Episode 101: Brandon Farbstein, Framework for Self-Acceptance
In this episode, Karen speaks with Brandon Farbstein, a motivational speaker and author who inspires millions of people across the globe with his universal message of living life on your own terms and building the framework for self-acceptance. Diagnosed with a rare form of dwarfism at the age of 2 (metatropic dysplasia), Brandon has turned his life experience of suffering, isolation, and victimhood into empowerment, impact and influence.
[Brandon] inspires millions of people across the globe with his universal message of living life on your own terms and building the framework for self-acceptance.
Diagnosed with a rare form of dwarfism at the age of 2 (metatropic dysplasia), Brandon has turned his life experience of suffering, isolation, and victimhood into empowerment, impact and influence. After a severe battle with cyberbullying in high school, he decided to share his story – to both offer hope and to enact change. Brandon was the driving force behind two new pieces of legislation that were signed into law in Virginia, one on bullying prevention and the other requiring empathy and emotional intelligence to be taught in all K-12 classrooms across the state.
Whether sharing his message with thousands of students at a time, empowering readers with his books Ten Feet Tall & A Kids Book About Self-Love, or working with Fortune 100 companies like Facebook, HP, and Marriott, Brandon consistently delivers tools to audiences of all ages to shatter limiting beliefs, elevate their mindset, and create an amplified life. He frequently advises foundations, boards, and large scale organizations on their DEI efforts, especially towards the disability community – the largest minority group in the world comprising 15% of the global population.
Brandon continues to break barriers and pave the way for people who often feel invisible. He was named in Instagram’s #19under19 as one of the 19 most influential teenagers in the world with his mission to Elevate Empathy®. In 2020, Brandon made his runway debut at NY Fashion Week wearing Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive and has become a sought-after voice for inclusion.
Intro Voices 00:04
Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me? This is You Matter, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Campus Safety.
Karen Ortman 00:36
Hi, everyone, and welcome back to You Matter, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your host Karen Ortman, Associate Vice President of Campus Safety Operations at the Department of Campus Safety, and a retired law enforcement professional. Today, I welcome Brandon Farbstein. Brandon is a motivational speaker and author who inspires millions of people across the globe, with his universal message of living life on your own terms, and building the framework for self acceptance. diagnosed with a rare form of dwarfism at the age of two, Brandon has turned his life experience of suffering, isolation and victimhood into empowerment, impact and influence. Brandon, welcome to you matter.
Brandon Farbstein 01:31
Hi Karen, thank you so much for having me.
Karen Ortman 01:33
Oh, my pleasure, entirely. It's very nice to speak with you today. I'm thrilled that you're here. So, so tell me, Brandon, you were diagnosed with a rare form of dwarfism at the age of two, like I said, in the intro. Tell me about your childhood, from elementary school through high school.
Brandon Farbstein 01:59
Yeah, I didn't really pick up on how different I was up until I think the second or third grade when the height difference between myself and my peers became more and more noticeable. And that's also when the teasing and bullying and being pointed at and laughed at. And that sort of thing started to become more of a regular thing. And it wasn't until I reached a point of complete darkness when I was 11 years old. And I was on the verge of wanting to take my life. Because I thought there was no point in me being made or dealing with the sorts of things that I had to go through on a daily basis, whether it be emotional, or physical. And so it was that period of being in a really deep dark hole that I couldn't seem to get myself out that I got the professional help that I needed by a counselor and through therapy. And it also helped me see that I could choose my own thoughts. Yeah, I didn't have to be a puppet, to what other people were throwing at me, whether it be negativity, or being ignorant, or whatever it was. And that was a game changer for how I started to live my life. And that, of course, didn't put up a shield though, from what was going on around me, especially when it came to cyber bullying.
Karen Ortman 03:39
May I ask you how tall you are? Yes,
Brandon Farbstein 03:42
I am three foot nine. And this is the size that I'm going to be for the rest of my life. So it's about the average size of a seven or eight year old to give you some context.
Karen Ortman 03:54
Okay. And when referring to your size, what is your preferred descriptor?
Brandon Farbstein 04:01
That's a great question. So little person or dwarf are the most common. And I would say the most respected terms when referring to somebody with dwarfism, but honestly, the best bet no matter what he's asking what my name is, or the person that you are in front of, that is so powerful instead of trying to stumble on what is the right term, or what word do I use? I think no matter what, just try and find that person's name and treat them with humanity, like we all want to be treated.
Karen Ortman 04:37
Absolutely. Is there any term that is unacceptable to you?
