“If you could go back in time and share advice with your 13-year-old self, what would you say?”
The question irked me at first. I didn’t want to think about my 13-year-old self, filled with feelings of self-hatred, fright, intense aloneness. I didn’t want to remember being that person with the survival and coping strategies that kept me going day-to-day and the raw, brutal feelings. Yet I kept thinking about how I might answer. I decided to write a letter to the girl I was, to tell her what I learned on the road to developing resiliency, the road to becoming a miracle: a woman in long-term recovery.
Dearest Debi (a name no one calls me today),
I have four messages for you. They are messages that I have heard and have come to own along my path—things that serve me well.
Message 1: Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. So much of my teenage years, I thought everyone else had it all together and I was the only one who was struggling. I may have had more struggles than most, and fewer than some, but everyone has struggles. I also now realize that my outsides sometimes look better than my insides feel. I came to realize, others do the same thing; when they compare their insides to my outsides, they think I have it all together.
Message 2: You are special. I read an article that talked about how trauma survivors create a false self or feel that they have a false self (as well as other selves). While I was reading it, wearing my “professional hat,” everything stopped. I had an “aha” moment. This described my life perfectly. I was so afraid of the world that I put on what I considered to be my false self to go out into it.
Now, really, it was not a false self—it was me, trying new things, taking risks, experiencing success. But I felt like I was an impostor doing those things—that any moment people would discover that it was really me and everything would come crashing down.
A therapist had me write this down and look at it every day: “You are smart, responsible, creative, and kind. I would pay you $100,000 to run a company for me.”
I carried it with me for years. I have since given similar notes with five things that make them special to others who are unable to see their own talents and gifts. This simple gift reminded me that someone saw my value and saw me as capable. It was a great gift. Whenever I felt like I didn’t belong or that I couldn’t do what was before me, I pulled out this paper. Slowly, over time, I learned to own my good qualities, my successes.
Message 3: Be gentle with yourself. I grew up with parents who valued accomplishments over feelings. One of the coping and survival strategies that I used to keep going was what I now know is called non-suicidal self-injury. This allowed my “false self” to tackle challenging situations; my outsides started looking good. Inside, my inner child was crying and hiding in the closets of my mind. The empty hole inside that needed filling sat wide open. Over time, with inner-child work and tools like those that WRAP offers, I learned how to be a parent to my own inner child. I learned how to be gentle—well, gentler—with myself and to take care of myself even on bad days.
We all have bad days, but I used to think I was a bad person having a day rather than a person having a bad day. If I’m having a bad day, it’s okay. All I have to do is take care of myself. It will pass.
Message 4: Focus on your strengths, not your problems. I don’t think this is a message for my younger self as much as it’s a message for those who were around me. Potential helpers noticed my drug use, police involvement, missing school, inappropriate friends—all my problems. That wasn’t where to reach me though. Reaching me meant relating to the things that made me feel okay, that made me feel connected. What I really needed was for someone to see, and help me see, my special gifts and help me cultivate them.
When you were in school, which homework did you do first: the homework for the class that was hardest or the homework for the class that was easiest? Most of us start with the homework that is easiest. We build on what we do well before tackling the areas where we have problems. Yet so often in behavioral healthcare, the opposite occurs. Therapists, treatment programs, and family members focus on the problems first.
It’s not the problems that motivate us to get out of bed, make changes, do the hard work, and take care of ourselves. It’s the opportunity to do the things we are passionate about (things we usually do well) and our relationships. Whether it’s joining a chorus, bringing snacks to a group, or doing your friend’s hair, these have therapeutic value. They give us hope. A sense of accomplishment. Power.
For many of us, we don’t feel that we have strengths. It takes reminders from people around us and constant reaffirmation. It also takes success—having and owning our successes. Success begets success. Dear Debi, do the things you love.
Never in my wildest dreams did I believe I could be the person that I am today. My life is full. Yours will be, too.
What would you say to your 13-year-old self? I would love to learn from your wisdom and your experiences. Please leave a comment on the WRAP Facebook page. We may share your comment in a future article about building resilience and self-esteem in children, teens, and young adults.
Deb Werner, MA, PMP, is a Senior Program Manager at Advocates for Human Potential, Inc.