Mental health advice to my younger self

5th Jul 2019
Challenging mental health inequalities
Mental health

This content mentions suicide or suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and addiction (which may include mentions of alcohol or drug use) and anxiety. Please read with care. There are details of where to find help at the bottom of this page.

One of the best questions we can ask ourselves is 'What advice would you give your younger self?' Often. we are experts in our own mental health without realising. So, with taking time to reflect on this question, we can reveal our own pearls of mental health wisdom.

Rachel talks to you in this blog about what she has learnt throughout her life, about her own mental health and how to live a life true to her.

We asked our followers on Instagram what mental health advice they’d give their younger selves. Here are some of the themes that came up:

Your advice to your younger self

My key learnings

I’m 29 now and in my short life, my mental health has been hard to deal with. It has been unstable at times but is a lot better than it used to be. This is undoubtedly because of my improved awareness about what’s going on in my head, the causes of mental ill-health, support from professionals, friends and colleagues and self-management techniques.

I can become a watcher of my thoughts

It’s mostly come from becoming a watcher of my thinking, through things like meditation, and from a better intelligence of my triggers, my thinking errors and my repeated behaviours and the feelings that sit behind them.

I am not my thoughts

At 29 I’m not perfect and I still struggle with emotional instability, low self-esteem, anxiety, wishing I didn’t exist at times and negative thinking. I realise now more than ever I am not my thoughts or the negative voice in my head. I feel empowered by the understanding I have of mental health and the hope that I’ve found in knowing that old behaviours and feelings aren’t damningly permanent, but optimistically changeable and I can overcome patterns and get out of dark holes.

I can reject old behaviours

I have watched myself improve, mellow and reject old behaviours, and be more decisive in how I choose to react. I am also more conscious of the present and more aware of the positive in the every day. I think less catastrophically when things go wrong,

I can be my own reassurance

I am better at reassuring myself that everything will be ok. It is not the end of the world. I know that nothing is permanent and can rely on that in tough times.

Learning as I grew up

I was born sensitive

I was born sensitive. It was apparent when I was a baby how loud noise and other sensory overloads affected me. I barely cried, but my face would wince with a sound and I didn’t like chaos or being left in new situations with new people. I was a deep thinker even as a baby. I would often lie awake at night taking in all my surroundings and muttering to myself.

From a young age, I remembered words of books my mum read me by heart and would say them out loud or sing songs to send myself off to sleep. I was inquisitive, always questioning the norm and asking why. So much so that my mum would sometimes get annoyed and tell me ‘that’s why’.

I had a vivid imagination and I was creative, writing stories from a young age and playing imaginary games – I genuinely believed that my bed was a spaceship travelling through time, like in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

I wanted others' approval

I was easily embarrassed and affected by what I perceived to be people watching me or teasing me. I sought people’s approval and felt devastated if I didn’t get it. I was sometimes crippled by my shyness. As a result of not being confident in situations I wanted to be, I had quite intense mood swings – was chatty, inquisitive and showing off one minute and then shy, sulky and withdrawn the next.

I could get overwhelmed easily by my emotions. I felt everything deeply. I misbehaved at school sometimes because I felt uncomfortable in certain social situations and reacted badly when I wanted people to see or un-see me.

I got overwhelmed by emotion

As a teenager, I was melancholic, very interested in alternative music, dress and humour. I could be rude, angry and irritable – usually when triggered by an emotion or environment I couldn’t cope well with or by people I felt were devoid of empathy and who I couldn’t connect with. Feeling things deeply meant I probably cared too much about people and things and was very thoughtful and analytical. Things affected me more than other people, I saw everything intensely.

I struggled with my identity

I obsessed with achieving. I took things very seriously. I didn’t want to fail at anything. I struggled with my identity and fitting in and my thinking was very black and white. I’d get very annoyed when people disagreed with me and I took things very personally. I had low self-esteem, but I also had a lot of ideas and things I wanted to say and give to the world. I was too shy to reach any sort of potential. I left sports teams because I couldn’t handle being with people I felt uncomfortable around and who didn’t understand me. I froze at a school guitar concert because I was crippled with the fear of everyone watching me.

