As we head into the New Year, many of us have self-improvement plans for 2024. But what if what you really need is a little time for self-reflection? Join us as today’s guest, “A Million Little Things” and “The Devil Wears Prada” actor Stephanie Szostak, shares the eight self-reflection exercises she created in her new playbook. Listen in to learn more about yourself, which can lead to increased confidence, joy, and meaning.
“What do you say to yourself about your story? You know, what? I’m really unlucky. I’m really. What do you repeat in your head about who you are? What’s your self-talk? What does your self-talk sound like?We are the authors of our own stories. And if we rewrite the way we talk to ourselves or the story we tell ourselves about our reality, we can really change our reality.” ~Stephanie Szostak
Stephanie Szostak is an actress and Give an Hour Ambassador who speaks on overcoming failure, being an outsider, and living with authenticity. Szostak left her native France to study business and play varsity golf at the College of William & Mary. At twenty-nine years old, after a brief stint at Chanel in New York City, she took a leap and gave the acting world a try. Her most notable projects include “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Iron Man 3,” “Dinner for Schmucks,” and the ABC hit series “A Million Little Things.” Ten years into her career, she suffered from crippling imposter syndrome which pushed her to address her mindset and develop her own Playbook as a daily practice of mental fitness. She hopes your Self!sh Playbook will support your journey of discovery, learning, and growth.
Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the show, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard and calling in today we have Stephanie Szostak. Stephanie is an actor best known for her roles in The Devil Wears Prada, Iron Man III and the ABC hit series A Million Little Things. Ten years into her career, she suffered from crippling imposter syndrome, which pushed her to address her mindset and develop her own playbook. Her new book, “Self!sh: Step Into a Journey of Self-Discovery to Revive Confidence, Joy, and Meaning,” is out now. Stephanie, welcome to the podcast.
Stephanie Szostak: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to chat with you.
Gabe Howard: I am excited that you are here as well, Stephanie. Now our inner dialogs can be so powerful and I know that’s a sentiment that you agree with because you’ve shared that your own self-talk from a movie set included quote. That sucked. They’re going to think it sucked. They’re going to think I suck. I do suck. What am I doing here? I don’t belong here, and I’m going to get fired, unquote. That had to be really taxing on you mentally.
Stephanie Szostak: Yes, it was taxing because it was playing on a loop and I did not know how to deal with it. I did not know how to quiet it down. I was trying to censor it, and then I was getting feeling even more like a quote unquote in my mind, loser, because I couldn’t do that. And yeah, it was it was taxing. And it impacted not only my performance, but also how I related with other people.
Gabe Howard: What I’m really surprised about by hosting this podcast is I get emails and people are like, she was on a movie set. He was on a movie set. What problems could they have? How could they have imposter syndrome on a movie set? They’re Hollywood stars. And of course, I always reply back human is human, right? But would you like to address that? Just because many people
Stephanie Szostak: Mhm.
Gabe Howard: Believe that their own imposter syndrome would go away if they reached a certain level of success? But what we’re finding from interviewing very successful people that, no, it just travels with them.
Stephanie Szostak: Yes, I actually got a card yesterday. A thank you card from a psychologist who had reviewed the book, and I sent him a copy and he said, thank you so much. And then I too suffer from imposter syndrome. And just like your audience members, I was like, what you do, but you’re a psychologist, you’re an expert. How do you suffer from imposter syndrome? I think the for me on the movie set, it was it was a new environment. It was the biggest movie set I had ever been on. It was with big movie stars. Um, and I wasn’t used to it. The first ten years of my career, I was kind of coming in from the perspective of the underdog. I started really late acting at 29. I didn’t know anybody in the business. People around me were kind of like, what are you doing? You want to be an actress? And this negative reinforcement, actually, it’s weird, but that actually motivates me. And I’m kind of like, yeah, I can be an actress. It makes me believe in myself somehow. And I don’t know where this comes from, but that’s the reality of it. And then I was on this big movie set and all of a sudden people were believing in me. This big director was excited to have me, and that made me completely lose my ground and doubt myself.
Gabe Howard: I’ve been in your shoes before where I’ve lost ground and doubted myself, but I. I want to point out that you realized that the director was excited to have you, and that people were believing in you. And I. I think that that is great introspection. Now, on to your book. Self!sh is designed around a series of what you call self-reflection exercises. And you say self-reflection and not self-help or personal empowerment or mindfulness or any of those things. And I’m curious about these exercises. Is it, is it something that you do in a group? Do you put it on social media? Do you, do you find like a self-reflection buddy? What’s the process for doing these exercises?
