8th October 2020

Petra’s story: From Pain to Purpose

30th April, 2018

Petra Velzeboer

I believe that it's essential to up skill our leaders in empathy and how to have difficult conversations.  If we as leaders can be open about our own stories, we give permission to those we lead to talk about their stories.   With 1 in 4 people each year experiencing a mental health problem, we all have a story to tell about mental health. Whether we, or someone close to us, has been through a tough time, as leaders we must risk judgement by making the first move in order to create mentally healthy workplaces. It’s not something we can delegate, it’s an investment we must make to prevent long term absence, staff turnover and crisis. So here goes, I’ll start by telling my story:


The day I wanted it all to end.  


Twelve years ago I wanted to end my life.  All my life experiences had led to the point where I couldn’t cope with one more day. Holding all the pain inside me, keeping my secret of depression shrouded from prying eyes, meant my world had become smaller and smaller until I was isolated from all that was good.  What I had done to cover my shame could no longer cover everything and I thought if I just disappeared then all the pain would disappear too.

I realised then that I had a choice. I put off ending my life for one year as I noticed that some people in the world seemed happy and thriving and I determined to spend the year observing, researching and imitating what seemed to be working for them. After all, what did I have to lose?


How one new thing a day changed my whole life.


I determined to simply be awake to what people were doing who were happy. I didn’t know where to start. Numbing through alcohol, complaining, television and isolation were such ingrained habits now that I experienced intense anxiety if I sat alone with my own thoughts or tried to engage with any kind of community.  I thought people would see the insanity inside me and reject me from their presence.

I had 2 young children, barely any education and a childhood lived in a religious cult where preparation was sparse for life in the real world.  My first step was admitting to myself and to people around me that I needed help. It really is the hardest step in the world. We want to hold on to an idea that we can do everything and if we can’t we’re bad people and should be ashamed.

What we don’t realise is that there’s magic in expressing what is going on for us:

  1. Speaking out loud helps us make sense of the noise in our heads.
  2. When someone else is a witness to our pain we can experience empathy and nurture self-compassion
  3. Once we start talking often other people have permission to talk too and we realise we are not alone.


Audit what you’re using to numb or avoid your feelings


My first step to being fully awake was giving up alcohol. The numbing elixir that allowed my pain to dissipate until it made it much worse. I joined a recovery community where I could speak of my shame and there were always people whose shame was worse. I could cry and be empty and I would receive care and recognition of my bravery even when I didn’t feel brave.

I read every book I could on happiness, psychology, mental health and success. I showed up in the world one day at a time through fear, anxiety, snot and tears. I listened to guided meditations on my headphones and practiced connecting with my breath and my body even though my head would run riot when I did. I told myself I could still end things in a year if this didn’t work.


I had almost finished my counselling training at this point and had embarked on a Master’s degree to continue my journey to perceived self-worth and insight. I journaled my feelings, I tried to sleep, I tried to be present, I saw a doctor but most importantly, I called someone every time my brain felt like it would tip me over the edge.  I called and just cried or said life is too hard right now, I can’t move through the fog, it just hurts so much. They just listened, didn’t need to fix it, said thank you for calling, what’s the next right thing you’re going to do?


The simple act of speaking my truth out loud helped overcome the shame that keeps us suffering much longer than we need to.  Consistently, daily, tell someone something about how you feel. Just to get used to it. Then when the big stuff hits it’s not such a big deal.


As time passed and I made more decisions in line with what would support my mental health instead of what would hinder it, I experienced moments of happiness and true connection which helped me feel alive.


How giving back helped my mental health


One of the key things I learned is that if your life is overwhelming, give to someone else and see what perspective you’re left with.  When we’re giving to someone else, through listening, practical support, whatever it might be, we are releasing ourselves from overthinking and self-absorption and connecting to the wider universe and our part in it.  I mentored teenagers, volunteered, counselled people about their struggles, not from a place of perfection but from a place of empathy. I completely got where they were coming from and in helping them I helped myself.


A year later I realised I’d passed the deadline I’d set for myself to end everything. I smiled as I reflected on the journey I’d been on and the one that still lay ahead. Life wasn’t perfect but I knew I was on the path to success and mostly that I felt alive and wanted to live. Since then I have worked with people from all over the globe who are struggling in some way too, using the practical skills I learned to empower other people to find their place in the world. I run a podcast called Adversity to Advantage which brings together the stories and practical experience of people from all walks of life who have succeeded in the face of intense adversity.


I now look on all of my experiences as crucial to skilling me up to do the work I do today. It’s really hard when we’re in the depths of despair to see any kind of purpose in our suffering. Its only on reflection that we see how all the puzzle pieces of our life fit together.  

Here’s what I’ve gleaned along the way from my own journey and the hundreds of clients I’ve worked with and podcast interviews I’ve done:  

1.     Talk to someone. This will help you get out of your shame hole where everything seems worse.

2.     Move your body. Go outside. This little act can help change your perspective.

3.     Audit your life for everything you use to numb out the pain and see what you can give up so that you can wake up to the possibilities in your life.

4.     If you need professional support ask your doctor, therapist, psychologist or coach to help you figure it out.

5.     Make it manageable. One small thing a day is 365 changes in a year. I’m living proof that just one year can change everything.  


How leaders create change.


There’s a misconception that if we talk about our mental health at work we’ll open the floodgates of emotions and no one will ever get any work done. The reality is that the opposite is true. If we normalise conversations about mental health (not just mental illness) then we put in place a system of connection that helps people know who they can talk to when they are struggling, long before they reach crisis point.


The world I want to live in is one that is supportive, empathetic and human, where we are able to support each other to build businesses and work cultures where people want to stay, not just for their salary, but because the environment supports their mental health.

Petra Velzeboer

Petra is an integrative counsellor, executive coach, speaker and training facilitator with extensive experience helping leaders create mentally healthy workplaces. Prior to her role as a mental health consultant, Petra was clinical director for an EAP provider, managed youth mental health projects in the charity sector as well as a private therapy practice since 2009. She has a MSc in Psychodynamics of Human Development and is excited about developing technology tools to enhance empathy and compassion.

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