I was a target for bullying

Because I found it hard to cope emotionally at school, I was either trying to please people, or spending time isolated and withdrawn hiding in the toilets or the library. Being sensitive, I was a target for bullying and could also get into conflict situations when I misread people’s thoughts towards me.

As a young person in my 20s, life still felt intense and things affected me. My emotional instability damaged my relationships. My lifestyle at university was not conducive to the best, happiest version of me. I was self-destructive and excessive. My social status mattered too much.

Making positive changes

Later in my 20s, I finally started to make changes. I started to realise I didn’t need to hate myself. That there were lots of positives and strengths to me that I should be proud of. That I was intelligent and had so much potential for good things and good relationships.

I started taking steps towards improvement with:

I realised I could be loved and watched my relationships improve, reduced my anxiety, and watched myself get stronger.

I want to make the most of my one life

Now, at 29, I feel I have emotional scars that I am aware of, but I am distancing myself from them. I am realising more and more how I only have one life and that I cannot waste it being so affected by other people and how they see me. I cannot live in fear of what people think, of what might happen or not happen. I must believe in myself and love myself otherwise no one else will. This is difficult for me. When self-loathing feels so natural and pessimism has been your reality for so long, breaking free of unhelpful thought patterns is not easy.

For me, it feels like I got to a point a few years ago where something had to change in my mind, or I would cease to have a reason to get up in the morning. I realised that even though my tendency is to dwell on the negative, I had to make a conscious, active decision to change. As someone who reacts easily, this is a constant battle.

My advice to my turbulent younger self, all things considered, is this:

1. Stop trying to be someone you are not

If you don’t know what you are yet, find out. I spent years being a social chameleon. Adapting my clothes, interests, accent, behaviours depending on the social group I was with – to feel less empty and feel more included. It was exhausting and not authentic.

I think I had an identity deep down, but I would often mask it in case it didn’t suit the people I was with. I would never feel good after a social event with a bunch of people that, if I was honest with myself, were not my kind of people. I was trying to fit in at the cost of being myself. Ironically, I would have been happier had I cared less.

Today, I am always conscious of staying true to myself and accepting that not everyone will like me and that’s fine. As Kurt Cobain once said ‘‘I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for someone I am not.’’ I have observed that the people who seem most content in life are those who say and act as they want to (within reason) without worrying about how they will be perceived. People respect people who are genuine. People want to be around people who are confident in who they are. It is inspiring and liberating.

I am trying to be my authentic self in all social situations now. This is difficult. But if you tell yourself it doesn’t matter and that it’s better to be yourself, then this will become your default. I also tell myself it’s ok if people disagree with me, it doesn’t mean they don’t like me or that I look stupid.

2. Love and look after yourself

Happiness comes from within and I’ve really learned that if I am unhappy with myself, I am unhappy in general. Fundamentally, I have had to learn to like myself in order to be happy. Loving myself still takes work, but self-awareness about the negative voice in your head and how you beat yourself up with it is a good start to noticing how irrational our inner critic can be and how it clouds our experience of reality.

Liking yourself and self-care go hand-in-hand. Younger, self-destructive me hated myself and as a result, did not take care of myself. I put most people before myself and based my happiness on being accepted and liked by others. Ironically, I was the least likeable version of myself because I lacked positivity, confidence and happiness. I have had to learn how to look after myself, moderate drinking, eating, and smoking, start exercising, take time for myself and learn and develop skills.

I have learnt to be okay with my own thoughts and company and realised I am loveable and worthy. Only now with self-care embedded in my life and learning to accept myself am I able to be stable, secure, positive and happy.

