Life Lessons I Wish I Knew At Sixteen

life lessons, carla coulson, self esteem, life the life you love, change your life,

Life lessons: That’s me in middle showing my undies with my two sisters.

Have you ever looked back through your journey to see the big life lessons that were dark moments at the time but ultimately brought light?

This may be a little too personal for some of you so please feel free to click off here.

When I was sixteen, I lived in Port Macquarie and in theory was having the time of my life. I had great friends, my first boyfriend, and a bike that I pedaled from one end of our town to the other; I felt as free as a bird.

In those days, I would creep into my brother’s bedroom when he was out (he was the only one with a full-length mirror), turn my back to the mirror, and angst about the width of my ankles. My bestie had long lean legs with pretzel thin ankles and mine weren’t shaping up anywhere near close to hers. When I was done with my ankles, I would turn around and with all my muscle power I could summon, I would try my best to create a gap between my legs like the glam girls with long legs at the beach. This was the beginning of many years of comparing myself to others.

On the odd time my mother would catch me, she would tell me that ‘One day you will realize how lucky you are to have strong legs that will carry you through life.’

Hey, I was sixteen as though I was going to listen to my mum!

Not long after my sixteenth birthday, my little world fell apart, my dad had a transfer in his job to Sydney and we were all wrenched out of our happy little ‘surfie’ lives in Port Macquarie.

My brothers and sisters were all at different ages; one stayed and the others were young enough to move on but when I hit Sydney my life stopped. I mean literally stopped. I reasoned, I already had lifelong friends in Port Macquarie, I had been to 3 schools by this stage and no longer wanted to try.


life lessons, Carla Coulson with family in Port MacQuarie Australia in 60s, self-esteem

Me in green in Port Macquarie with my family and grandparents before we left.

For the best part of the next 5 years I shut down, made no friends, didn’t have a boyfriend, refused to get involved with life, and skirted around its edges, doing the minimum I needed to get by. There were many life lessons headed my way.

Fortunately, in my twenties, I found a job I loved in marketing and slowly I found a world in the big city where I fitted. I met great people and started a new chapter of my life.

But something was always missing. My self-esteem by this time had taken a battering, the carefree years of a teenager were missing and I did the best I could to cobble together some sort of ‘mask’ that I was together on the outside but on the inside I was still that girl crying in the backseat of the car as my family drove away from my safe place.

I did a dangerous thing, I started to put my self-esteem in the care of others — men.

How I felt about myself was based on how men saw me, treated me, loved me, and then eventually left me.

My self-esteem plummeted from one failed relationship to another.

By the time I was 32, I had ‘wasted’ a good half of my adult life not knowing who I was and not feeling the power that you can feel when you believe in yourself. It seemed I needed to learn more life lessons than my sisters and brother who had moved more easily into this stage of their lives.

Things got so bad, my life kept me up at night! I could no longer sleep at night, I would drag myself to work, work in a daze, and then an exhausted mess head to bed for another sleepless night. I started to take sleeping tablets and things just got worse. This went on for years.

I was lucky, my day of reckoning came and I decided to do something about how bad things had become and found my way to a great bunch (by this stage I needed a whole team!) of healers.

Over time, they taught me to value and love myself, to take care of myself, not give everything away to others as I had always done, and keep something for myself. I learnt my boundaries and stuck to them.

And then I had an appointment with The Indian Guru. By this stage I was done, I was sick of talking about me, I had re-learnt to sleep (after having wiped out my sleep memory with sleeping tablets) and I felt I could deal with this on my own. One of the kind people who had helped me so much insisted I see the Guru and in one session of 1 hour my life truly changed.

The Guru read my mind and not once did I open my mouth, I cried, he talked and he promised when I walked out of the room I would be different. He moved more energy than a nuclear bomb.

I didn’t even make it to my car before a stream worse than someone afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome hurled from my mouth. For the first time, I can remember I was truly angry, I sat in my car and yelled, screamed, and swore. All of a sudden, I could ‘see’. Twenty years of angst was gone, those boyfriends appeared weak, frail, and unworthy, and in that moment I couldn’t understand why I had wanted to be with them.

But most importantly, I could see me. I could see that the kindness was more important than the size of my ankles, I could see that the empathy I had for others was far more important than the gap (or no gap) between my legs, I could see that the goodness outweighed any physical faults and my intelligence was alive and well. My mother after all was right!

I now know, after spending the past 7 years working with women as a life coach, what happened. I literally had an energy/cathartic/mindset shift. A sort of fast-forwarding of life lessons all at once that allowed me to start seeing myself in my environment, how I behaved and reacted. It was like being projected outside of my body and becoming an observer in a situation that previously I had no perspective on.

From that day forward I have never compared myself to others, I have never looked outwards for my self-esteem but allowed it to be nurtured from inside.


life lessons, carla coulson, italian joy, Italian Joy inside cover

The inside cover of Italian Joy and the life I found.


