Choosing recovery is a powerful thing–but moving on from a difficult stage in our lives can make us wonder: who are we going to become next?

Back in May, in celebration of Mental Health Awareness Month, I wrote a post about harnessing creative expression in order to cope with—and make something beautiful out of—a struggle with mental illness. Using art to articulate my difficult experiences has been a survival mechanism and a way to connect to others, even at my most inhibited. It has been, overall, an empowering tool, but there were times when it threatened to limit as much as it had ever liberated.

I remember being a sophomore in college, four years into the decision that writing was something I wanted to pursue, and feeling both happier and more afraid than I had ever been before. Happier because I was finally getting my life together—I’d finally escaped some of the toxic patterns I’d been trapped inside, and was learning that being authentically myself came with its own rewards. Afraid because, secretly, guiltily, I worried that happiness would make my creativity disappear.

[bctt tweet=” Experiences, patterns and habits, even harmful ones, become part of how we think about ourselves” via=”no”]

So much of the artistic energy that defined me had always come out of the very pain that I was now beginning to leave behind, which made moving forward in life an emotionally tangled experience. What did this say about the kind of person I was, or the kind of life I could have? If I continued to get healthy, would I even be myself anymore? This is just one of many ways that recovery and healing can be a terrifying process. Experiences, patterns and habits, even harmful ones, become part of how we think about ourselves, and it’s easy to wonder: who am I going to be once I let them go?

You may worry about losing positive qualities—creativity, compassion, depth—that you see as inextricably linked to your suffering. You may have built your social life around behaviors, such as drinking or drug use, that you now need to escape. Your pain might even have developed out of a fear of confronting your own identity: who you’ve been in the past or who you want to be in the future.

I’ve been through all of these experiences in one way or another. Change is frightening, even when you know it’s for the better—it can make the old patterns feel safe and secure in comparison, even when they are anything but. What’s important to remember is that you belong to yourself, not to anything that has happened to you. Your abilities, goals, and dreams are yours, and they will only get stronger as you do.

I’m now 22, happy, with my mental health on an uphill track—and still writing. There are a few things I wish someone had told me years ago, when healing was still an unmapped territory into which I was anxiously starting my journey. 3 things I wish someone had told me years ago: 

1)  Embrace the new abilities that recovery will give you. Things like depression, anxiety, and the like can make your world so small. If your strengths have survived even then, imagine how much better they’ll serve you once they have room to grow.

I am so thankful to have the stability and clarity of mind to provide support for my friends while they move through their own struggles—something I didn’t have the capacity to do when I was wholly occupied with mine.

The empathy and understanding I learned in moments of strain are even more useful now that I have the energy, confidence, and hope to make something out of them.

2)  Even though supporting and being supported by others is an important part of health and healing, it’s equally important to find a balance between compassion and self-care. This is something I’m still learning, and have to remind myself of often. Most people tend to socially gravitate toward others with whom they share thoughts and experiences, and for many of us, that can include shared pain. A number of my close friends also have histories of, or ongoing struggles with, mental health disorders, and it’s often easiest for me to relate to people who do. However, these relationships can sometimes become unhelpful, codependent, or even abusive—and when they do, those shared experiences can make them harder to escape.

It’s important to remember that compassion does not mean allowing yourself to be hurt.

When a friend’s pain causes them to lash out at those around them, it’s easy to make excuses. Wanting to protect yourself may even make you feel selfish or irresponsible—but I promise you, it isn’t.  All the empathy in the world can’t cure a toxic relationship, or cure someone who is still trapped in their negative patterns. If a friendship isn’t mutually beneficial, or is holding you back from moving forward in your own recovery process, wish the person well and move on.

3) Understand that learning to love and forgive yourself can be the most frightening part of the journey. I remember trying to explain to parents, therapists, and friends how much the idea of having self-esteem scared me—it felt like letting my flaws and mistakes off the hook, allowing them to “win.” I was convinced that beating myself up was the only way to handle mistakes, and that anything less would just let me make more.

It’s impossible to fully commit yourself to healing if you aren’t also working toward self-acceptance.

It’s not always going to be easy—in fact, I think it’s one of the toughest things to do. But as long as you keep believing you are inherently bad, wrong, or irredeemable, you continue to be vulnerable to relapse, self-destructive behavior, or just giving up. We aren’t motivated to help things we hate, and that includes ourselves. Forgiving yourself doesn’t mean forgetting the lessons you learned from the mistakes. Making amends doesn’t have to involve guilt or shame. You don’t have to be perfect in order to deserve happiness, confidence, or love—both from others and from yourself.

For those of us who have spent time feeling locked out of the world, and who are now working to piece together our true selves, there is a capacity for joyful, purposeful living that we may not otherwise have discovered. Some of the strongest people I know only uncovered that inner strength when they found themselves in darkness and were forced to fight through to the other side. There are gems to be dug out of any kind of pain—but in order to let them truly shine, we have to leave the pain itself behind.