3. Do not react to things you cannot control and be more present

My younger self was a person who felt like the world was ending if something I tried to control ended in disaster, or something I tried to prevent happened, or some material thing I placed too much value in was ruined or lost. I would play a victim role, thinking that I had terrible luck, that I didn’t deserve the bad thing that had happened, that life was so unfair. But this wasn’t the case, I just wasn’t accepting that uncertainty and misfortune are natural parts of life and that how we choose to react to these bad things is the only thing we can control and the only thing that matters.

Younger me had irrational fears about something terrible happening to me - a plane crash, a false accusation, a terminal illness, a social humiliation. A greater sense of calm for me has come with accepting that any of these things might happen and I can’t live in fear of them happening. When you stop seeing yourself and your life as overly important, driven by your ego and societal expectations, you are a lot more present and grateful for life as it happens now and you come to realise that nothing is permanent and life events or material possessions or relationships do not define you.

You become less disappointed with bad outcomes, you place less emphasis on them, you are more receptive to letting life be and are humbled by your awareness of your insignificance in the vast universe we are a tiny part of. Life takes on more meaning when you live less in your worrying mind and focus on being here now before it’s over.

4. Find positivity in every day. Talk less negatively and react less

Our brains remember the things we tell ourselves repeatedly, internally or externally. I’ve had to make a conscious decision to be more positive as I’ve got older, something that doesn’t come naturally to me, and more self-aware of when I’m negative. Opting for the positive option challenges your default mindset if this is negative. It can feel unnatural and strange but over time you can rewire your thinking.

I’m someone who, when I’m overwhelmed by other people’s actions or behaviour, can impulsively react and make a situation more negative. I’m trying to stop myself from reacting quickly and giving myself time to think and be more mindful in situations where I feel anxious, irritated or stressed. I have learned that choosing to react differently is empowering and brings calm and quiet to a bad situation. I’ve also learned not to take things so personally because I tend to assume people are thinking badly of me or don’t like me without having actual evidence to back it up.

Reacting positively to people who intimidate you or who you think don’t like you can turn a situation around. Talking negatively about people when you don’t know what’s going on with them or what their perspective is, creates negative energy and unnecessary drama. If you choose to be positive and accept you don’t have the answers or really know people, then you are cultivating better relationships and making your experience of life more positive.

5. Do what you want, not what others want. Stop caring what other people think

Younger me was trying to please everyone and sometimes that meant allowing people to make decisions for me about my career, my house, my degree, my relationships. I now realise it is completely integral to my happiness and mental well-being to make my own decisions, even if they turn out to be wrong, because I must be true to who I am in life and what I believe in.

If you allow yourself to make decisions based on what the best outcome for you would be (not the best outcome for others), then in my experience, you feel happier because you don’t harbour any resentment from feeling forced into a situation you don’t want to be in. If you don’t want to go to a social event because it would make you uncomfortable, don’t feel obligated to go. Self-care means not putting yourself in stressful situations to please others. This isn’t selfish, this is protective. Obviously spend time with friends and make the effort because friendships and relationships are important, but your reason for doing something should always be that you want to, not that you feel pressured to.

6. Do something you’re good at and don’t give up

Self-worth and self-esteem tie in very much with a sense of purpose and achievement in life. My life is a lot richer and more interesting now and doing things I enjoy and that I’m good at makes me happy. When I was young and lacking in confidence and direction, I would give up easily and become frustrated when I couldn’t do something. Now I am more patient with myself, and more mindful when I’m doing something. This allows me to get pleasure from it and not put pressure on myself to be the best.

I am more aware of the fact that developing a skill or talent is a long process that requires practice and dedication, it doesn’t happen immediately. I have watched myself flourish over time, cultivating a skill little and often.

The main thing is to remember to try to live your life authentically, true to your real self, without worrying about what others think and taking all the opportunities you can. This is how I try to live my life now I’m older.

If you are feeling like ending your life or feel unable to keep yourself safe, please call 999 or go to A&E and ask for the contact of the nearest crisis resolution team. These are teams of mental health care professionals who work with people in severe distress. If you feel affected by the content you have read, please see our get help page for support.

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