If you, too, have low self-esteem, you can start doing the following:

    1. Honour your word, do what you say, and treat your word towards yourself impeccably. Your words are as powerful as spells. Cast only good ones.
    2. See the good in yourself, keep a journal of all the great things you do, and recognise the positive.
    3. Live in creative energy not competitive. When you are creative, you believe that there is enough space for you and you don’t need to compare yourself to others. Instead, you can support and be supported.
    4. Do what brings you joy, let it be enough, and pay attention to what you like. Follow the feel good, it will show you a lot about yourself.
    5. Pay attention to the people around you. Make sure you have a group of friends that love and support you for being you.


I realized, once I had healed my low self-esteem, how much it had held me back, how it had stopped me from living the life that was waiting for me, and the difference when your true power flows into your bones and sticks.

I couldn’t hang around my old life for much longer and some of you already know the end to this story but eventually, I hopped on a plane to find a new life as a photographer in Italy as told in Italian Joy. On the other side of low self-esteem was the most brilliant life waiting for me.

So dear friends, if you are 16, 20, 30, or 60, the age isn’t important! It’s never too late to turn those life lessons into gold, if you too feel you haven’t yet met the real you or tapped into your true self, you can watch my free training HERE.

Remember: kindness is more important than the width of your ankles and your mother was probably right!

Love and kisses.



Want to discover your life lessons? If you want to know how you can live more wholeheartedly, reconnect to your joy, creativity, and purpose, download my free Reawakening your Lust for life PDF here.

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Shell Parsons
8 years ago

Brilliant post Carla. May I first start by saying that we had identical haircuts when we were little!!! I remember comparing myself to my super slim sister and best friend and even though I didn’t need to lose weight, I started dieting. But somewhere along the way, through the weight highs and lows, I learnt an important lesson. Although my body image mightn’t be great and I need to lose weight (for health and comfort), I have a great self image. I know that I am a loyal friend, a decent person who is worthy of the good things that life has to offer. When you said ‘Over time they taught me to value and love myself, to take care of myself, not give everything away to others as I had always done and keep something for myself. I learnt my boundaries and stuck to them’, this REALLY resonated. I am a giver but lately my tank is running low and I need to keep something for myself. This is something I really struggle with as I feel that if I’m not there for my friends and family that I am letting them down. But I can’t keep on giving all the time or I’ll have nothing left to give.x

8 years ago

Wow, I wish we could all have an hour with that Indian Guru! I’m with ya, I feel like I’m halfway there – I’m a great friend with great friends, zero drama in my life, in a loving relationship – but the weight issue is always there… I’m trying to think about it as a health rather than beauty issue, but I feel mostly good and it’s hard to imagine how much better I’d feel if I dropped the pounds.
Btw, I normally discount much of what I read on the Goop site, but this article deserves a re-read – the author has theories on auto-immune disease:

Nikki @ Styling You
8 years ago

Such a beautiful post Carla … and now you get to use those legs running around Paris to bring so much joy to your clients who get so much from spending an afternoon or day with you capturing memories!

8 years ago

Carla, thanks so much for this post – it made me a little teary as I can really relate to so much of what you have written. This is a topic about which I have been thinking an awful lot lately … I waste so much time feeling self-conscious and comparing myself to others. I keep thinking that I should really stop but it’s a habit that’s very hard to break given that it has been formed over so many years! Thank you for showing that it is possible to get through the other side and be truly happy within yourself. xox

Abe Khamis
Abe Khamis
8 years ago

It takes a lifetime to come to these realisations. My 16 year old self would have certainly benefited from your experience. Thank you Carla for your candid honesty and willingness to share yourself. Love, and lots of it!

Sande Chase ~ A Gift Wrapped Life

Hello Carla,
My friend since I was 7 is here taking care of me until my treatment starts today so I was telling her about my Paris trips and of course told her about the wonderful Carla. You have that ‘thing” girl that radiates positivity and joy, and that is what I told her, and how down-to-earth you are even with all your success. And how I just adored spending time with you and Vicki and Handsome Husband! You may look at those years as wasted but somehow they contributed to the joyful life you now lead and I know you know that now. You have such a wonderful, passionate, love-filled life and long life ahead of you Carla. I like how you share your experiences so others can relate or repair, the more we women share and relate, the stronger we will be collectively. Beautiful, heartfelt post Carla. A portrait by you in Paris is on my bucket list so when I get better……………we will have a few more laughs and I will have one fabulous portrait! Much love to you and Handsome Husband. xx

Melody A.
Melody A.
8 years ago

What a direct and heartfelt essay of your life that mirrors so many girls and women’s lives and how we give others too much control over our souls and hearts. I became a widow 17 months ago and my husband loved me since I was 17 and all the changes that occurred for both of us was just accepted as part of living. But now, this body image deal has made me pause, as men are looking at me and do I care, should I care what they think? This is most likely my own insecurity coming out as the life I thought I would be living is not the one I am going to live. So our image of ourselves not measuring up somehow can occur at any stage of life.

