I was a shy teenager, particularly around boys. If one of those scary creatures looked at me, I went red, even though I knew he would actually be looking beyond me to the gorgeous blonde girl or bubbly chatterbox behind. If there was nobody behind me – then he’d made a mistake and for a moment thought I was someone else. If he spoke and I was stupid enough to reply, he would laugh his head off to think I might dream he meant to speak to me. Nobody, but nobody would ever be interested in me.
So really, it was stupid to blush. Stupid to imagine anyone would ever like me.
It wasn’t just boys. If a girl I didn’t know well sat beside me on the crowded school bus, I spent the entire journey trying to think of something to say and coming up with nothing – because I knew she would be bored senseless by whatever came out of my mouth. I knew everyone thought I was an idiot, pathetic, not worth knowing. Even my friends were tolerating me, at most. They felt obliged. During term-time we all stayed in the same dorm because we lived on an island and had to go away for school. So I knew, just knew, that if they had any choice they would tell me to get lost.
Living away from home, we were even more dependent on our peers than most teenagers. Some kids couldn’t hack it and went home, losing the chance of a college education. Even in my loneliest moments, I didn’t consider that. In those days, it was rare for adults to return to get qualifications they’d missed at school – if you messed up school, you messed up life. Or so I believed, even though in the last two years of high school, a woman in her early twenties joined our class. She had left school to have a baby and came back to finish her education. Back then, she didn’t inspire me so much as fill me with horrified pity. It seemed shameful, even though she didn’t seem ashamed.
Besides, if I’d gone back home, my loneliness wouldn’t have ended. I sensed that somehow, even on the nights I stood at our dorm’s fire escape doorway and gazed over the town. Orange street lamps and the green neon sign on the Fishermen’s Mission shone in the darkness and reflected in the rippling water beyond. The neon seemed glamorous, as if from a movie or novel. I dreamed, then, not so much of returning home, but a magical transformation when I became a student in a city filled with neon lights. I would be different then, someone else, not the useless mess that was me.
Has anyone ever survived the teenage years without some version of this? Mine might have been more intense than some, but all teenagers go through it. I didn’t constantly feel lonely, but I did repeatedly. I didn’t constantly berate myself or expect to fail, but the further I got through school, the more I did of both.
I thought this was some flaw in me, some flaw I could never change but that I had to change. I was afraid to tell anyone how I felt – because I thought I was the only person who felt the way I did. Besides, I didn’t have the words.
Self-compassion. Self-empathy. Mindfulness. I’d never heard of them.
What would it have been like, back then, if I had known about self-compassion, if I had known mindfulness?
First, perhaps I would have noticed other people sometimes felt insecure too. I would have noticed the girl in my French class who was even quieter than I was, and I would have spoken to her, asked if she missed home too. We might have talked about how hard we found it to speak to people, and we would have felt less alone.
Instead of judging the girls who went with boys into the sheds behind our accommodation late at night, I might have realised they felt as lost and lonely as I did, but tried to ease their loneliness in a different way. I might even have realised the boys didn’t value themselves much either. They had mostly left school early and had bad reputations for getting into drunken fights. A few years later, one of them mixed with friends of mine and I got to know him a little. It wasn’t hard to tell he felt unhappy much of the time, and felt inferior, looked down on by people. At 29, he died of a mix of alcoholism and asthma. His small gravestone bears only his name, date and age of birth, and where he was born. It gives no indication he came from any family, no indication he was ever loved.
If I had known self-compassion then, this is what I might have said to myself:
It’s okay to feel anxious when someone you don’t know well speaks to you. Lots of people feel that way sometimes, and if they don’t they feel anxious about other things. You can sit by yourself for hours, reading or painting. Some people can’t bear to be alone for a few minutes. Everyone has something that stirs fear in them, and it’s okay to feel it. It doesn’t make you stupid or unlikeable, or any of the other things you say to yourself; it just makes you human.
I want you to remember that you don’t always feel scared to speak to people. You’ve made new friends. You couldn’t have done that if you were really as hopeless as you sometimes think you are. I want you to notice the times you feel happy, the times you feel confident, and to recognise that they are also part of who you are. Think about how relaxed you feel in the art department, how there you can chat to most people.
I want you to understand that you aren’t irreparably flawed or a “shy person.” Those are just beliefs about yourself. Because you feel so angry at yourself and try to force yourself to be different your quietness becomes magnified in your mind. It’s okay to be quiet. Lots of people are. You don’t notice them because they are quiet and because you are so busy thinking you shouldn’t be. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes wanting to stay in your room and paint or read. Solitude is valuable. It helps us grow, if we use it wisely.
It’s okay to be you.
And if I had a time machine, this is what I would tell that teenage me:
Right now you long to be different and can’t believe you ever will, but the day will come when you will be transformed. Hard as it is to believe it, you will find it easy to speak to people, even total strangers. You will also come to value your quietness and introspection, and to use it to connect with people through writing. All the feelings you have right now mean that later in life you will be able to empathise with other people struggling with self-criticism, fear and shame.
So you see, what you are experiencing right now isn’t just okay, it’s something you will use to help others.
It’s okay to be you. Always remember that. It’s okay to be you.
How would your life have been different if you’d known self-compassion at a difficult time? How has self-compassion changed it for you?
Or do you still struggle to believe it’s okay to be you? Do you punish yourself hoping for change?
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