Stay focused on the future: While I believe it is important to stay present, I also think creating images of hope for our future builds resiliency. There were times when I was trying to get pregnant that I felt hopeless. After several failed attempts I created an image that I locked in my brain. I pictured getting pregnant as the fertility doctor was doing the procedure. I literally told myself, “It is going to work this time.” Two weeks after that appointment my body started showing signs of a pregnancy. Nine months after that I delivered a healthy baby boy.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shari Botwin.
Shari Botwin, LCSW has been counseling men and women in recovery from all types of trauma and abuse for over 24 years in her Cherry Hill, New Jersey Private Practice. Her second book, “Thriving After Trauma: Stories of Living and Healing (Rowman & Littlefield) just released in an updated paperback in October 2021. Botwin published numerous articles and has made media appearances in a variety of international media outlets, including Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News and CTV in Canada.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I grew up in an upper middle class Jewish family. From a young age I knew something was different about me. I felt like a misfit. I used to ask myself, “Why don’t I fit in with other people?” I always wanted to live, even though I contemplated suicide for most of my adolescence and young adulthood. It was not until I began working in the psychology field that I realized I was struggling with an eating disorder, major depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. During my first year working at an inpatient facility for eating disorders I found myself identifying with many of the patients. I knew I needed help. I started intensive outpatient therapy and two years after I met my therapist I told her I had been sexually abused by an immediate family member. From there the floodgates opened and I gave myself time and space to heal from incest. I was determined to find my way into a life that felt safe, happy and free. I developed a variety of coping strategies to manage my emotions and work through a lost childhood and adolescence. When I was in my late thirties I was ready to start a family. I became a choice momma to my now almost eleven year old son when I was forty-years old. I have spent the last ten years reclaiming my past, which included breaking the cycle of abuse that I believe dated back generations. I believe that I will spend the rest of my life working through the remnants of shame and fear from earlier traumas I survived. I do not let that stop me from living a life that is happy, safe and free. I love my work as a therapist, I am in love with being a momma and I plan to continue speaking out and writing about my life and the work I have done with hundreds of trauma thrivers.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
For the first fifteen years of being in a private practice I kept my survivorship private. I needed time to heal before putting myself out there in the public. I decided to attend the Bill Cosby trial after hearing dozens of women speak publicly about their alleged drugging and assault. I was astounded by their courage and I could also feel their pain. It was clear to me that many of these women never had the chance to process what happened to them. I could relate to many of them. I too, was drugged by my abuser. I too, spent decades in silence. One night I watched about a dozen alleged Cosby survivors speak to Kate Snow on Dateline NBC. I remember telling myself, “If these women can be brave enough to talk publicly about what happened to them, so could I!” After Cosby was convicted and sent to prison I began sharing my history of abuse in a variety of public platforms. I published op-eds on the impact of childhood abuse and I came forward on being an incest survivor. Rather than calling myself a “trauma therapist,” I changed my business website and identified myself as a “Trauma Therapist and Survivor.” I began integrating my experiences from my personal life and used it in my work as a therapist and a writer. From what people have told me, I have the ability to take horrific earlier life events and reframe these experiences with an abundance of hope and resilience. While I do not share any specifics of my abuse with patients or in the public, I am able to relate to the feelings and help others find words to emotions that have caused them pain and confusion. I use the lessons I have learned and bring that to my sessions with patients. I tell myself every day, “I want patients to suffer less than I did during my recovery.” I am determined to help others find the power within themselves to save their own lives, just like I was able to with the help of my therapist, mentors and friends.
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?
