This past Friday, as part of the Innate Health IHEART project dedicated to building resilience in the next generation, I spoke at a sixth form school assembly. The audience consisted of 70 students, all of whom were 17-years-old.
Prior to speaking, I was told about the varying degrees of chronic anxiety, stress and other mental health issues many of these students are grappling with. I guess this is the status quo these days when addressing the younger generation. So it seemed helpful to impart some of my own past story of mental suffering before my colleague and fellow IHEART team member, Ian Watson and I, conveyed the primary message we had come to share: that we all have psychological freedom. Every one of us, no matter what.
The students were quiet and seemed enraptured during the 45 minutes we had with them. After handing out donated copies of my first book, Exquisite Mind, for further reading, we left. Later that day, the form leader informed us that our talk had stimulated much passionate debate amongst the attendees.
During the talk, I touched on an incident that I went through at exactly their age. In the spring of 1991, I was a 17-year-old girl desperate to become head prefect of my school. The competition was fierce, a natural consequence of the highly competitive environment the school had cultivated. My large year group of almost 300, half whom were girls, included a number of excellent candidates vying for that same coveted role. Looking back now, I shudder at the hierarchical system (which has not changed much, or so it seems to me) and the culture of competitiveness amongst friends and peers. But back then, I was trapped in the deep jungle of the high school battle. It was survival of the fittest.
I had been head girl of my primary school and since then had worked hard to get good results, represent a range of sporting teams, direct school plays and conscientiously engage in the various other “necessary “ achievements required to gain this leadership role. My entire sense of self was built on outside recognition.
Unbeknownst to me, another subplot was playing out behind the scenes. The school leadership was aware that I was battling severe anorexia at the time. Strangely, I wasn’t. I was in deep denial and so saw my chances of “winning” as being pretty high – if not a given. We live in our own realities, right?
The announcements were made. My name wasn’t mentioned. Not only was I not head girl, but I was not one of the four deputies or one of the twenty female prefects chosen that day. Even the riskiest of bookmakers would have struggled to give odds against such a stunning reversal of fortune!
I was crushed. At that precise moment, my world and the identity I had constructed in my head, instantly shattered. I felt naked and violated.
I had constructed a world of thought about myself that was not aligning with the current reality playing out in front of me. There was reality and then there was my experience of reality. The two versions didn’t stack up.
I now know about the magnitude of this misunderstanding: the illusory belief that our feelings about ourselves can come from outside approval or recognition. It is not possible. No one and nothing has the power to make me feel anything. And because this notion is an illusion, all it took was a wave from the “school” ocean to wash my sandcastle of identity away.
I was mortified, embarrassed and convinced I would never recover from the humiliation and rejection I was feeling. It never occurred to me that all those feelings and all that pain were born from my thinking at that moment. It never occurred to me that this event had not an ounce of power over me; to hurt me, to cause rejection or harm. It didn’t occur to me that my initial disappointment and shame would pass; that a time would come when I would be able to face the school, my peers and my parents with a different outlook. I simply did not know that I had any resource that could allow me to come to terms with my crushing disappointment. In my misunderstanding, I was convinced I was damaged. Forever.
My thoughts were raging wild as they graphically told me about great stories of injustice and suffering. And so I felt the effects of the reality I was unwittingly and innocently creating. I was desperate to survive, but saw only the trapped doors of my own mind. I did not know that a way forward existed right there within my mind. I assumed I was doomed.
And so I went home, took a razor blade, and slit my wrists.
It just hurt more.
24 years later, my 17-year-old son was quietly confident he would become head boy (or at the very least, deputy head boy) of his school. All of his peers were convinced that it was a straight shoot-out between my son and his best friend. When the moment of the announcement came, his friend’s name was called out as head prefect. My son, to almost everyone’s surprise, did not receive the deputy head position or any other leadership role.
It was like 1991 all over again. Except that it wasn’t. Here’s why.
This experience didn’t crush him. Why? Because it did not feel to him like it had the power to do so. He experienced it via Thought and he was alive to the fact that his feelings were coming from Thought. He handled this moment with poise and maturity.
My son quietly told me that he was disappointed and a little surprised, but there was really nothing he could do about it. The decision was made. “There is no use dwelling on something that has already happened”, he told me. When I asked if he felt he would be OK, he responded, “Mom I am sure there will be a few tough moments in the days ahead, but I am happy for my friends and I will be fine. It will take a little time for my mind to come to terms with it, but I really am not going to let this be a big deal.”
I was astounded. Over two decades had passed between mother and son. Same circumstance, polar opposite experiences.
Fast-forward two more years to the school assembly this past Friday morning and our message to these beautiful (and they are beautiful) teenagers: they are whole, not fragile. They are not fragile because the feelings which might give them a sensation of fragility are a normal and helpful part of their psychological immune system. No thing and no one can hurt them or harm them psychologically. Their feelings are their feelings! And these feelings remind us that we are using Thought as a medium to see life. If you think it you will feel it. There is no way round it. But knowing that the limitations and insecurity we feel will never and can never be anything more other than an experience of Thought is freeing. And it’s true.
Looking out into the sea of faces Friday morning, my heart broke for every one of them who looked like a 17-year-old version of me, sitting in a pool of misunderstanding, assuming that there is something lacking inside themselves; that exams, friends, their appearance and other outside factors can fill or empty this hole.
Yet, while it breaks my heart, it also makes me and the rest of our team ever more determined to re-educate the younger generation about their innate resilience and the freedom and power of the Mind.