Once vilified and fodder for jokes, Monica Lewinsky now shines a light on self-bullying

Chicago
By Chicago 10 Min Read

She keeps photos of herself around the house, maybe five of them. 

She is a toddler in one, later a girl of 5 with a pink bow that matches her dress.

She smiles when she passes them on her bookshelf or nightstand. They are a constant reminder to be kind to herself. She is still that girl. 

Monica Lewinsky knows she can’t shed the awful and damaging descriptors that often follow her name. No matter that her affair with President Bill Clinton and the vilification that followed was more than 25 years ago, and she is now a writer and producer, activist and filmmaker.

It’s no longer something to fear but a part of her.

“It’s not going to clear up like a blemish,” she says from a friend’s New York City apartment. “It’s sort of something you have to find ways to live with.”

She says she uses the pain and the past for purpose.

After devoting much of the past eight years to antibullying campaigns — something that grew out of her wildly popular TED talk on shame, which now has 27 million views — she is now coming after our biggest bully, often our worst enemy, the one who is relentless.

Our voices in our heads

The childhood photos in her Los Anges home — and the negative voices that led her to display them — inspired Lewinsky’s latest antibullying campaign, which launched with a video on Tuesday. The powerful public service announcement featuring unscripted moments focuses on self-bullying.

The video features people as young as 12 saying cruel things as others listen. At the end of the spot, there is a surprise reveal about who the people are actually talking to.

Self-bullying can be your own voice telling you negative things or repeating the mean things that others have said to you.

“It’s introspective this year,s,” Lewinsky says. It’s wanting people to recognize that the harshest bully any of us know is ourselves,” Lewinsky says. “The idea of negative self-talk and our negative voice is not totally novel to everyone, but to reframe it in this way … to be a wake-up call for some people or a gentle reminder for others that this is something we need to be mindful of.”

Years after she was reduced to a punchline for middle-aged men hosting late-night talk shows, and after she slipped away from the public eye to get a Master of Science degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics, much of the negativity dissipated, but those mean words still ran through her head on a loop.

Lewinsky will tell you that she has embraced many kinds of therapy over the years, one of which was a workshop where everyone was asked to write down what they told themselves.

“It was very easy for me, page after page after page,” she says.

But then the assignment changed. They were told to read their list out loud to the group.

“That was a completely transformative process for me,” she says. “Hearing myself say out loud what I say to myself, the silent bully in my head, was devastating. I cried at different points. I was just shocked at how cruel I could be to myself.”

She needed to learn a new way to talk to herself.

“I was having trouble doing this, so I tried to break things down into the simplest, tiniest thing I can do,” Lewinsky says. “I thought, I know if I put up these photos of myself as a kid when I see them, I’m trying … on some level sending positive energy telling her she’s safe, she’s loved. That I’ve got it.”

Now when she receives a text, she reaches to her phone with her kindergarten photo on the home screen.

It doesn’t always work

“Sometimes, when I’m feeling frustrated, stressed, tired, depressed, anxious,” she says, she loses the ability to tell herself the nice things. “I do certain things, and it’s OK, not as a way to give myself permission to do thing, but as a way to not make it worse, to not make the negative self-talk inside just compound.”

People have a hard time believing Lewinsky turned 50 this year, and when you see her glistening smooth skin, her dark glossy hair, you wonder whether she isn’t in some ways still that 22-year-old frozen in time in a beret. 

But she has lived those years. As the country embraced #MeToo and took a new look at how Clinton treated Lewinsky, she did, too.

She is grateful for a new generation who is taking a fresh look at what happened in 1998.

For years, Lewinsky never tried to absolve herself from what she says was a consensual relationship but wrote in Vanity Fair in 2018 about how the power dynamic likely made that impossible.

She credits her family with the reason she is here today. Her mother made her shower with the door open during those difficult days and checked on her at night when Lewinsky no longer wanted to live.

“I wouldn’t be here without my family. I was very lucky, very lucky that way. I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through what I did or any sort of a crucible and not have that support of the people who’ve known you your whole life and know you most intimately.

“The thing I tell myself now … once you survive once, it’s in there. No matter how terrible it feels, somewhere in there is you got through it once, you know the cycle. It’s as bad as it seems, it will get better.”

Knows that isn’t simple

“It will change, you don’t know how soon … You can’t see it right now, but you will get through this. This may feel emotionally like the worst moment and excruciating shame and pain, and you just want to curl into a ball and disappear, but it will change, and you will have joy again and you will feel yourself again. There’s always going to be that piece of you.“

Now, she’s found that joy. She plans to continue her antibullying work and work as a producer. In the past few years, she was the co-executive producer of “15 Minutes of Shame,” which shines a light on public shaming and the executive producer of ”Impeachment: American Crime Story,” a 10-episode series that sought to humanize the women around Clinton.

Lewinsky calls the past 10 years the best decade she’s had.

“This last year has been a lot about acceptance, and acceptance is hard to have without a long runway, which is what age gives us,” she says.

She has learned to rely on her strength, something she was always sure she had, but not the depth.

Continuing to work on it

She picks up the photo of herself as a child, freckles and a real smile that still holds her baby teeth.

What would you tell that girl?

“I just try to send her unconditional love so that she just feels safe and supported, and it’s OK when she shows up, it’s OK. It can be. … Just you know, it’s OK, it’s all OK. “

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, dial 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 24-hours a day. Services are provided in multiple languages.

Read more at USA Today.

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