Very early in my trauma recovery, I met a woman named Jane Shure, PhD, LCSW. She co-led a workshop on letting go of shame with another amazing colleague, Beth Weinstock, Ph.D. (www.theresiliencegroup.com). I developed a relationship with both of these women months before I broke my silence about my abuse. I was so moved by their way of explaining the role of shame in staying stuck in trauma. They were the first people who ever put into words what I felt for most of my childhood and adolescence. Before I met them, I had no idea what the word shame even meant. While it was incredibly painful for me to hear them talk about the levels of pain and inadequacy that comes from feeling shame, it was liberating. I finally had the words to describe what I used to say felt like, “My insides are ripping.” I realized after attending their workshop and talking with my therapist that I could not let go of these emotions if I did not have a way to describe them and place them. There is a difference between feeling like “a fat, ugly loser,” to telling myself, “I felt like a fat, ugly loser because of what was done to me.” Through my recovery I had a very difficult time maintaining relationships. I trusted very few people. When someone said something that hit a button, I would run and hide under the covers. I was afraid to speak up and I often misinterpreted other peoples’ reactions. Every time I spoke about another memory in therapy I fell apart. I wanted to quit therapy and I allowed myself to consider suicide as an option when the pain felt impossible to be with. On countless occasions I left messages for Jane and Beth. I told them I had had it and that I could not “take it anymore.” Every time I reached out to them, they called me back. They left me voicemails which I would play dozens of times. They reminded me that the pain would not last forever and they encouraged me to stay on my path and keep fighting. I referred to Jane as my “guardian angel.” I did not see them a lot in person, but their messages of hope made such a difference. Knowing that others believed in me when I did not believe in myself was part of my resiliency plan. I decided that I needed to trust that others would not tell me I could do it, if I could not! I carry that belief system with me to this day.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I have met many men and women through the years in my private practice that have survived insurmountable life events. I have met people who have an extensive childhood abuse history. I have spoken to people who have lost their parents as children, who have seen people shot in combat, who have been diagnosed with aggressive forms of cancer and who have lost their own children in childbirth or from childhood cancers. I have counseled many patients who have lived in silence for decades. I have worked with some patients who were being abused by partners and staying silent while being in therapy. I often think things like, “How in the world are they still sane or how did they survive such an awful event?” The longer I do this work the more I realize the traits of resilience many of these patients share in common. While each of their life experiences are very different, their determination to make it through shines through. Many of my patients have told me that their hope for their future played a key role in helping them move through their earlier traumas.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is when we think about how we can face our fears or overcome the odds. Resilience is when we take our courage and flip it into action. For example, I have met several patients who want to face fears around intimacy and relationships. Resilience is about growth and feeling more confident that we can achieve whatever goals we have, in the face of adversity. I have met some women who were in a string of intimate partner abusive relationships. At first some of these patients have little faith that they will able to be a part of a healthy, safe and loving relationship. Rather than sit in the fear, many of these women have gone into being in intimate relationships that are about equality and mutual respect. I worked with one woman who was physically abused by her father and then emotionally and sexually abused by her ex-husband for over 25 years. She started therapy in her mid-sixties. Three years after she left her abusive husband she met a man and eventually married him. She was determined to break the cycle of abuse. Her resiliency played a big part to her success. She asked for help. She reached out to survivors. She never gave up. She gave herself time to grieve for all the years lost and then found ways to move forward and have what she wanted!
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
In 2018 I followed the trial of the US Gymnastics doctor, Dr. Larry Nassar. I was so intrigued when I heard that Judge Aquilina would be allowing any or all of the women who were sexually abused by him to confront him in court. When the trial ended I reached out to Judge Aquilina because I wanted to know what her backstory was. I wanted to know who the person was behind the black robe. I never imagined to find out that she had survived a variety of traumatic events. I listened to her audio book, “Just Watch Me,” (https://www.amazon.com/Just-Watch-Judge-Rosemarie-Aquilina/dp/1713638843). After listening to her book, we had several conversations about events she shared in her memoir. We talked about her abandonment issues from childhood, times when she was squashed by others in her early law career, her first marriage where she was unheard and many other times when she could have easily given up. Her determination to be heard struck me. Her resiliency was present from her early childhood. She decided around the same age I did in my childhood that no one was going to get in her way of having what she wanted in her life. She told herself, “Just Watch Me,” when others tried to bring her down. I am inspired by Judge Aquilina’s grit and ability to give others what she did not get. She suffered with a lot of adversity, but was still able to have a family, have a successful career and become a phenomenal author. People like her remind me that anything is possible if we stay connected to our passion and goals.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
When I started pitching my book idea to literary agents and publishers in 2017, I was rejected over and over. I was told things like, “you need to have more books out, you need a bigger platform, and your book is not the right fit for us and many other negative comments.” These statements brought up many rejections and criticism from my past. I was told as a kid I would never make it on a Broadway stage because I was “too fat,” and “too ethnic looking.” During those years my confidence was low and I internalized these comments. When it came to selling my book, I decided I was not going to take it personally if someone told me no. I reached out to friends and colleagues when I wanted to give up. I held onto my mission of getting my book out there. I was not going to feel silenced anymore. I considered giving up on several occasions, but then I told myself that “Do not let others take away your dream. Keep in the fight Botwin.” I found a literary agent, Linda Konner, who gave me positive feedback. She did not take me on as a client initially, but she told me what I needed to do to be represented by her. For almost two years I put myself out there by publishing articles and giving interviews on a variety of national media platforms on breaking stories related to trauma. I was quoted in a feature for the Associated Press on a story about #Metoo. The article, written by journalist Tamara Lush went viral within hours of its release (https://apnews.com/article/us-news-ap-top-news-harvey-weinstein-sexual-misconduct-social-media-3a2155ec64b14070bfa77a874af0fedc). A week after the article released I got the best news ever. Linda signed me as one of her book clients. A year after that, she helped me sell my book! It was not easy, but together we stayed focused until we found the right publisher!
