When my husband and I first started seeing each other, he would ask “how do you know them?” a lot. We’d go into shops and restaurants and I’d start chatting on to the assistant or waiter like I’d known them for years. I love people and I love talking but there was something bigger behind it. The truth is that for a long time I chatted to everyone I met because I wanted them to like me. In fact I couldn’t bear the thought they might not, even if it’s likely I would never see them again.
Primary school was a tricky time for me. I was bullied and although it wasn’t physical it was nasty. I was called names, humiliated and picked on. Throughout junior school I never found my place or where my friends were. I was rejected and I was lonely and it hurt.
So I made a decision: that being liked was the most important thing. If I could get everyone I met to like me, they would be friends with me and I would never be picked on or lonely again. I decided that to get people to like me, I had to be fun. I had to be outgoing and upbeat and smiley, that would persuade people and then I would be ok.
The idea of being “Fun Sarah” followed me all the way through school, university and eventually into my twenties. I don’t know quite when the anxiety started, whether it was the pressure to always be fun or the fear of not being liked, but I remember being 15 and sick with worry. Before any social activity I would get horribly nervous, which would turn into fear and then dread. I worried about going out or meeting new people. I got a sick feeling and my arms and legs went a bit shaky. My brain would tell me I wasn’t ok but it couldn’t tell me why.
I took this feeling into my job as a radio presenter, where suddenly not just people I met had to like me, whole groups of people who were listening to me on the radio also had to like me. It was a mind-boggling amount of pressure and my anxiety was at an all-time high. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I would wake up tired and I craved sugar and comfort food for energy. I put on weight and I slept in late. Anxiety made me turn down invites and cancel going out last minute because I wasn’t sure how fun I could be. I then worried people would think I’d let them down, that I was flaky and unreliable.
By this point, not only did I have to work hard to make sure people didn’t reject me, I also had to conceal the fact that I was anxious. Because anxiety did NOT fit with the idea of Fun Sarah. I worried that if I talked about feeling anxious, people would think I was boring or heavy or moany. I was convinced they would dismiss me and I would be rejected and lonely. So, I thought “I’ll carry on holding it together, and wait until I’m fixed and can be carefree and happy all the time”.
Finding the answers
But it turns out, that doesn’t exist. After years of waiting to be “fixed”, I was done. I was fed up of feeling that way. I decided to stop trying to fight it and start to address it.
I knew I had to talk about it. I told the people I loved and explained how I was feeling. I felt safe because they were the people I was closest to and of course they loved me and wanted to help. They helped me identify it was anxiety. The moment I gave it a name I felt better. I also learned that anxiety was a feeling and not who I was. It didn’t define me, it was just one part of me, and I knew that I could place some distance between me and that feeling.
The first time I talked about my anxiety publicly was on World Mental Health Day in 2016. I did a blog post and put it on Instagram. I was really nervous but it got the biggest response to anything I’d ever posted. People thanked me for sharing and praised me for opening up in such a personal way. I got messages from followers saying because I’d said how I was feeling, they felt they could do the same. Most importantly people wrote to me to say hearing my story made them realise they weren’t alone in how they felt.
It's all a work-in-progress
Over the last couple of years, talking about my experiences and my own mental health has transformed the way I feel. I have gone from being terrified of talking about how I was feeling to making it my work. Last year I launched Celebrate Yourself, which is a framework to help people to be kinder to themselves and celebrate who they are. I have developed my self-help and wellbeing tool, self-celebration, and I co-host my podcast series, Wobble, about happiness and body confidence.
I now regularly share things as they come up for me because mental health is ongoing. It’s all a work in progress and I’m learning all the time about new things that trigger me and how to deal with them. Something I have learned is how important kindness to yourself is in those moments. And sharing how you’re feeling. Because every single time I do talk about it, I always feel better.
Sarah Powell is a speaker, celebrant and the founder of Celebrate Yourself, a framework which encourages people to celebrate who they are. She conducts bespoke ceremonies and developed the wellbeing and self-help tool, self-celebration. She co-hosts two podcasts, Jules and Sarah with Jules Von Hep and also Wobble, a podcast about body confidence and happiness.