"I knew that moving out at 15 was how movies ended badly. I wanted to move out and have it end up better," she told PEOPLE at the 2023 Project Angel Food's annual Angel Awards gala on Saturday
Jewel is reflecting on her difficult childhood and how it inspired her decades-long work in the mental health field.
Chatting to PEOPLE at Project Angel Food's annual Angel Awards gala on Saturday, the "Foolish Games" singer, 49, recalled how she was determined not to become a "statistic" after moving out of an "abusive house" at 15.
"I knew that happiness wasn't taught in my house and I knew that moving out at 15 was how movies ended badly. That doesn't normally work out for kids. You move out of an abusive house on your own at 15, that doesn't end well. And I didn't want to be a statistic. I wanted to move out and have it end up better," she told PEOPLE at the event, held at Project Angel Food's headquarters in Los Angeles.
Jewel said she had to learn "a new emotional language" as she navigated life alone as a teenager, and that ultimately inspired her work championing kids' mental and emotional wellbeing through her nonprofit, Inspiring Children Foundation, which she launched more than 20 years ago.
"Was happiness a learnable skill?" she continued, explaining her emotional intelligence developed surprisingly intuitively. "So I actually started developing behavioral tools for myself at 15 that ended up becoming a curriculum that I was able to create for the foundation and online and all these places."
"[The tools] ended up being validated by psychotherapists — it's bizarre," she continued. "But for some reason, I had an odd talent for behavioral tools and writing."
According to her foundation's website, the organization offers a "10-step program with over 40 tools and 100 activations" to help children nurture their physical, mental and emotional health.
Jewel is also co-founder of Innerworld, a virtual reality-based wellness center where people can use an anonymous avatar to access free mental health tools.
The "Who Will Save Your Soul" singer also touched on her successful music career, which has spanned 13 albums and brought her countless accolades including four Grammy Award nominations. Like many artists, she said she felt tremendous pressure to follow up her debut album.
"After my first album was so successful, I felt a lot of pressure to follow it up and I went, 'Wait a minute. I just won the lotto. I sold more albums than anybody had ever sold practically on a debut album,'" she recalled to PEOPLE. "And so if I saved my money, I actually had no pressure. I didn't have to. There was no 'have to' about anything."
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She said she made a choice to shrug off all the pressure and expectations and make music on her terms.
"I made a decision, I think really young — by 20, 21 — to just say, 'I get to do whatever I want, whenever I want, however I want. I'm never going to succumb to the pressure of...'" she explained. "And so whether people like musical genres I did or didn't do, it was me. It was just me wanting to do whatever I wanted to do."
She continues to embrace that same approach all these years later. "I still feel that way. I feel really lucky," she continued.
"He's not obsessed with it, so I don't know if that'll be his thing, but he sure has a natural gift," she told PEOPLE.
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