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of thirty-five I felt like my life was over. I went into a deep depression and I convinced myself I got the cancer because I was speaking about my abuse. At that time I had not gone public, but I was telling my therapist and some close friends. I felt like this diagnosis was my punishment for “telling” on my family. I had two surgeries, six weeks apart from each other. I had a very negative mindset as I was wheeled into the operating room. I still remember telling myself, “You deserved to get cancer.”
A week after my second surgery I felt myself bouncing out of the shame and into the part of me that wanted to celebrate my survivorship from cancer. I leaned into my relationship with my dog at the time, a king charles spaniel named Chloe. I watched myself give her love. I decided that I wanted to be a mother. My friends and colleagues were astounded by how quickly I was back at work and being active physically. I found a way to access my anger and turned to self-compassion for the part of me that felt worthy of being sick. I spent months in therapy crying and screaming and trying to make sense of my cancer diagnosis. I spent a lot of time in between my therapy sessions building strength and redirecting myself into what I wanted for my future. I was going to be a mother. At that time I did not know how that would happen, but four years after being treated for cancer I got pregnant!
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I constantly searched for meaning in my life as a child. At times I served as my friend’s helpers. I searched for stories about people who had survived atrocities; such as the holocaust. I needed to know that it was possible to come out of trauma and be okay. I searched for mentors and found teachers I could connect with when I was a teenager. After I got my driver’s license I started taking two hour car rides to New York City. I searched for some of my favorite Broadway stars, hoping they would help me build confidence. I knocked on stage doors once the curtain went down. I connected with the amazing Bernadette Peters when I was eighteen years old. I told her I wanted to make it to Broadway. She hugged me and told me, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” I carried her words with me for years to follow. Even though I did not pursue musical theater, I internalized any messages that were about staying in the fight.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Reach out and speak. Last week I was hit with a lot of shame after something happened at work. I was stuck. I felt like a horrible person and I wanted to go into hiding. I called my friend Jane. I opened up to her about the shame and she helped me reframe it. She reminded me that when it comes to business we cannot take it personally. She reminded me of my purpose and helped me place some of the feelings associated with feeling like a bad person. Moments after our brief conversation I was able to pick myself up and keep moving forward.
- Practice self-compassion: I did this a ton during my recovery. I found places to go that made me feel comfort. I spent a lot of time with my dog Chloe in places that made us happy. We spent hours in the woods going on hikes and taking walks on the beach. As we spent time together I was able to reassure myself that my heart was not damaged by my abusers. I felt love for that part of me that got so hurt growing up.
- Find ways to laugh: I do this sometimes a million times a day. It is important to face our feelings and talk about our experiences. But, at times using my sense of humor shifts the course of my day. I notice that when I am in deep pain and I find a way to lighten up my mood that I can better tolerate whatever obstacles are in front of me.
- Stay focused on the future: While I believe it is important to stay present, I also think creating images of hope for our future builds resiliency. There were times when I was trying to get pregnant that I felt hopeless. After several failed attempts I created an image that I locked in my brain. I pictured getting pregnant as the fertility doctor was doing the procedure. I literally told myself, “It is going to work this time.” Two weeks after that appointment my body started showing signs of a pregnancy. Nine months after that I delivered a healthy baby boy.
- Being Grateful: When I feel hopeless, frustrated or triggered I come back to a place of gratitude. I shift my thinking and focus on the things in my life that make my happy; my friends, my kittens, my peloton, my private practice, my colleagues, my health and my ability to write. Making space for hope builds resiliency and gives us more energy to move through adversity.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want to start a similar movement in conjunction with #metoo This would be specifically for survivors of incest. While the world is more accepting of abuse and assault, there is still not enough attention and resources for children who are being sexually abused by their family members.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I want to hang out with Oprah Winfrey. Her shows were inspiring and uplifting. I wanted to be rescued by someone like her when I was growing up. I wrote her a letter after a suicide attempt I had at the age of seventeen. I did not know at that time she too was sexually abused by a family member. I would love to have a conversation with her about resiliency and what strategies she used growing up, which helped her become the person she is today!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!