Stephanie Szostak: Well, yeah. I love that you asked this question because I actually say in the workbook, that this work is personal and I encourage people to keep their playbook private, because the second we do something, knowing that other people are going to look at it, we edit ourselves. We think, is this going to be cool? What are they going to think of me? If I say that the whole point of self-reflection is really to make space for all of us, all the pieces of us and the vulnerable, and so that we get to know ourselves better. To know ourselves better, we address where we are in life, where we want to be and how to get there. And I say in the book, it’s not social media, it is personal media that you’re creating for yourself.
Gabe Howard: Oh, I really like that, especially in the day and age of so much being public, I think it would be incredibly helpful to have something just for us that is private. I can see the real benefit to that.
Stephanie Szostak: Yes, there’s so much noise in the world that we live in, in, you know, on our phones we get bombarded constantly. And I found that my playbook is kind of a refuge for me to turn to, to quiet down the noise, to shift my focus to what helps me, and so that then I can bring more of what I cherish and value to the people around me and to my actions.
Gabe Howard: All right, Stephanie, well, let’s go ahead and get to it. I’m going to read off each one of the eight exercises. And can you give us a little bit of information about each one so that our audience can understand the impetus behind them? How does that sound?
Stephanie Szostak: Sure.
Gabe Howard: All right. Number one is what are your greatest achievements?
Stephanie Szostak: So, this exercise is for you to reflect on your greatest achievements. But that’s not necessarily just the wins and the successes. That’s also some of the hardships and losses that you’ve survived. We have a Venn diagram, actually, to illustrate your greatest achievement, and that sweet spot that intersects between your wins and your losses. I think a lot of the times we grow, we learn from those moments when we weren’t sure we were going to make it through, but somehow we found a way. So, this helps you to to understand what those moments are for you. And also, I think a lot of times when we are stuck in life, when we’re going through a hard time, we have a tendency to forget what we’re capable of, what we’ve achieved. So having that in your playbook is a reminder. That you are, that you’ve accomplished a lot, that you’ve come a long way and that of your strengths, and that you are equipped to do difficult things.
Gabe Howard: And the second exercise is who do you admire?
Stephanie Szostak: Oh, I love this exercise. It was given to me by a coach, and it’s coming up with a list of five or more people you admire in your life that you look up to, and these could be people from your life. They can be celebrities, famous people. They can be alive or not. They can be fictional characters from your favorite movie or books. And once you make that list, you come up. You ask yourself, what? What is it about this person that I really admire and come up with 2 to 3 attributes for each person. Now, usually some of these attributes end up repeating themselves throughout across the different people. And so, the exercise is look at these attributes that repeat themselves circle them. And those are actually the values or guiding principles or attributes that you desire for your own life. Because what we admire in others is often what we design for ourselves. We all know that we need to know our values. But whenever I did that exercise, it was an intellectual thing. And this exercise allowed me to come to my values from a completely different angle. And I like to say that from my head, but more from my heart, if that makes sense.
Gabe Howard: I think that makes a lot of sense. It really, really does.
Stephanie Szostak: And there’s also science behind it that shows that when we think of the people we admire and the qualities in them that we admire, it actually motivates us to act in our own life through those and honor these qualities and bring them out in our own life. There’s a doctor who calls the people we admire value guides. So, for example, I’m trying to make this not just an academic thing because I am not an academic. So, the practicality of this exercise, you know, when I’m on set, sometimes I feel small and I hesitate to let go and play and take a risk on set. And one of my people is Mick Jagger, and I have a picture in my playbook of Mick Jagger jumping off the stage into the crowd, and I think he’s a total bad. Bleep bleep. And
Gabe Howard: You can say badass. You’re allowed to say badass. That’s okay.
Stephanie Szostak: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: And he is a badass.
Stephanie Szostak: He is. And you know this is not about Mick Jagger who he is as a person. It’s just for me as a performer that’s what he represents. And so, seeing that picture reminds me it’s not even intellectual. I just see that. And I’m like, yes. And it encourages me to bring that side of me to the set every day.
Gabe Howard: I think that is incredible. All right. The next one that we have here is, what are your pearls of wisdom?
Stephanie Szostak: Well, that’s really the reason why I created my first playbook in my playbook in the first place is because, you know, I don’t know if you’ve read a book recently and you thought, oh my gosh, this book is going to save my life or change my life. A friend of mine read Atomic Habits and she said, I love this book. It’s going to change my life. It’s highlighted like all throughout, and I have notes in the margins when I did the same thing. And then the books go back on the bookshelf and you forget them. You forget the takeaways. So, this exercise encourages you to go through your phones. A lot of us actually take screenshots of things that we come across that inspire us. So go through your camera roll, go through your favorite books and put it all in your playbook. Which, by the way, my playbook is just an album on my phone and my camera roll where I just download, where I put all these screenshots, or I make beautiful visuals with photos that inspire me and the words over them, which there is science also about that, that when we when we pair beautiful visuals with text that resonates with us, it helps us to remember the material. The content more connects to us emotionally, which helps us, motivates us and boosts our mood. Now, I did not make up these exercises. They’re just versions of exercises I’ve done throughout through the last ten years that have really helped me and continue to guide me to this day. So that’s the why behind the exercises.