Melody A.
Melody A.
8 years ago
Reply to  Carla

thank you for such kind and true words and for helping me to remember. yes, I do miss him so much and he was such a wonderful husband!

Melissa Gaggiano
8 years ago

Yes, I am constantly comparing myself to everyone else. I make things, dolls and photos and then I think ‘what’s the point’. I’m stuck today.

Sharon Santoni
8 years ago

Dear Carla, what a generous post to write! Honesty like that takes a lot of courage, specially in our oh-so-perfect blog world!
I think that everybody compares themselves to others, for some it is a thing that happens now and again, for others it can last for years. What I know for sure is that all you have experienced has made you who you are today, and that each time we have met, it is your open, caring and non-judging character that comes shining through … and that those qualities are certainly part of your talent as a photographer: as your subjects sense your warmth and empathy and feel free to open up to your lens.
Hope we get a chance to catch up over a lunch this autumn, much love to you

Felicity Menadue
Felicity Menadue
8 years ago

Dearest Carla,
You are so special and beautiful! I love reading your heartfelt words and I relate to so much of it too.
Time spent with you is always quite magical and I feel blessed to have met you. You really make the world a better place.
With much love and a big hug,
Felicity xx

8 years ago

Great message and one that we need to share with our daughters/ granddaughters. Why is it that for many women self acceptance and love doesn’t happen (ever) or until much later in life?
I used to work in retail fashion – men exited the dressing room admiring themselves in the mirror; women mostly made comments about loosing weight, putting on the right undergarment for the outfit to make it look better, getting their hair restyled. It was telling and predictable.
Time to give ourselves a break and be our beautiful selves.

8 years ago

Oh – and by the way….. the haircut is the ‘Campbell Soup kids cut’. There was not a time that my sister and I looked cuter than when we had that haircut.

8 years ago

What an amazing journey. Thank you for being so candid and sharing your story. It is truly inspiring.

8 years ago

Great as usual! We all have personal struggles at a young age. For me it started with my sister being oh “so cute” and -thanks God- I learned very early my lesson about men as I felt in love in my 20’s with a crazy, self-centered, womanizer… This lesson told me to go away from what hurts me. The only problem was that it took me years before I was able to believe in love and men again but 4 years ago I found a real pearl. In fact we learn from life, from people but most of the time, we allow people (who have a bad self-esteem) to treat us like sh… The lesson is never let someone treat you like a dog! We really have to believe in ourselves.


The Vintage Contessa
8 years ago

NOW,who is the MUNRO in the family…………your MOM?
My step MOM is a MUNRO from PORTSMITH, England!!I just noticed her LARGE LEGS for the first time since I have been caring for her after heart surgery at 81!She is doing GREAT.But she too has large legs………..I thought to myself thats because she likes to walk about 3 miles a day!!!The way she has bounced back after this surgery is AMAZING……I had the same surgery 5 years ago and did not BOUNCE back like her!!I was 50.Enough about me…………
STUPID MEN………thats all I can say!IT TAKES A EUROPEAN or an ITALIAN in OUR case to NOTICE THE GOOD ONES!I am so SORRY you had those sleepiness nights…….I’m going through that NOW!For no reasons…….that I am aware of. It sure is aging ME.AS for self LOVE and ALL………….it’s a hard one to GET.Especially, when those MAGAZINES are showing the PERFECT BODIES………….thank GOD for ARI SETH and his AWAKENING of ADVANCED STYLE WOMEN and YOU SHOOTING The AMAZING ITALIANS in your last book who are NO SPRING CHICKENS!The WORLD is starting to take NOTICE.
Idea do a book on OLDER WOMEN…….PARISIANS and ITALIANS……….head shots, hands and LEGS!!!!!
BACI to ALL THREE of YOU…………that includes THE GATTO!
PS.I hear a woman and her SON are shooting with YOU because of ME in a round about way on the 8th I think…………….W O N D E R F U L.

8 years ago

Dearest Carla, Your courage in sharing what you experienced in your teens really touches my soul and resonates with me as well. Following our hearts and finding our true nature is indeed all part of the healing process and you have shown how to do it well. Namaste.

Kerry Melgaard
Kerry Melgaard
8 years ago

Dearest Carla,

What an inspirational post.

You are the most amazing person and I know that being with you in person is the most exhilarating experience.

Your beauty shines from within and you make people around you feel beautiful. That is a gift.

Some people go through life without “seeing the light”.

If you can make a difference in one persons life then you have succeeded.

You have made a difference to so many lives, least of all mine. I still have your handsigned books on my coffee table to see everyday.

Thank you for your friendship Carla.

Love Kerry xx

2 years ago

Beautiful beautiful thank you. I had similar experience but still a lot of work to do to get better.