The letter below is part of an ongoing series featuring letters from authors to their teen selves. If you're a published author who'd like to participate in this series, we'd love to have you. Just click here and let us know you're interested. Today's guest is Carol Dines, author of The Take-Over Friend, which comes out Tuesday.
Dear Teenage Me,
I realize you’re busy, but can you just take a break? I know you have a lot to accomplish, and you never feel like you have enough time, but seriously, just stop for a few minutes and listen. Please! Life doesn’t have to be this hard—so fraught, so overcharged, so focused on the future. That’s why I’m writing you. I want to save you from burn-out, from living your life according to everyone else’s expectations and depleting yourself in the process. And that means staying true to yourself.
I know what you’re thinking. You hate when other people (especially your mother) tell you, be true to yourself. Your mind says, what does that even mean? Because inside, you have many selves, and they are always changing, always being pulled in different directions. Deep down, you’re really thinking, I have no self. My so-called-self changes with whoever I’m hanging out with, whoever they expect me to be.
So, how can you stay true to yourself when you don’t even know who you are yet? And why is that important? Because trying to be all things to all people will use you up. It’s a habit you must stop now if you want to hold onto your own energy and develop who you are meant to be. Think of it like gas in a car. If you’re driving around giving rides to everyone else, you won’t have enough gas to reach your own destination.
Many of us have been told that taking care of others is the way to happiness, but that’s only true if we learn how to take care of ourselves first. You love your family, parents, sister, brother. You love your friends. But too often you put their needs and wants ahead of your own. It happens so automatically; you don’t even realize you’re doing it. You think you’re being a good daughter, good sister, good friend, good girlfriend. You listen, support, drive, carry, call, meet, lend, always meeting others’ expectations while your own needs get pushed aside and overlooked.
You CAN change this pattern in your life. You can develop healthy boundaries that protect your energy and nurture your sense of self. It’s one of the most important aspects of growing up, but the longer you wait, the harder it will be.
So where is this leading? (I know you’re getting impatient.)
Carol as a teen
First, learn to see the signs in yourself when you’re not true to yourself. You might feel exhausted from your best friend’s dramas. Or pressured by your brother to keep lying for him. Or you might feel your boyfriend demands more than you can give to the relationship. Or you might feel sick of the friend who pries into your life before you’re ready to share. Or you don’t feel comfortable when one parent complains about the other to you. Or you’re tired of lending money to your friend who never pays it back. Or tired of the friend who never asks you about your life but constantly talks about herself.
Every relationship goes through challenging times, but when the pattern continues, you need to pay attention to your own feelings—notice those relationships that leave you unsettled, pressured, doubting; those disappointments that build over time; those moments when you do something to please someone else, even though you don’t want to. Then applaud yourself for having the courage to look deeper, for paying attention. That is what it means to be true to yourself.
Pay attention, too, to where and how you spend your energy, (the gas in your tank). Remember, the cost of pleasing others versus taking care of yourself is depletion. So, next time you end up spending time and energy on people and activities that aren’t important to you anymore, gently, with love, tell yourself, “Ah, I’m doing it again. I’m pleasing others rather than myself.”
Take, for instance, your very best friend in the whole world who loves big outdoor parties. You hate them. You hate the bonfires (because of your asthma), and you hate the sound systems (loud), and you hate the way you have to scream over the music to be heard and afterward how your throat hurts. And yet, when she begs you to go, you let yourself be persuaded.
So, practice saying no. It’s okay to say, “Sorry, I need some down time.” Or “Sorry, I’m just not into big parties anymore.” Or “I prefer not to go out this weekend.” Or “I hate malls. Let’s do a hike instead.” Or “I am tired of always having to wait for you.” Or “I’m not comfortable hearing you talk about Dad to me.” Or “I’m happy to lend you money when you start paying me back.” Or “I’m not ready to talk about that. I’ll tell you when I am.”
Carol as a teen