Do you remember who you were as a teenager? I’ve found myself looking back on my teenage years as I look down at my toddler, realizing he will also experience that phase in life. One aspect of my teenage years stands out the most—the moment my mom said, “I think you need to go to therapy.”
I was a senior in high school and all traces of my vibrant personality were ‘suddenly’ replaced with rebellion and constant arguing with my mom. I remember expressing my inner emotions as anger. But internally, I was terrified of the deep emotions that washed over me like a tidal wave. Encouraged by my sister, I remember finally having a dreaded conversation about why I was so ‘angry.’
Experiencing trauma in any form can shape the way we think and live. For me, it initially showed up as anger. And, later, depression—something I still struggle with today. As much as I used to feel alone in my struggles, I know I’m not. Did you know that more than 1 in 5 women experienced a mental health condition last year? Mental health conditions are more common than we might think.
As an adult, I decided to take my mom’s advice and go to therapy. The search for a therapist I trust has been long. And there have been times I’ve wanted to give up on therapy. However, I can’t pretend that my mom’s suggestion to prioritize my mental health—along with her admission that she couldn’t ‘fix’ me—didn’t help save my life.
Between therapy and a committed decision to take care of myself, here are six things I’ve learned since prioritizing my mental health.
1. The First Step to Recovery Is Admittance
I don’t know about you but telling the unfiltered truth doesn’t always feel good. Naming my feelings—the things I felt ashamed about as the outspoken child in my family—is something my current therapist has to constantly remind me to do. It’s hard because I used to hear from my family about the audacity I had to set boundaries (before I knew what I was doing). And it baffled me that they weren’t taken positively. It was more or less, “how dare this child say what she will or won’t do? How dare she speak her mind freely?”
Between that and experiencing trauma, I thought I wasn’t supposed to be vocal. This caused me to compartmentalize my experience. And disassociate whenever I felt uncomfortable or scared. Had I not decided to go to therapy, I wouldn’t have known that’s what I was doing. That I still do it from time to time.
Like the first therapist I ever spoke with once told me, “you can pretend you don’t feel anything or you can begin healing by acknowledging what’s going on mentally and emotionally.” Of course, it’s easier said than done. But it’s something I’ve learned is true.
2. Some People Will Be Uncomfortable With My Truth
Learning that admitting the truth will not elicit a positive response in everyone has been one of the hardest lessons of therapy. I used to think that once I told the truth about my trauma and struggles, it would be a grand celebration. But the thing about becoming more comfortable with our experiences and emotions is that everyone won’t be on the same page. Some people may understand where you’re coming from later on. But some never will. Individual reasoning is always different.
Knowing that some people who’ve been in your life may not be receptive to your experiences and feelings is painful. I can’t lie about how much it hurts. Especially if you’re sure that being able to admit things will feel great. Therapy is meant to be used as a healing tool. But it doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy journey.
3. I’m Willing to Heal Despite Any Pushback
Whenever I talk about setting boundaries or healing mentally, I tend to expect some pushback from people I know. It used to anger me (and hurt my feelings). But now I realize it’s not my job to keep others comfortable by remaining silent. Unfortunately, some people believe it’s better to “sweep things under the rug” instead of addressing them. But, to me, there’s no freedom in doing that. I spent so much time walking over the huge pile of mess under my proverbial rug that I eventually dug a hole I fell into.
Knowing that I personally have come a long way from being curled into a fetal position in that hole is enough for me to keep working on my mental health. To keep being vocal about the struggles individuals can face in this lifetime. If it means I’m considered an outspoken, brazen woman then so be it. If it means I can show my children that it’s OK to have full access to their emotions and seek help if they need it, count me in.
I know that my commitment to going to therapy isn’t meant to hurt others. But I don’t feel like I have to defend my decision to do so anymore.
4. Setting Boundaries Is Essential
I’m still learning to set boundaries with the people in my life. It’s incredibly easy to set boundaries with co-workers or strangers. But it’s more complicated with people I know. I’m currently working on reconciling that you can love someone deeply but feel uncomfortable or pained at some of their actions. That some of the things they’ve done—or currently do—are toxic.
I’m reconciling that you can love someone deeply but feel uncomfortable or pained at some of their actions.
The longer I commit to healing, the more I realize some things are unnecessary. Without going into too much detail, there are negative things I used to hear about my biological dad from other adults when I was younger. While these things may have been true, I now realize it wasn’t appropriate for those adults to speak so ill of my dad as if I wouldn’t internalize it. Maybe they weren’t aware or maybe they were. My days of searching for an answer as to why anyone thought saying those things was OK are over.
Instead of getting angry, my current therapist has helped me decide it’s OK to keep my distance from individuals who are unable to resist bringing up negative things from the past. Not only that, but I get to decide if I want to interact with people who have a history of saying spiteful things in general. Boundaries are a way of saying, “you’re being inappropriate and I don’t have to tolerate it.” It’s like drawing a line in the sand with a stick. We get to decide if we’re going to continuously take on the vitriol of others or not.
5. I Can Ask For Help and Expect to Receive It
This goes without saying but prioritizing my mental health by going to therapy has shown me that it’s OK to ask for help. No one is capable of handling everything by themselves without feeling anguish or frustration. Just because we can do everything doesn’t mean it won’t have adverse effects on us. I learned this the hard way when I became a first-time mom.
Now, I don’t hesitate to ask for help in various situations like not understanding a concept at work or needing to catch up on household chores. I don’t mind admitting that I am not superhuman and therefore need support in my life. I didn’t get to this point in my life by myself so I’m choosing to continue asking for help and expecting to receive it.
6. I Have More Self-Awareness
I’m not a perfect person by any means, but I’ve learned being in constant fight-or-flight mode is exhausting. If you’ve dealt with sleep deprivation as a mom then you know exhaustion can cause us to be on edge. I know I’m not the kindest person when I’m exhausted. While I know it’s OK to feel all of my emotions, I also know it’s not OK to be rude or bully others because I’m struggling mentally or emotionally.
It takes time to undo these things because hurt people do hurt others whether we intend to or not. However, being able to heal has helped me become more aware of how I’m feeling and how it can affect others if I don’t take the time to regulate my emotions. I imagine this is how toddlers feel, except they don’t know how to verbally express themselves yet—hence temper tantrums. Sometimes adults don’t know how to do that either and are capable of throwing our own temper tantrums.
Prioritizing my mental health means I get to pinpoint things and proverbially put myself in “time-out” so I can hit the reset button. Sometimes this looks like taking a nap, allowing myself to cry, or saying out loud, “I’m feeling [emotion]. I know I’m not in the best mood, so I’m going to take some time to work through this.”
I don’t know if I’ll ever be 100% “healed” but I’m not worried about that anymore. Taking care of myself mentally is no longer about winning a competition. It is a commitment that I choose daily. Every time I set a boundary, choose to be self-aware, regulate my emotions, or have a therapy session is when I honor that commitment.
Will I have moments where I make questionable decisions? Sure, I’m human. Healing isn’t about being perfect. It’s meant to help us potentially choose a way to live that doesn’t hurt us or others. For me, it’s also a way to make sure my children aren’t afraid to heal in the future if they need to.