Brandon Farbstein 04:42
So I would say the word midget is one that is still very commonly used when referring to somebody of short stature or with morphism but it is highly offensive to those of us that we Do have dwarfism. And that is because it originated, I believe, during the circus times when people would unfortunately put little people in these acts to have them as you know, circus attractions. And the word midget has that connotation of somebody who is almost subhuman. Right? And so to refer to somebody in that light is, especially in today's day, and age is not the right terminology. So it is, again, a very powerful thing to know what the proper terms are. But the safest bet is to also is to always use somebody's name
Karen Ortman 05:44
absolutely, how did you get from the point of experiencing those difficult times to to getting the help that really sort of came through for you?
Brandon Farbstein 05:57
So I alluded to this a minute ago in the question beforehand, but I experienced a very dramatic period of darkness. And I saw dramatic because it wasn't gradual, it was very sudden. And one day, I remember coming home from school when I was 11 years old, and nothing specific happened that day, or I remember being triggered, but I just had this overall feeling of defeat, and hopelessness. And I walked in the door, and it was only my mom who was home and I said, I can't do this anymore, I don't want to continue being me, there's no reason to suffer in the ways that I haven't, I'm gonna go kill myself, I immediately stormed into my room and slammed the door. And she was only about 30 seconds behind me. But in that time, I had taken a belt and was nearly in the process of putting it around my neck when she stopped me. And we just stood in each other's arms for about 10 minutes. And she held me in the tightest hug. And that literally was the point. That kind of shifted things, where I started getting therapy and going to a counselor. And it took me six different counselors to finally find one that I felt not only comfortable with, but seen and heard by was so huge, especially being so young, and having all of these complicated feelings that I didn't know how to put words to. And that was such a huge relief for me to start talking about what I was going through instead of bottling it all up inside and carrying that with me wherever I went. Yeah. And of course, like I mentioned, that was when I started to see that through cognitive therapy and tools that you learn through that process, you can become in control of your thoughts and not be controlled by negative or persisted thoughts that keep coming up. And that was definitely the case for me. So that was a huge part, just getting through a lot of those dark years. But on top of that, was the very dramatic cyber bullying that I started to experience. Pretty much in high school. It wasn't that much of a thing when I was in middle school, because I don't think social media was as prominent as it became when I started my high school years. But I basically was welcomed into my high school, the very first week of freshman year with a tweet that went around. It was a video of me riding my mobility device, which was this really cool looking bright yellow, kind of Lamborghini transformer thing. That was a Segway, that was the mobility device that I used, and it was really beneficial to me, but it drew a lot of attention and the wrong type of attention, especially from my peers. So the video that was attached to this tweet was just me in the hallway passing by somebody, and the caption read first person to push the midget off the Segway gets $5 That's 10 It was retweeted by I think 100 Something people and I didn't know how to react. Of course, all I wanted was essentially acceptance. And I don't know getting through high school. Yeah, just like all of the other students around me. And so it unfortunately got very dramatically worse from there. A point where I not only was getting teased for my condition and how I looked, and that sort of thing, but it became anti semitic. And they used the images and videos that I was posting on social media, including the TED talk that I gave when I was 15. And you stayed in a way that twisted it and put it with Hitler behind me and vile and disgusting words. And then it turned into threats that said, "midget, if you don't kill yourself on Thursday, I'm going to come to your house and shank you in the kidney". And then another one that absolutely terrified me, it was, I believe that email that came through that listed the type of car that I had in my family's driveway and said, I'm going to put an IED, in the toilet in your driveway. And it was so terrifying, because I did not know who these comments, threats emails are coming from. It literally could have been the person sitting next to me in Spanish class. And so that sense of fear and PTSD became so prominent and real in every aspect of my life, that it controlled me.
Karen Ortman 11:24
Yeah, that's traumatic
Brandon Farbstein 11:26
Yeah, absolutely. And I realized that it just, it needed to, it needed to be changed. And I needed to get myself out of that environment. And so that's exactly what I did.
Karen Ortman 11:39
Yeah. So the incidents that you speak of which are criminal. Were they reported to the school where they reported to law enforcement? What Yes, was there any action taken on your behalf?
