I came across an interesting site recently, called shona.ie. It was described by the founder, Tammy D’Arcy, as ’a survival kit for girls [to help] deal with the issues and pressures of girlhood, including bullying, social media, anxiety, depression and relationships. It consists of a website and social media pages, school workshops and conferences and events. It also encourages girls to share their own stories and to hear each other’s voices.′
It got me thinking, and inspired me to ask a question on my blog recently – ‘If you could go back and tell your 15-year-old self one thing, one thing that you wish you had known, that would have made you feel so much better about yourself, what would it be?’ The answers were many and varied, ranging from ‘GO TO A THERAPIST - find one you like, work hard with them, tell them how sad you feel all the damn time’ to, ‘It’s not all in your head, you feel this way for a reason’, to, ‘Be who you are not who you think you should be’. There were many others but you get the idea.
What strikes me most about this is just how many people were likely struggling at the same time as me. I went to a big school; there were seven classes in my year alone. For anyone who was quiet, afraid to speak up or lacking in confidence, it was pretty much a nightmare scenario. Exactly the same applied once I moved on to college. I went to UCD, one of the biggest universities in the country. Both school and college chewed me up and spat me out with reasonably good academic results, but virtually no sense of self-worth.
Throughout those years, phrases like mental health, mental well-being, self-compassion, self-care – I’m not sure they were part of our vocabulary at all. they were certainly phrases I had never heard. Maybe it’s how I remember it, but either you were popular and fitted in, or you weren’t and didn’t. Perhaps not surprisingly, I wasn’t. I hid. I was terrified of being labelled a loner, so I went to great lengths to avoid being seen alone. I had a small number of close friends, but when I found myself in classes without them I was lost. This became even more of an issue in college.
If I could go back and talk to that shy, anxious secondary school student, or even later, my college-aged self, what would I say? What would I like to have known? I can’t go back and talk to her, I can’t change what has happened. But I can take the knowledge I’ve gained over the years to put those memories in perspective, and maybe even come to view them differently.
There was nothing wrong with me. Nothing. I was quiet, shy, introverted, anxious – but these aren’t faults or character flaws. They are simply part of who I was, but unfortunately they were also qualities that didn’t really fit, and that’s what made things so complicated. All around me in school and in college, results aside, the emphasis was on fitting in – being sporty, being creative, being out-going – I was none of these things. I was also incredibly conscious that I was none of these, which made me withdraw even more, and ultimately fed into all the difficulties that have been challenging me most of my adult life.
I’d love to be able to give 15-year-old me a huge hug and tell her that it will be OK, that’s she not doing anything wrong. I’d love her to know that being quiet and introspective isn’t a failing, that being shy and anxious are things she can get help with. I’d encourage her to talk, to tell me what she was afraid of. I’d ask her what she wanted for her future, not what she believed was expected of her. I’d tell her that it’s OK to make mistakes, that’s how we learn. I’d tell her that having a boyfriend wasn’t the be all and end all, that she didn’t have to agree with everyone all of the time, because her opinion was valid too. I’d tell her that it was OK to cry, to feel, to ask for help. I’d tell her that it was OK to spend time in her own company, and to be seen doing it. How much easier and more enjoyable would school and college have been if I hadn’t been so preoccupied with what other people thought? Imagine I had been comfortable sitting on my own. Imagine I had felt like I had as much right to be there as anyone else, that my opinions, thoughts and feelings were just as important. Imagine I had believed that I actually mattered...
I can’t go back and hug her. But I can look after the adult she has become.