Gabe Howard: Now this next self-reflection exercise I’m very curious about from your vantage point, because it is what is your impossible future. And of course, from many of the audience’s standpoint, you’re you’re a Hollywood actor. Like, isn’t that the impossible future? Where do you go from here? But also, what is the impetus behind the question to figure out what your impossible future is it? It also seems to me a little bit like, well, if it’s impossible, why think about it?
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Stephanie Szostak, author of “Self!sh: Step Into a Journey of Self-Discovery to Revive Confidence, Joy, and Meaning.”
Stephanie Szostak: Um, well, this was given to me when I was 30 by a therapist. And it really about closing your eyes and imagining your best possible future ten years or so from now, from the present. And in that future, though there are no obstacles, money is not an object. It’s truly your impossible future. And the reasoning is first of all to free ourselves to allow ourselves to dream up what it is we want, not just professionally. Hollywood actor. What is that that can be taken away in, you know, a day or a year, but not just professionally, but in your relationships throughout all the areas of your life. So, you just you just dream it up. You imagine, you make it as vivid as possible. And when I did the exercise, it was surprising. I actually imagined something that I would, you know, if you had asked me intellectually, is that what you want? I would have said no. Specifically, I saw myself in a house. I’d never lived in a house my entire life. I’ve always lived in apartments. I lived in New York City. I had no desire to move, but I imagine myself in a house, and this is kind of funny.
Stephanie Szostak: But there was a door, there was dog hair on the carpet, and I was I actually wrote because afterwards you write it out and I was like, what? What the crap, dog hair? I don’t even like dogs. I was not a dog person at the time. So, flash forward, you know, 20 years later, the impossible future. Those were just details of living. But my life is so close to that impossible future, and it really allows you to come in touch with what you truly desire. Um, not from an intellectual standpoint, but really at the core of who you are. It also once we there’s also science behind it that once you do visualize, visualization is really powerful. And once you do visualize things, you’re more apt to act towards those that that future. So, it’s not an it’s not a wishful thinking exercise. You know, you don’t have to believe in vision boards. There’s actually science behind it that once you visualize it, then you’re more apt to act, to act towards that future.
Gabe Howard: I could not agree more. I have personally used this to my advantage, and I am one of those people that rolled my eyes very, very hard at vision boards and imagining my future. But it worked like gangbusters and I stand very happily corrected and a very happy convert. Now this. This next self-reflection exercise makes so much sense to me, and I’m excited to hear you talk about it because it’s what are your daily wins?
Stephanie Szostak: Yes. So, the daily wins is there’s a quote by Randy Pausch, that exercise. He was a professor at Carnegie Mellon who had stage four pancreatic cancer. And he gave his last lecture. If you have not watched it, YouTube it. It’s amazing. He had just a few months to live and he said, we cannot I don’t know the exact quote, but we cannot pick the cards we’re dealt. We don’t choose the hand we’re dealt, but we can choose how we play the hand, something like that. And so, the daily wins are about really coming up with. Up to ten things that you can do every day that are in your control. So, we’re not in control of the circumstances of the day. But there are things that can help us move the needle in the right direction personally, professionally, spiritually. You know, in your relationships, whatever you’re working on, what are those things? Write them down. And the goal is not to do ten out of ten. If you have seven out of ten, six out of ten on any given day, that’s your that’s a pretty amazing day. But what it does, it really trains us to have positive reinforcement for things that are in our control. And it gives us confidence. It can build momentum, and it also keeps our focus on what we can control.
Gabe Howard: Now this next one I’m a little confused about, so I’m looking forward to you explaining it. It’s what are your narratives?
Stephanie Szostak: What? Well, what are your narratives? What do you say to yourself about what’s your story? You know what? I’m really unlucky. I’m really. What do you repeat in your head about who you are? What’s your self-talk? What is your self-talk sound like? And by the way, all these questions are not just big questions. And you have to answer. We spoon feed then one question at a time so that it’s not such a big void that you have to answer. So, this one is all about self-talk and becoming aware of the situations where we’re triggered, where our self-talk is not necessarily productive or doesn’t serve us well, and rewriting those narratives. We are the author of our own stories. And if we rewrite the way we talk to ourselves or the story we tell ourselves about our reality, we can really change our reality.
Gabe Howard: I love that. And as we talked about before, I agree that self-talk can be a huge driver. If you’re insulting yourself, you’re going to feel defeated. If you’re uplifting yourself, you’re going to feel strong and powerful. I can I can absolutely relate to that. Now this this next one, so, I hate to say this next one is my favorite because it’s sort of like if you have eight children and you’re like, well, this child is my favorite, but it’s just so often overlooked, especially in self-help. And your number seven self-reflection exercise is how do you find and spread joy?
