When I turned 11, I became ruled by my anxieties. I was terrified that people would judge me for being myself. Talking in class wasn’t something I could get myself to do, because what if I said something wrong and everyone laughed? Don’t even get me started on individual presentations. The thought of getting up in front of people to share my ideas made my heart race at a mile a minute, so I would usually stumble through, stuffing down my anxiety. This would then make me have a panic attack after the class was over because I forced it down during the presentation. All of that fear around being vulnerable was just another way for me to keep myself safe from rejection or perceived unsafety.
When you become a serial bottler of your opinions, thoughts, and emotions, your initial reaction to a distressing event becomes: If I don’t say anything and pretend my experience doesn’t exist, it will keep me from potential rejection. No one wants to create a situation where they are forced to feel distressing or uncomfortable emotions, especially if they’ve never been taught how to effectively tolerate them.
Growing up, I didn’t have any role models for talking about my emotions in a healthy way to others. My mom divorced my biological father before I was born and then moved us halfway across the country. She did it because he didn’t know how to manage his anger and could have turned it on me if we’d stayed. Don’t get me wrong, I am forever grateful for her strength and decisiveness when leaving a difficult situation. However, she then engaged in a relationship with my sister’s biological father that lasted a disagreeable four years. Having this instability as a backdrop to my formative years made me realize taking up space wasn’t a good thing. I learned that if I made myself small, my mom’s life would be easier, as I would be one less thing she had to worry about. Looking back now though, I’ve realized so many of the things we do as children begin with such good intentions but end with unintended consequences.
Bottling became a service I could provide to those around me to keep the peace. This became paradoxical — in my attempts to keep the peace, I actually created more chaos. I hardly noticed my emotions changing from sadness or anxiety or anger to irritability. My friends and my mom began to bear the weight of my pain through my attempts to communicate. Instead of telling them what I was feeling, I lashed out at them, letting them know of all the ways they weren’t good people to have in my life.
When I realized what I was doing, I withdrew from my friends and isolated myself to keep them from experiencing my shadow side. I began cancelling plans last minute. I started choosing boys over friends to make me feel validated as a beautiful human being. None of these things strengthened my friendships, and eventually I lost my closest friends. This just created more problems as my self-worth and self-esteem became nonexistent.
Living your life by invalidating yourself to please others creates a deeper hole that you will have to fill in once you bravely start healing from your past. I was so afraid to let people in to see who I truly am. Without someone to look down in that deep hole and help to guide me out with a flashlight, I would not be where I am today. After being guided out, the therapist taught me the tools I needed to be able to lead myself out when I inevitably started going back into that hole again.
Even now, after 10 years of therapy, I still struggle with being vulnerable from time to time, but I am miles ahead of where I thought I ever would be. I’m in college, working two jobs, and I’m living in an apartment with my great roommate and our two cats. Through those many years, I’ve learned healing from past trauma is a continuous process of growth and change, and having someone to walk with you down that road as a teacher is as logical as pumpkin pie in the place of birthday cake (or maybe that’s just something I do). Once you embrace the understanding that being healthy encapsulates not only your physical health but your mental health as well, that’s the key you need to unlock the doors of stability — and that’s a prize worth attaining if I’ve ever heard one.