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How My Childhood Affected My Mental Health

Resilience [noun]: The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

My physical self is very resilient. And for that, I am jolly thankful. I rarely succumb to illness, and when I do, my most excellent immune system does its job quickly and efficiently.

My emotional self has no resilience. I have worked with young people nearly all my life — I started teaching at 14, when I was just a child myself. And children who demonstrate no resilience, are children who struggle — full stop. I am one of those children.

Resilience is such an important life skill, yet when I was a young lass, it was not something parents usually considered. Emotional responses to stressful situations were routinely dismissed — Just toughen up! What are you crying about? You’re making mountains out of molehills! Pretty standard responses in the 1970s.

I was a highly emotional child, raised in a home where emotions were not acceptable and a public face was to be worn at all times. My concerns and worries weren’t acknowledged, validated or worked through. They were dismissed as trivial, irrelevant and selfish. I’m a fast learner though — I always have been — so very quickly buried my concerns. I’d let trivial issues swirl around inside my head and grow wings, and this developed into a lifelong habit. A little butterfly flitting around, rapidly transforms into a fire-breathing dragon, with its scaly hide filling every ounce of space in my head.

When I hear a harsh word or I’m corrected, if I make a mistake or a misjudgment, my body freezes, my brain dies and I want to run away. Later, the disaster dialogue begins: She hates me. I’m such an idiot. How did I miss that? They’re going to fire me. How could I be so stupid? We’ll never be friends again. I feel so ashamed. Why did I say that?

Blah blah blah.

It goes on and on and on and on. I struggle to turn thoughts around or challenge them with alternate scenarios: She’s probably tired. I apologized and he was fine. People make mistakes.

Now, I do have staying power – I can be fiercely determined and stubborn and I don’t give up easily. But I do take things to heart. Far more than I should. And the problem with a lack of emotional resilience, is self-doubt, self-hatred and fear of conflict and consequences, are all dealt with one way or the other. When they’re not dealt with in a healthy manner, they’re dealt with in an unhealthy manner.

Self-doubt is debilitating. I live with the eternal fear everyone hates me. And if they don’t hate me yet, they soon will. I need to be perfect at all times — so you’ll like me. I need to give of myself at all times — so you’ll feel loved. I need to accept blame for all conflict – so you’ll forgive me.

These are not demands placed upon me by others. They are placed upon me by myself. And they are unreasonable expectations that can never be fully realized.

I have come to believe without emotional resilience, I will remain caught in a cycle of mental health struggles. In a perfect world, little bumps and bruises that come my way, would be met with calm acceptance, feet up on a comfy chair, a little self-reflection and a debrief with a trusted friend. Emotional resilience would bless me with the ability to let things go and move on. These are the skills I taught my students. But these are the skills I still need to learn. I have no magic answers. But I trust the first step to change, is to acknowledge the problem.

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Thinkstock photo via berdsigns