Stephanie Szostak: So, I love that you love this one, Gabe, because I said all the other all the exercises were given to me except this one. This one I made up because I wanted to make space for gratitude. And then I thought, well, gratitude. Everybody talks about gratitude. I have a gratitude practice. But I thought everybody knows about gratitude. And then I thought about joy. And joy is a big part of my life. It’s about making space for joy, for the little moments. It’s not happiness. It’s it’s truly even on a difficult day, finding a way to savor life. So, what brings you joy is the first part of the exercise. And then how do you how can you spread joy when you go to the supermarket and just interact with a stranger? It really. It just makes you more aware of how we spend our day, and just be more conscious of how we interact with the people around us, with the world, with nature. There’s a lot of joy to be found in the world if we make space for it. I love that concept.
Gabe Howard: I love that concept as well. So, this next one I love anything to do with philosophy. Stephanie, I just want to tell you right now I am I am huge, huge, huge philosophy fan. So, number eight of your self-reflection exercises is what is your philosophy? And I have to say, as much as I love philosophy, I don’t know how to answer the question.
Stephanie Szostak: So, this exercise was given to me from a course I took online by a high-performance psychologist called Dr. Michael Gervais. And it’s about crafting one sentence. You know, you can call it a mission statement. You can call it your there’s a lot of words for it, but it’s about finding one sentence that really reflects who you are, what you’re about, your values, and that you can turn to as a compass for decision making that you can turn to when you need encouragement. It’s the eighth exercise because it takes it takes a while to figure that one out. The way you go about it is just by free riding. You’re guided in the workbook to do that. You know, a whole paragraph about how do I strive to show up in life, and all the exercises that you’ve done before will help you because you already know the values. You know that that your core values. You know what? You’re what you want. You know your the self-talk that you need to work on. So. Um, yeah. It’s about I think the example in the book is Maya Angelou, who says, my mission in life is not merely to survive, but it is to thrive and to do so with style and humor. I think that’s the full quote. In that quote you have there to thrive, to survive, to have style and humor, she it’s it’s your life philosophy should encourage you when you’re down and remind you of how you want to show up in life. It’s that’s really helped me a lot.
Gabe Howard: Have you been able to overcome your negative self-talk, like, for example, while you’re on set?
Stephanie Szostak: Uh, I’ve been able to work with it so it doesn’t disappear. Some days it’s more there if I’m tired or if I don’t. Maybe don’t. Things not going well, but yes, I’m able to. I’m able to work with it and I have tools to fall back on.
Gabe Howard: I really like how you said that, Stephanie, because so often, even when I’m interviewing folks for the show, they’re like, do these five things and it’ll go away forever. Do this and you’ll be cured. And it’s, you know, I read, as you can imagine, like the folks who pitch the show, I read a lot of self-help stuff, and it’s just like, get rid of X in three easy steps. But you’ve taken a different approach and you’re like, look, we’re still sort of roommates, but I’ve got this really good set of boundaries and now they don’t eat my food anymore. And I think that is a really different approach in the world.
Stephanie Szostak: We’re humans. We are going to deal with doubt. We are going to get angry. We are going to get overwhelmed. That’s part of our nature. And what we can do is learn how to navigate those moments and those emotions and those thoughts. And the way to do that is three things. Number one, I’ve learned this from a behavioral scientist. It’s a model. I’m not coming up with it. Number one is awareness. Becoming aware of ourselves. Number two, learning skills. And three, practicing those skills. And the more we practice them, the more they become habitual. And little by little, we can really bring progress to our life. And my playbook is about that. Number three, it’s the it’s the reinforcement, the practice.
Gabe Howard: Stephanie, thank you so much for being here. Where can folks find you online?
Gabe Howard: Now, I know that you wrote this book in collaboration with the nonprofit Give an Hour, which is a national mental health organization that provides mental health support to people impacted by human made trauma. Listeners can find additional tools and resources at giveanhour.org/resources. And I also want to let the listeners know that 50% of the proceeds from the workbook are going to Give an Hour. And of course, that book is called “Self!sh: Step Into a Journey of Self-Discovery to Revive Confidence, Joy, and Meaning.” And it’s available now wherever books are sold. I’m sure all of my listeners will check that out. Stephanie, thank you so much for being here. And to the listeners, thank you for being here as well.
Gabe Howard: My name is Gabe Howard, and I’m an award-winning public speaker, and I could be available for your next event. I also wrote the book “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can get on Amazon, but you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and you don’t want to miss a thing. And hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show to everyone you know, because sharing the show is how we’re going to grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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