Dear 12-year-old self,
You are about to enter some of the most challenging times of your life. You will feel like you are holding your breath, treading water, just trying not to drown. There are some things you need to hear. Things you will be desperate to hear soon, even though you don’t know it yet. Things I wish I could go back and tell you. Things that can only be said by your adult self, twenty years later.
It’s okay not to be liked by everyone. Your 32-year-old self is a people pleaser. Not by choice, but by an overpowering urge to keep the peace and avoid conflict. You will come to think of yourself as a chameleon. When you read the children’s story The Mixed-Up Chameleon by Eric Carle, you’ll feel like it was written about you. Except that even the chameleon in the story has more self-confidence than you do, because he actually says things like, “I want to be...” whereas you cannot stop yourself from changing to blend in with your surroundings.
You will be tormented by the question, “Who am I?” Every day, for the next two decades. You will censor and filter yourself to match the energy and personalities of the people you are with, because you are afraid of how they will react if they know what you actually think and feel. You are terrified of conflict, of people lashing out at you. You fear that if you let your true self come to the surface, you will simultaneously hurt others and be hurt yourself. Most of all, you are terrified that your preferences, indeed your very presence, will be an inconvenience to others.
But take heart. You will start to learn that you can be empathetic and compassionate toward others without camouflaging your true nature. You will meet people who want you to come out of your protective shell. I can’t tell you that you’ll have achieved this by 32, but I can tell you that you will be ready to start coaxing your inner self out of the shadows.
It’s okay to make mistakes. You are going to go through the next twenty years trying to become “perfect,” even though you have no idea what that means. You will be driven by a deep inner desire to just reach perfection so that you can finally relax. You’ll want to be the perfect mother, perfect partner, perfect entrepreneur. You’ll be obsessed with nailing down the perfect routines, implementing the perfect home organization system, curating the perfect wardrobes for you and your children, designing the perfect meal plans and workout routines, becoming the perfect driver, finding perfect clarity for your career path and goals... but you will never, ever get “there.”
You will never reach perfection, because perfection is not a destination. It does not exist at all. It is a pursuit that will shatter your self-confidence and productivity. You will be so consumed by figuring out the perfect way of doing things that you’ll end up doing almost nothing, and that will only make you feel worse. You will tell yourself not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but you won’t be able to internalize it. You will exhaust and deplete yourself in pursuit of the impossible.
Even though you will be relieved to see other people’s imperfections, you won’t be able to give yourself the same compassion and permission to be a work in progress. You will want to focus on progress over perfection, but you won’t be able to.
Eventually, you will be told that you suffer from perfectionism. And you will be staggered, because you thought you simply had high personal standards. Your hunt for perfection is rooted in a deeply imperfect, unhealthy place in your mind. And speaking of perfection...
Your body is normal. That is not the same thing as perfect, and that’s okay. No one has the perfect body. Someday, you’ll look back on this teenage body and realize how totally okay you were. You will realize that the flaws you saw came from a flawed perspective, and not from reality. Sadly, at 32, you will still be seeing your flaws. Now you’ll have new ones to dwell on. You will have stretch marks and cellulite. You’ll have a scar from where the doctors saved you and your son’s lives with an emergency c-section. Your tummy will hang over the scar, creating what you will consider a “shelf of shame.” You could list all the parts of your body that you are not happy with, and the list would be long. You will have a husband who tells you that you are beautiful, and your body will have given you two beautiful children. You will even recognize that your thoughts are unhealthy and irrational. But you will still judge yourself by your flaws.
You’ll be screened for body dysmorphia and told you don’t meet the diagnostic criteria. You will be staggered by this knowledge, because it means that being critical of your body to the extent that you are is not clinically significant. You will start to wonder how many other women and men wage this internal battle every day. You will want to tell them all that they are beautiful, each in their own way. But you will realize that in order to do that from a place of authenticity, you first have to extend that compassionate gaze toward yourself. You have to normalize your own body’s quirks and imperfections before you can help anyone else overcome their own body-consciousness.
You are going to go through the next twenty years struggling to believe you are worthy of self-care. At 32, you will realize that there is a bully inside your head. You will realize that she has been mocking all your attempts to get better, all along. Even when you go through phases of taking care of yourself—eating well, exercising, sleeping—the bully in your head will tell you that it won’t last, it can’t last, because this isn’t the real you. “The real you does not take care of herself.” “You’re just faking it right now, going through a phase where you’re trying on self-care for size.” “You don’t really deserve it.”
Don’t listen to that bully in your head. She’s hurting. She’s been hurt. She has no idea which side is up and she has no idea what’s right for you.
You’ll start to wonder how many other people are walking around with bullies inside. You’ll want to reach out to them. Help them. But first you’ll have to reach in and help yourself climb out of the padded cell of your own mind.
At 32, you’ll be ready to start healing. You will have finally burnt out. Hit emotional rock bottom. You will see a psychiatrist and find that you meet the diagnostic criteria for six mental health disorders. Social anxiety with low self-esteem. Persistent depressive disorder with anxious distress. Provisional major depressive disorder with anxious distress. Generalized anxiety disorder. Perfectionism. Body focused repetitive behaviour (skin picking).
You will feel stunned... but also relieved because this means you don’t just “suck at being a human.”
You feel heard. Seen. Acknowledged. Released. Ready. So ready.
Your psychiatrist will recommend personal counselling, group counselling, increased medication, bloodwork, nutritional counselling, and self-directed readings. And lots of self-care. She will unofficially prescribe exercise, healthy eating, and good sleep, and you will finally feel like you have permission to be good to yourself. The fact that you needed someone else’s permission in the first place is at the root of why you are struggling with these issues.
You will wonder how it could have gone on so long. How you managed to spend the last 20 years retreating further and further into your echo chamber of self-condemnation without ever realizing that you were more than just “sad” or “shy” or “kind of hard on yourself.” If you had been trying to walk around with a broken leg, you would have noticed it, addressed it, and let it heal, without feeling guilty or ashamed of your injury or your need for treatment. But mental and emotional wounds are often invisible, confusing, elusive, and easy to mask or shrug off. And you won’t be ready to hear these things until you’ve hit rock bottom, anyway.
Your psychiatrist will suggest that you picture your younger self standing right in front you. What would you tell her? You will decide to write to that lost, hurting little girl, who at the surface seems like an everyday shy bookworm, but inside is writhing in pain and shame.
Knowledge alone is not a cure, but insight and especially hindsight can be powerful things.
You’ve always considered yourself very self-aware, but you will not realize until age 32 that you have been seeing yourself through a cloudy, cracked, warped filter. You will finally start trying to repair that filter, or better yet, decide to throw it away.
What can I say at age 32 to help you sidestep the path that awaits you? What can I tell you to make you believe that you are worthy of self-acceptance, self-care, and self-compassion? What can I say to make you see that other people’s demons are not your fault, not your burden to repair? You do not need to become the people pleaser you are training yourself to be.
You are beautiful. You are resilient. You are strong. You are kind. You are worthy. Your feelings are valid. Your body is powerful and beautiful. Please try to remember this quote: “Admire someone else’s beauty without questioning your own.”
You are good enough.
You. Are. Good. Enough.
Life is not a fairy tale with a happily ever after, and I’m not writing to you from a place of “perfection.” But that is exactly the point.
Stand tall, little darling. You are stronger than you think.
Your 32-year-old self
As the bully inside me screams “Edit! Revise! This isn’t good enough!” I force myself to breathe deep... and hit Publish. No more hiding. Maybe someone like me will benefit from reading this. Certainly I'll benefit from truly putting myself out there for the first time, even if it's in writing. Baby steps.