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Let's Normalize Talking About Your Emotions and Mental Health

“Will Adam Burak please come down to the main office?” was a message I heard over the loudspeaker dozens of times while in elementary school. Still, it startled me and sent me into an anxious spiral. Heads turned, while stares of confusion and intrigue shook me to my core as I walked to the door. I knew where I was going, but no one else did. It was time for occupational therapy, a time that I dreaded, not because OT was difficult or was not beneficial, but because I would have to lie to my friends and peers in class when they asked where I went. I did not like lying, but I was so concerned about their opinions and ashamed of feeling different that I did not feel comfortable sharing anything about OT.

Having the ability to share my negative emotions surrounding feeling different would have completely altered my feelings about attending OT. Rather than internalizing all of my doubts and insecurities, I could have shared the challenges I was experiencing and instead, received my friends support. I have come to realize that while growing up many people have similar experiences of feeling different and inferior to others. Therefore, I believe it is important to share my story. I feel a calling to help others open up about their feelings and share their own stories, in an effort to change the way individuals handle, share and think about their feelings and emotions.

The narrative I created about myself was negative and began as soon as I was born. I was born with a left clubfoot. “A clubfoot is a deformity in which an infant’s foot is turned inward, often so severely that the bottom of the foot faces inward or even sideways” (Ortho Info, 1). As a result, I faced many challenges early in my life including learning to walk later than others, having difficulty walking, and having smaller and weaker left leg calf muscles compared to my right leg calf muscles. However, more challenging than the physical issues, were the emotional difficulties I experienced, such as feeling like there was something wrong with me. Hearing doctors say, “He may never play sports and may never walk correctly” caused an immense amount of emotional pain. As a kid still finding his place in the world and primarily wanting to fit in, these experiences had a strong effect on me and my self-image.

My experience of feeling different and less than my peers increased due to another life event that rattled my self-image. When I was in fourth grade, I was diagnosed with ADHD and a visual-spatial learning disability. To address this challenge, I started seeing an organizational coach along with other support systems. The goal in receiving support was to provide additional learning and help me develop ways to deal with my developmental disability. I internalized my ADHD as bad and negative, and labeled myself as damaged. While I was always offered extra time for schoolwork or tests, I declined because I wanted to be treated the same as others. At the time, I did not understand how common it was to be diagnosed with a learning disability or ADHD because none of my peers shared any challenge they were experiencing. I believe that it wasn’t the learning difficulties I was going through or having ADHD that bothered me, but rather the fact that I felt different and inadequate. All the while, many of my peers were experiencing the same challenges unbeknownst to me.

It is important to note that despite frequent feelings of inadequacy and alienation, I never told anyone how I felt while I experienced these intense emotions and feelings. I completely internalized my emotions for over 10 years. Because I never shared my experiences, I was never told that anyone was battling similar challenges and emotions. For many reading this, it will be the first time you learn in detail about the challenges that I faced early on in my life. It wasn’t until recently that I learned how to express my differences, transform them into self-love and self-acceptance, and use these differences positively.

I believe that if we want to improve mental health issues and eliminate the stigma surrounding them, we need to normalize people expressing emotions and feelings — not hiding them. I believe the earlier in life that individuals can become open and express their emotions, the better for their mental health. I have learned firsthand how I would have benefited from being able to openly talk about my emotions, the things that upset me and the anxiety that kept me up at night. We must foster a safe space where all individuals can feel comfortable talking about their emotions and differences. This ability to be open and be accepted is a critical aspect in individuals’ development of a positive self-image and overall mental health. Expressing one’s true emotions is a key first step in their ability to overcome a challenge or adversity. Normalizing expressing their emotions and teaching kids to share their emotions should be no different than teaching them to go to the nurse’s office when they are physically sick or have an injured ankle, similar to any other life lesson kids are taught as they grow up.

We currently address children with challenges to their emotions in a manner that shuts them down both in schools and in society. Many of the behaviors kids demonstrate and are punished for in school are attention-seeking behaviors caused by a desire to be liked and accepted — I know this because I did it myself. The fact that we punish children for their behavior does not address the cause of the behavior. Children would have better outcomes and better long-term success if we work to understand the causes of their negative behaviors and focus on addressing those causes.

For me, being different was one of my biggest fears growing up. To be honest, I am different from others in many ways and knew this at an early age. The problem is that up until recently, I was frustrated and scared by these differences rather than grateful and accepting of them. I learned that being different meant there was something wrong with you and you should do all you can to eliminate these differences. I was never taught that having unique characteristics and different experiences is something to be proud of. If I was not told to embrace my differences and see their positive value, then how would you expect me to come to that conclusion myself as a child?

The challenge I pose to you is to take a little bit of time to honestly check in with those around you on how they are doing emotionally. The past year has been one of the most challenging years of this generation. Starting a conversation to check in on how the people you love are doing and creating a space to have these honest and transparent conversations will be extremely beneficial to all involved. I know you will get so many positive takeaways from having these conversations, because I have personally experienced feeling better on a life-changing level after sharing my own emotions and challenges with others.

I am writing a series of blogs centered around my life experiences surrounding mental health with the goal of normalizing individuals speaking about their struggles and trying to teach others what I have learned through these experiences. The next piece in my writing series will focus more specifically on what I tried to do in order to feel valued due to these differences and how my efforts affected me both positively and negatively.

I hope you get something out of reading parts of my story and from the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading, it means the world to me. I am so grateful for your support.

Image via Children’s Hospital Colorado on YouTube

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