‘My mother says I’m fragile, sensitive and I have a hard time with things’
Laura Kennedy: I thought the least charitable description of myself must be the truest
Laura Kennedy: “The word - fragile – was a weapon I wielded against myself.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley
“My mother says I’m fragile, sensitive, that I have a hard time with things.” The sentence sounded indulgent even as it broke through my lips, a reluctant admission that I was in fact in a therapy session with a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist whom I had been resentfully visiting for months.
In my own defence, I was about 19 when this conversation occurred – fresh as a torn leaf, and trying to adapt to life at university in Co Dublin after a chaotic but sheltered upbringing in Co Limerick. I was utterly without social competence, nervous and resentful of the sort of people I met at Trinity College, who at the time felt more fortunate and less maladjusted than I was. In retrospect, I had no right to make that judgement of them, but I was too much in my own head to extend them the courtesy of a fair assessment. Everything was dark inside me, and I projected that onto everything outside.
That moment in that therapy session – I availed of the university counselling service as I would never have been able to pay to see someone – was a turning point. Not because of my inane comment, but because of the therapist’s response. She looked at me, a little surprised when I relayed a description of myself as “fragile”, and said flatly “That doesn’t seem right. I would say that you’re quite robust, really. Look at all of the difficult things you have dealt with quite well so far in your life.”
I did not understand that this narrative was harmful – I just thought it was completely true because it was not entirely false
Struggling with my depressed mood, I had thought that the least charitable description of myself must be the most true, that anything even slightly kind or positive would be deluding myself. My mother, with nothing but love and good intentions, had observed that I struggled with other children, and that I spent a lot of my teens unhappy and seemingly unable to engage fully in my life. She saw me then as sensitive, vulnerable (which was not entirely inaccurate), and she sought to protect me. She did this by telling me a story about myself. She told me that I was fragile, and that I should be cautious, because challenging situations had triggered periods of depression and difficulty in the past. I needed to be careful about what I exposed myself to.
I did not understand that this narrative was harmful – I just thought it was completely true because it was not entirely false. I loved my mother deeply, but in the moment that the therapist described me as robust, I realised the power of self-narrative. My mother focused on the things I found difficult: the fall. The therapist pointed out that these figurative falls were always followed by getting back up and re-engaging in my life. “The worst part”, she told me, “the bit where you struggle or stop for a while, isn’t the end of the story, is it? So why would that be the truest way of describing yourself? It seems to me like you are omitting the most important part.”
When a person is depressed, the ugliest narrative always feels true. There is something comforting and elevating in it, almost as though you are the only person that sees things as they truly are. It makes you feel important and insightful even as it tells you you’re worthless. I left that office realising that I did not know myself as I had thought, and that this volatile word with its heavy consonants – “fragile” – was a weapon I wielded against myself. I did not take risks, or let myself become close to anyone, or make myself uncomfortable, for fear that the capriciousness of normal life would shatter me into pieces.
We can choose how we talk to ourselves, how we describe ourselves, and I realised that I had in part talked myself into the paralysing misery and fear in which I spent much of my youth. It was absolutely real, but it was fuelled in large part by my own misunderstanding. We are all fragile, and many challenges have prodded at those old voices since then, but we are also robust. Telling myself this didn’t make it true – it was already—but it made me behave as though it was true, and that changed everything.