Brandon Farbstein 11:55
Unfortunately, well, the first response to that incident that I mentioned with the tweet, what I brought it to the administration, they claimed that at the school, there was a, quote, zero tolerance policy against any sort of bullying, and it would be immediately addressed, and it would not happen again. Unfortunately, that was the opposite from the truth. And both administration and the local police department, they did not do anything. And they seemed to have their hands tied in some ways, because at the time, this was in 2016, and 2017, the laws in Virginia where I was living, were definitely not up to par with what social media and current technologies were being used. It mentioned things like instant messaging, and emails and chat rooms, and just things that weren't really relevant in that timeframe. And so I unfortunately, along with my family, we found ourselves very helpless. And like there weren't really any resources, both from the police or the school system. And so that is exactly why we decided to create change out of that and use what we had been going through the last few years to testify in front of the Virginia General Assembly. And we ended up getting two pieces of legislation passed one on bullying prevention, and the other that I'm particularly proud of, which requires empathy and emotional intelligence to be taught in every single K through 12. Classroom, across the state, age specific curriculum around social and emotional learning is such a fundamental thing that I know firsthand, teaching empathy and instilling what it means to show up as an empathetic person, not just for others, but for yourself is absolutely fundamental to putting the dent in the absolute epidemic that we're seeing amongst Gen Z when it comes to mental health, cyberbullying, social media being used in really detrimental ways. And so I saw again, firsthand that empathy can truly be the difference between stopping somebody in their tracks for them not understanding how much power their words have. Yeah. And so from what was a very dark and painful experience turned into something that hopefully is able to be a huge beacon of light. Yeah, for the countless young people and families that have a similar experience because I'm certainly not the only one No, your husband harassed or tunes or made fun of or whatever on social media, and we all need to be equipped, not only with how to respond But how to try and, again prevent it and put some sort of effect in place that stops it from continuing to perpetuate.
Karen Ortman 15:10
Absolutely. Well, congratulations on your efforts. And the manner in which you have changed life for many people in in Virginia, that's really commendable. You've clearly turned your your story, your sadness, your anger at times into momentum, how did you have the strength to do that?
Brandon Farbstein 15:38
It really took being in some of those incredibly dark moments that I discovered the resiliency and strain that has always been within. But without having those things happen to me and within my life, and that sort of thing, I would not have had those discoveries. Yeah. But also, it absolutely was through finding my mission and my purpose at 15. Like I mentioned, when I gave the TED Talk. So that was the very first talk or time I shared my story, literally ever, and I had no clue the power of doing so or even just being authentic and showing up as yourself. And I did so in front of about 2000 people. And it was only six minutes of this talk. But that turned into basically the rest of my life. Because it was then that I discovered my voice in a huge sense of the way, and also this mission to elevate empathy, and use this experience that, obviously is very unique to me. But it is not just my experience. And that's the amazing thing about being a human being, we don't necessarily need to know what it's like to be in each other's shoes. But we absolutely can all relate to the same universal feelings of being alone or not feeling or being invisible, or any of these things that at really any point in life we could experience. And so discovering that at 15 was such a gift, because like I mentioned, through the cyber bullying and the period where I found myself so alone, and not really having many friends or much of a connected social life. But I did have a purpose. And I did have this huge level of service that I felt like I was able to provide to the outside world, despite what students at my school were telling me, I could or couldn't do. And that, again, was just such a game changer for how I was able to continue showing up despite these constant hurdles that were thrown at me, and honestly continue to be thrown at me. Because when you're living in a world that isn't built for somebody like yourself, every single day, no matter what environment you're in, you have to innovate your own solution. But the thing is, again, you don't need to necessarily have a disability or have something that you are navigating like that, to adopt that mentality. I think we have all seen in the last two years, especially the amount of uncertainty that exists around us is really at Metz. And the only thing that we could control is ourselves, and how we respond, what our internal dialogue is. And once we can master that, I honestly feel like we can do anything with our life.
Karen Ortman 18:53
You're a man well beyond your years.
Brandon Farbstein 18:57
I appreciate that. Thank you
Karen Ortman 18:58
for sure. In a previous interview, you said hurt people, hurt people. That's rather, I think, compassionate, and empathetic as it relates to those who have hurt you. Yeah.
