In this multi-part series, Compass asked clinicians to reflect upon their youth and write letters to their younger selves. We hope you find some inspiring or helpful tidbits of information as you head into the fall.
Dear 17-year-old Haley…
Like many adolescents, at 17 years old, you are struggling to feel positive about your body and comfortable in your own skin, struggling to make and maintain meaningful friendships, and navigating the world of dating for the first time. You find yourself crying at random times, not wanting to go to school, and feeling nervous about weekend plans. I wish you knew that despite all the hardships that continue to show up, you are doing everything you can, and life is unfolding as it is meant to. I know it can feel like the weight of the world is crushing you, and perhaps it is – for now.
Going through high school, and all that comes with it, is incredibly hard. You are meeting new people, finding out who and what you like, and preparing for what lies ahead. Here is some advice that I wish I had been given at seventeen:
Resist the inclination to judge yourself
You are often mad at yourself for decisions you made or the things that you wish you would have done, like studying more for the test or choosing to not try out for the dance team. You are human, doing the best that you can, and you need to be gentler with yourself. Try to give yourself a break occasionally. Let yourself make mistakes – they lead to growth.
You are always looking to others to make your decisions. Self-doubt and reassurance-seeking behavior grow as anxiety starts to increase. Even minor decisions can feel like life or death. You know yourself best. You know what you love to do and have a clear sense of your values when you pause to think about them. Let yourself try new things.
Reach out for support
Those dark feelings you have sometimes, wishing everything would disappear, are scary to have alone. Talk to your mom, let your history teacher know, or ask if you can speak with a counselor. You never have to be in pain alone and you don’t have to do it by yourself. If you broke your leg, you’d go to the doctor. Why not see a therapist when you are depressed and anxious? Ask to see a school counselor or see if your family can help connect you with one. Join a support group or an outpatient program. Finding common ground with other people who are struggling can make you feel less alone. There are people out there with the skills, knowledge, and the desire to help you.
Grab the ice
For all those times when you are hiding in the bathroom because you are having test anxiety or feel like you want to cry because your friends are mad, splash some water on your face or grab a cup of ice. Those distress tolerance skills can really be helpful! Holding ice or anything frozen shocks your senses and can reduce panic symptoms and bring you down from your spiraling thoughts and into your body. This leads to your heart rate dropping and your nervous system relaxing. Only then can you think rationally and challenge the distorted thoughts you’re having.
Remind yourself that it is okay to feel sad
You often feel ashamed and guilty about feeling sad when so many good things are going on in your life. You feel worried about what others would think if you told them how you felt. You will someday realize that sadness is a part of life, that everyone experiences it, and that there is no point in trying to figure out who has the right to feel most sad – it’s not a competition! Validate that for yourself. Create a playlist for when you are feeling sad to make you smile. Dance. Move your body. Bake yourself a dessert. Sit outside. Call a friend. Read a book. Let yourself feel the feelings and remind yourself that all feelings eventually pass. It certainly isn’t easy but try to ride through the wave of your emotions.
Try something new
When you are feeling hesitant to try a new activity or make a new friend, just do it. Let your feet pave the way and your head and heart will follow. You will never know how things will turn out if you don’t try. Sometimes, the anxiety about making decisions ends up being worse than the actual decision we must make. The only way to find the things we enjoy is to try them.
Tell yourself you are worthy of being loved
Sometimes it may be hard to look at yourself in the mirror. You constantly compare yourself to others. You dated someone that made you feel scared and less than. It’s hard not to take things personally and internalize what we believe others think about us. Practice telling yourself one thing you are proud of each day. Positive self-talk and esteem take practice before they become habits. You can create enough space so that when those negative automatic thoughts appear, they don’t feel as heavy.
Try to focus on the now and on what you can control. You tend to sit and think (worry!) a lot about what will happen in the future. Practice mindfulness. Take some deep breaths and sit with the present moment. When you are constantly worrying about what may be next, you miss out on beautiful moments that make up who you are.
Being in high school can often feel like more than you can handle. You often feel like you are not in control of it all, and sometimes you aren’t. It’s okay. You aren’t expected to be able to handle everything, to be perfect. No one is. We all deserve to get it wrong sometimes and to heal. We are all entitled to feel how we feel and to lean on one another for support and comfort. You’ve totally got this, and you don’t have to do it alone. Keep going. It gets better.
Haley Croney, LCSW, Primary Trauma Therapist, Compass Health Center