that I challenged myself to “tolerate the unknown and take risks,” the “very tasks we ask our patients to do. “ I think that many therapists are challenging the value of therapist anonymity and were supportive of my desire to be authentic and real.
Please tell us about the rewards that come from exploring, untangling, and understanding the mother-daughter relationship.
Understanding and untangling your relationship with your mother will help you with every other relationship in your life. We are all profoundly impacted by our early experiences. When the mother is the primary caretaker (as is still generally the case in the Western world), this relationship serves as a template for all other relationships. As Bruno Bettleheim said, “The ways we were loved—and not loved—has shaped our expectation of how we expect to be loved and how we love. Understanding our mothers ultimately translates into understanding who we are: our strengths, vulnerabilities and expectations.
About the author:
Judith Ruskay Rabinor Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and consultant to The Renfrew Center Foundation and a Supervisor at The Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia. She offers psychotherapy for individual, couples, and families and conducts groups for binge eaters, clinicians and writers. She is the author of The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother, A Starving Madness: Tales of Hunger, Hope and Healing and Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and Yes Your Ex.