August 9, 2019 by Cláudia
Teenage years were tough for me. Between being bullied, having family problems and struggling with mental illness(es), let’s just say I was not having fun as a teenager. And then all adults would do was telling me that those were going to be the best years of my life. Every time, I just though Oh God, I hope not.
Flash-forward 7 years into the future, I can guarantee that those were in fact not the best years of my life. So far, in my short life, those have been the worst years of my life. There was so much doubt and powerlessness, I was completely dependent on my parents, both financially, legally and emotionally, which was particularly damaging because they made some less than good parenting decisions. I was so scared of what people thought of me and was unable to stand up for myself and I surrounded myself with people who were not got for me. My mental health was at its worse it has ever been and I was just so lost, so hopeless, so confused and so filled with self-hatred (I go more in depth about my journey with mental illness in Don’t give up, my story with mental illness).
One of the things I would tell myself often was that all I could hope for was that one day I would feel like it had all been worth it. That one day, I would look back and thank myself for having kept going because I would have a life that I was proud of, I would be someone that I was proud of. I wasn’t very hopeful of that, to be honest. I thought it was a long-shot. Happiness, confidence or stability seemed very far-off and unattainable. Something for other people with different dispositions to feel.
But now, it is with great joy (and saying this always makes me feel emotional) that I can in fact confirm that it was all worth it. I wish I could talk to my younger self and tell her (me?) that. I wish I could tell that young girl who was so lost, so vulnerable, so hopeless, that adults are lying and that growing up is great. That she’ll soon be independent, and that she can decide what’s best for her. That she’ll learn coping strategies and build healthier relationships. That she’ll go to therapy and start tackling all the trauma. That she’ll prioritize her well-being and that will lead her to feel more confident, less dependent on others, more patient with herself and others, more realistic in the expectations from herself and others and happier as a whole.
In short, growing up rules!
I realize that for now I’ve only talked about my own experience and, since my teenage years were particularly rough, there was a lot of room for improvement, but teenage years in general are rough. As a teenager, no one really knows who they are and we have to navigate the social world not knowing exactly what our place is, with the added struggle that our entourage is going through the exact same discovery process. Result? We overvalue things that are not that important, such as our social image, our physical image, and we define our personal worth through things that don’t really have any correlation with it. I remember being so embarrassed for not having “enough friends”, based on what I considered an acceptable number of friends. I didn’t think I could be considered valuable as an individual and to society without a bigger number of friends to show. I didn’t even care if they were good friends or not, I just really wanted to have a significant number of friends to display socially. Same goes with having a partner. I ended up getting into “relationships” that were really detrimental but I genuinely felt so much more socially acceptable and validated after being able to tell people that I’ve had romantic partners.
There was just a lot of energy being wasted in things that did not matter, did not make me grow and aren’t the least helpful now in the long run.
But it was all part of the process. With time, self-discovery, lots of relapses and therapy, life started to make more sense. All I wanted was to know that life would one day make more sense. And if I could talk to my younger self (or other younger-selves that might need to hear this) here’s what I would tell them:
1. Growing up is great, so embrace it. Do not fall into the trap of romanticizing teenage years like many adults do. Being insecure and not knowing yourself is not fun. Whatever you are going through now, as an adult you’ll have more tools to deal with it.
2. Very little of what you think is important is actually important. I could not care less about how many comments you had on a black and white picture on Hi5. As hard to believe as it may seem, it hasn’t defined your future and your future self will barely remember what you were stressing about anyway. Not that this will make you stop stressing about it, but just so you know.
3. Don’t try changing things in yourself that really don’t need changing. I know we’re awkward. And we hate shopping and clothes, and we know nothing about make-up. Sorry to inform you that none of that has changed. But one thing has changed – I have embraced it. It’s who I am. I will blurt out weird jokes with random people, I have literally no sense of style and I still apply foundation with my hands. I can promise you will feel much better once you stop trying to be someone you’re not, and you will even end up loving those things about you (I really love to tell people I hate shopping, it throws them off).
4. You get to chose who is allowed in your life. This is a huge one. Because I was (am) so awkward and had (have) social anxiety, anytime someone wanted to be my friend or hang out with me, I almost thanked them for wanted to be near me. I didn’t even equate if I wanted to be with them. I didn’t ask if they were bringing anything positive to my life. There were some friends I used to have that were almost literally toxic waste for my life and well-being, that did not prioritize me at all, that would put me down, minimize my struggles and enhance my insecurities, yet I would let them stay in my life because I felt validated before society for presenting myself with them. No no. Being in your life is a privilege, not a right. If someone is not bringing anything positive, is not respecting your boundaries and is not listening when you vocalize what you want and need, then they don’t deserve a place in your life. You are a good friend and a compassionate person and if they aren’t an asset, then you need to let them go. I used to think that everyone deserved a chance, so I would give way too many chances to people who clearly didn’t care about me (and usually anybody else). I loved the idea of rehabilitating a mean person. I wanted to see the good in everyone, but sometimes, I was forgiving people that didn’t really deserve it.
5. You get to set boundaries. As a teen, I felt so powerless. My relationship with my father was very abusive – he was controlling and literally had no boundaries. My relationship with my mom was tough too – she frequently overstepped, she was very smothering, she wouldn’t let me make any decisions on my own and would be verbally abusive once I did something she didn’t agree with. With friendships and romantic relationships, I was very afraid to leave as I heavily defined my self worth by how many people I had a connection with. And then, for a while, once I started to prioritize my mental health, I thought my only option was to immediately cut those relationships off completely, so I lost a lot of friends without ever explaining exactly what was wrong. A very important lesson was that you can and should set boundaries. And that it will not always work for the best. You just have to do the thing and then detach yourself from the situation – whether they respect your boundaries or not, it’s not on you. With my father, because he completely disregarded my very reasonable requests, I felt forced to cut him off. But at least I know that I tried, and that he was the one unable to make the effort to keep me in his life (despite his efforts to put the onus on me). In other cases, however, it immensely improved my relationships. When I knew that I wouldn’t be able to maintain a relationship because of how certain bad behaviours made me feel, I started making it clear that certain behaviours were unacceptable and that, if they continued, I would not be able to keep the relationship going. For example, with my mom, I let her know that when she feels me getting away from her control, she needs to take a deep breath and not call me offensive names. I let her know very clearly that I think it is unhealthy, it is detrimental to me and I don’t have to tolerate it. It doesn’t mean that it stopped completely, but whenever it does still happen, I can point out that this was a violation of our agreement and that I can be upset.
Most of all, just know that you’ll learn so much as long as you keep being humble and have an open mind. You’ll learn everyday. About you, about life, about others. And everything you learn will teach you new tools to deal with what you go through. You’ll learn about your self-worth and that will make you change the way you treat yourself and how you accept others to treat you.
Growing up is great, trust me. You just have to take one bit at a time and strive to stay true to you. It will get better. I promise.
I write a lot about what I’ve learned about the world, but not so much about what I’ve learned about life and myself. Let me know if this was useful in any way, and if you’d like me to write more about what I’ve learned, possibly specific to mental illness recovery.