Brandon Farbstein 19:21
What I've learned is that I have two choices. I could either be immensely angry and hurt by these wounds that absolutely have had an effect on me. Or I could choose to use these experiences. Sit with the uncomfortable feelings as they come up, but not let that define how I live my life or even how I show up. Yeah, and I think that has been fundamentally the biggest thing because Again, negativity is always going to be the thing, we're never going to be able to put up a blocker from toxic people or individuals who hurl negativity at us or whatever it is. But we absolutely can have a internal shield up where we're protecting our peace, and protecting our mental health from those that continuously show up with that detrimental energy. And such a easy thing that we all can do that we may not be aware of its effect is on social media, those that we personally are following, or our friends on social, that's the content that we are consuming on a daily basis. And I would bet for most of us, multiple times a day. So if we are surrounding ourselves online, with those who are at the opposite end of adding value to our life, in terms of anything positive, or encouraging us to be a better version of ourselves. I'm not saying you have to only follow those that are posting positive quotes every day, motivational speakers like myself and that sort of thing. But you shouldn't be following people that are constantly complaining about how horrible their life is, without doing anything about it, or bringing others down, I completely agree with you. You know, it has such a huge effect on the energy that we personally then have. And especially when it comes to young people, that is something that I try and share as much as I can, because we especially rely on social media, as we natively have grown up with it. And so if we're not using it in a proper way than it is going to use us. And we're going to be controlled by whatever it is externally that these forces are coming into our life with negativity. And so I would absolutely encourage every single person, maybe there's three people, there's two people that you could think of immediately on one of these platforms that you see all the time that you can unfollow. I bet on almost 100% like 99.95% that is going to be a mental health game changer for you. Because it definitely was for me.
Karen Ortman 22:36
Yeah, I agree. You know, social media can be a really positive resource, but it can be Oh, so negative, as well,
Brandon Farbstein 22:50
big time for all of us.
Karen Ortman 22:52
If there's a listener currently living with a disability, and is having difficulty coping, is there any advice that you can give them given your experience, you know, coming out of a very dark place to the success that you're seeing today, just with self love, and really spreading the message of positivity?
Brandon Farbstein 23:20
Honestly, you just hit it right on the head, it's self love. And I had to learn that firsthand in order to then share with others, this is the key to living a life of being fulfilled and genuinely loving the whole person that you are, because honestly, this is it. This is the life that we were given all of us that makes us who we are the quirkiness, the uniqueness, the things that only we have to offer, instead of constantly berating ourselves and thinking, why am I not like those around me? Or why is my hair not longer? Why am I not taller? XYZ, all the things that we wish we could change about ourselves. Why not? Instead, except the way that we are. So then we can continue moving on, continue moving forward with our life instead of being held back. Because if we are not first loving ourselves, then there's no way we're going to be able to show up with love for others or even feel a genuine sense of love for from other people either. And that's the same with empathy too. I used to have a message of basically just empathy for other people and it's all about how we're showing up for other people. And it took the pandemic for me to take a total 180 From my own mental health. was basically reduced to a point of finding myself having no sense of self worth, or sense of who I was outside of my platform or my job. And that was so detrimental to just everything else that I was doing. And I asked myself, Why is this the case? Why am I putting all of my eggs in getting validation from other people or needing to get comments or whatever to tell me that I was doing a good job? Yeah. It starts with me. It starts with all of us. And I had to then practice exactly what I was preaching for others, for myself, fundamentally, and that is definitely what gave me I think, this huge insight that if we aren't first showing up for ourselves, there's really nothing that we can do to properly influence or impact those around us, in the ways necessary, because we then end up dimming our light, and not showing up as the fullest version of who we are. But self love really is the foundation to all of them.
Karen Ortman 26:19
Are you in touch with anyone from high school?
Brandon Farbstein 26:23
I have one friend, that was definitely a buddy of mine throughout it all that I still am friends with, which is great. But other than that, there really hasn't been much contact. Over the years, there has definitely been a handful of people that have reached out to well, funny enough, they've seen me on the news, or they've seen this or that and asked me for a job. And these are the same people who were following some of the horrible accounts made to degrade me, or were some of the very people making the comments or whatever. So I find I find that pretty funny still to this day. But I have also had people reaching out to apologize, and telling me a little bit of insight into where they were at that point in their life. And I remember one conversation I had over Instagram DM from a guy who was just one of the biggest jerks, he was an athlete, and he thought he was the dominant guy over everyone else. And because I was so different, he had all this power over me. And he reached out to me, I believe, two or three years ago, and said that he was being abused by his dad. And he had been for believe 10 or so years. And he had no outlet. He had no way of sharing that with anyone. And so his way of I guess, releasing that anger or, or trying to make himself feel better was by putting others down. Yeah. And that is exactly what I mean by hurt people hurt people. And until that cycle is stopped, then it just keeps growing to a point of unfortunately, either them hurting themselves or hurting those around them. And we can't be reactive. We have to understand this is genuinely happening in every school, every community, every town no matter what. Yeah. And it's not the fault of anyone. It's just where we are as a society with all of the tools and platforms and all of these things that exist. Let's accept reality for what it is and do something about it. Instead of being blind to millions and millions of young people who are suffering and will only continue to suffer without the necessary tools and systems in place to have proper mental health resources.
