For most of my 30-some-odd years, I have projected the image of a perfect life. I went to great schools, worked and lived around the world and always had a smile on my face.
So it might surprise you to know that for most of my life, I’ve been ashamed of myself, loathed my existence and hated who I was.
I have always put on a “strong” front in an effort to mash the shame I felt for being anorexic as a young girl. It never dawned on me that I’ve been in a battle with myself. I was drawn toward anything that gave me the opportunity to challenge myself and prove I was no longer that weak girl.
After my nearly decadelong battle with eating disorders and suicide attempts, I was in a near-fatal car crash. Later, I had two massive strokes requiring emergency brain surgery, which left me paralyzed, forcing me to relearn everything from scratch like an infant.
Death had to beat me over the head three times before I finally realized how to live and love my life. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Embrace the differences
As an Indian child of immigrant parents, I always felt “different.” I was “too hairy,” had ugly brown eyes, was too chubby and my parents were too strict. I became accustomed to looking for ways I was not like my peers and mentally making a note it was yet another imperfect quality I should hide.
Societal ideals — and later, social media — became my yardstick, and if I deviated from these idealistic standards, I was not worthy.
At the time, I didn’t realize that differences are not imperfections but rather all the things that make me special and unique from every other person on this planet.
These days, I embrace everything from my frizzy hair to my imperfect skin to my idiosyncrasies.
The next time you feel like you don’t fit in, keep reminding yourself, “I am unique, one of a kind!” Embrace your differences, love them and know that it makes you you.
Vulnerability represents strength
It became apparent that much of the anger, shame and lack of love for myself resulted from not acknowledging and sharing the areas of my life I was embarrassed about. I chose to brush everything that wasn’t perfect under the rug and never speak about it. I realize now that was a mistake. I never realized how much healing happens when you share and allow yourself to be vulnerable.
Vulnerability also allows you to form more deep and meaningful relationships. We all want to know we are not alone in our struggles and that another person out there understands how we are feeling and thinking and can say to us, “I understand you, and feel the same way.”
We are human. It’s normal and OK to have fears, struggles and imperfect moments. When we share these times, talk about them, remember that vulnerability is your badge of courage and strength.
Chose new behaviors that serve you well
The process of uncovering all my past that I have kept hidden for so long forced me to acknowledge and actually understand my behaviors today and what is not working. It’s never easy to admit to being wrong and see the need for change.
Even though I have been doing the same thing for years, it doesn’t make it right or a healthy way to be living. Trying to undo the way I have thought of myself and treated myself over 20 years doesn’t miraculously happen overnight. These things do not come naturally to me and require a lot of work on a daily basis. Who knew learning to be kind to myself and not beat myself up over every minor thing would take such effort?
There are sticky notes all over my desk and walls reminding me to “Trust your gut,” “Believe in yourself,” and “You’ve got this!” I have notes in my Google calendar to remind me of the daily progress I am making. It takes so much energy each day not to revert to my “normal” tendencies. It is easy to want to do what I’ve always done.
More: 13 Things Never to Say to Someone Who is Suicidal or Depressed
But every single day, I remind myself I am fortunate enough to still be here, and I want to lead a happy life with a clear mind, and so instead of beating myself up, I choose positive affirmations and don’t let my mind run rampant with anxiety. I choose guided meditations instead of suppressing emotions and feeling shame. I talk to a trusted friend.
There are many things you can do to get you out of a funk and make you feel better. It might be listening to music, going on a walk in the fresh air, writing in a diary or watching a funny show.
So next time you catch yourself engaging in a behavior that does not serve you, look to your list and chose a new behavior that serves you well.
While it would have been easier to learn these lessons much earlier in life — and not have to almost die three times in the process — I’m grateful to know them now and put them into practice each day. There is no quick fix or magical pill to learn how to live your best life. But I know from experience that all that matters is taking one step at a time.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org or text “START” to 741-741 to immediately speak to a trained counselor at Crisis Text Line.
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