'Be kind' tops Louise O'Neill's advice to her 16-year-old self

My mother was always trying to give me advice but what the hell did she know? Quite a lot, as it turned out, and I wish I had listened to her sooner, writes Louise O’Neill.  
'Be kind' tops Louise O'Neill's advice to her 16-year-old self

Someone told me recently that I was ‘fearless’ and they asked if I had always been like that.

Firstly, I would like to take this opportunity to dispel the notion that I’m a 2016 version of Xena the Warrior Princess and secondly, no, I was not this outspoken as a teenager.

I have noticed an interesting phenomenon in both myself and my friends — the older we get, the fiercer we become, the less nonsense we are willing to put up with, our voices increasing in volume.

I wish I had known that when I was younger. I was terrified at the idea of getting older, presuming that anyone over the age of 30 was decrepit and should be put out of their misery as soon as possible. My mother was always trying to give me advice but what the hell did she know?

Quite a lot, as it turned out, and I wish I had listened to her sooner.

So now it’s my turn, at the grand old age of 31, to give my 16-year-old self some advice. She wouldn’t take it, of course, 16-year-old Louise being far too stubborn and self-righteous to need or want any guidance from an ould wan.

But here goes anyway:

  • Be kind above all else. You will never regret it. “If other people do not treat you with kindness in return, try and remember that it says more about them than about you. Happy people who are secure in themselves do not need to put you down to make themselves feel better.
  • Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Boundaries are your best friend. Figure out what you will and won’t accept, set your boundaries out very clearly in all relationships — platonic, sexual, romantic — and expect other people to meet them.
  • Maintain good standards but not high ones. High standards can sometimes lead us to demanding too much from the people around us until we require a level of attention that can be impossible for others to maintain. Good standards means that you will refuse to allow anyone to treat you with anything less than the respect you deserve.
  • Exclusion is just another form of bullying and perhaps the most harmful. Nobody deserves to be made feel as if they don’t exist. It costs you nothing to smile at someone and include them in your conversation.
  • Thinness does not equal happiness. A number on a weighing scales is not, and should never be, a measure of your self worth. You are so much more than that.
  • Talk. Talk to your friends, to your parents, to your siblings. Be honest. Don’t try and pretend that you’re not sad or upset or disappointed or jealous or angry. These feelings are not ‘bad’ or ‘good’, they just are. You are entitled to feel your feelings.
  • Be brave. Try new things more. You don’t have to be ‘perfect’ at everything straight away, it’s okay for you to make mistakes. Perfectionism is your enemy, not your goal. Go to more auditions, write more short stories. Don’t take rejection personally but learn from it. Try again. Try and try and try.
  • Don’t be so afraid of failure. It doesn’t mean that you are a failure, it just means that you have some more learning to do. It is okay to fail. Keep telling yourself that. It is okay to fail. Failing is an inevitable part of life.
  • Speak up. Don’t stay quiet for the sake of an easy life — the time for silence is long gone. The world is changing and in some ways, not for the better. We all need to fight prejudice and intolerance and you are going to be an integral part of that.
  • Don’t see other girls as your enemy. If someone tells you that ‘you’re not like other girls’, don’t see this as a compliment. Other girls are wonderful. Women are wonderful. Why wouldn’t you want to be like them?
  • Read more. Fiction, non-fiction, think pieces, Tumblr posts. Whatever. Just keep reading and keep learning.
  • Wear whatever you want to wear. If someone thinks what you’re wearing is ‘inappropriate’ remember — they are the ones who are sexualising a teenager’s body, not you.
  • If someone touches you without your consent at a nightclub or a bar, do not laugh it off because you don’t want to seem ‘difficult’. Report the person immediately. You have the right to walk through the world without fear.
  • Emotionally unavailable men/women are not a challenge to be overcome. You will not be ‘special’ if you somehow manage to make them fall in love with you. Either they don’t care enough about you to commit or they are dead on the inside. Neither option is a good one.
  • Try and reject the idea that a ‘bad boy’ is sexy. Kindness is sexy. Someone who will be good to you and believe in you and treat you with respect — this is what you should be looking for.
  • If a relationship is meant to happen, it’ll be easy. The right person won’t make you cry.
  • Always, always, always use a condom (STIs are not just for Christmas, kids, some are for life) and insist that your pleasure/orgasm is just as essential as the person’s who you’re with. I would say even more important but I’m selfish that way.
  • On a very practical level, always eat dinner before you go out. ‘Eating is cheating’ is what girls who end up projectile vomiting in the club toilets say.

There is so much more that I could say but I won’t bore you with my hard won wisdom. As my gorgeous friend Isabelle said to me when I was gently advising (lecturing) her, ‘Yes, Louise, but I have to make my own mistakes’. She’s right. I guess the learning goes both ways.

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