Karen Ortman 29:01
How did you feel when your classmate reached out and apologized?
Brandon Farbstein 29:09
I definitely was taken aback. Yeah. But I found it in myself to accept his apology, and to see it as genuine. Because honestly, it wasn't. It wasn't for his sake, it was for mine. I didn't want to carry around any sense of resentment or anger or any of those things. Again, those incidents back in high school when I was a teenager had an enormous effect on me. And those scars will carry with me for the rest of my life. But it's my choice whether to let those scars the wounds or whether to move on from them and again, learn and become better because of those experiences and that's what I choose to do.
Karen Ortman 30:03
Good for you. You are an author, you have two books available right now. Share with my listeners, your books, your book titles, what they are about and where they can be found.
Brandon Farbstein 30:24
My first book 10 feet tall, was released four years ago when I was 18. And this was me trying to share my story in a way that wasn't a memoir. Because I, of course, only had 18 years of experience. And I didn't feel like I was ready to say, This is my big memoir world. But I did want to share this is the experience that I have had in the 18 years of life that I've been on this earth. And these are the tools and the lessons that I've learned, that have helped me carry through all of those times that I thought I couldn't continue on. And here's how that's universal to you as well. And that's why it's called 10 feet tall. Because it's a mindset, it's a perspective that we all could have, no matter what our internal or external world is. And then, in the last couple of years now that things have definitely slowed down a bit with being on the road all the time and constantly being on planes. And in hotels for talks, I asked myself, What could I bring to the world that not only was truly needed and timely, but wasn't really talked about in a way that I thought was proper or necessary. And that topic was kind of coming out blazing as self love. And so my second book was released in October of 2021. And that's called a kid's book about self love. And it's all about how to embrace your uniqueness and see yourself for all of the awesome things that you are, no matter who you are, or how different or how the same or whatever makes you you, that is whole and perfect. And it's not only for kids, but it's truly as impactful for the adults that are reading it as well. Because like I have constantly said with this whole self love thing, it's something that we all need. And no matter where we are in life, or what we're going through, we could all use more self love and be more empathetic, more compassionate to the person that we see in the mirror, because we are who we spend the most time with. So we probably should put a decent job into cultivating the relationship that we have with ourselves. And that's what self care and genuine self love really mean.
Karen Ortman 33:02
Well, congratulations on your books. Where can listeners find your books, if they're interested?
Brandon Farbstein 33:10
They are both on my website at brandonfarbstein.com.
Karen Ortman 33:16
Okay. If an organization is interested in having you speak, is the best way in which to contact you on your website.
Brandon Farbstein 33:25
It is yes, all of that is also on your website, I would absolutely love to be in touch. And whether you are a youth organization, a professional group, the really cool thing is my message is able to be tweaked and customized to that specific audience. So I would love to add value to your net.
Karen Ortman 33:47
Is there anything that we have not talked about that you would like to share?
Brandon Farbstein 33:54
I would say just to really reiterate on this social media thing. In a time where so many of us have felt disconnected and isolated in so many ways. We really should be leaning into the technology that we're very lucky to have in our life, like zoom and FaceTime, where we're able to connect with loved ones no matter where they live, or what time zone they're in. And I find that amazing. So yes, we could harp on all of the horrible things that come with Facebook misinformation or tic toc bullying and how horrible it is for young people. There are such amazing things that can come out of using social media using technology, putting ourselves out there and just showing up as the most genuine version of who we are, no matter what we're looking to do with our life. I think it is such a powerful thing and one that if we all do a little bit more of that single day, it will have a dramatic effect in the world that will be very positive for us all.
Karen Ortman 35:05
I agree with you. And Brandon Farbstein, I think you are going to continue to be a tremendous success. You have a beautiful message to share with people and I can't wait to watch the things that you're going to do in the future. So I thank you very, very much.
Brandon Farbstein 35:25
Thank you. I'm so glad that we were able to do this. So the whole NYU community, I have a special connection, as my mom is an alumnus.
Karen Ortman 35:35
Well, a big hello to your mom. And once again, thank you to you, Brandon. It was really wonderful to talk to you today.
Brandon Farbstein 35:43
So thanks so much, Karen.
Karen Ortman 35:44
My pleasure. So thank you once again to my guest, Brandon and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of You matter if any information presented was triggering or disturbing. Please feel free to contact the wellness exchange at 212-443-9999 or EMI US Department of campus safety and their victim services unit at 212-998-2222. Please share like and subscribe to you matter on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or tune in