When I was in middle school social currency was all anyone had, and I didn’t have much. I was right on the edge of the “in” group, which meant sometimes I was tolerated and sometimes I was laughed at and cut out. As you might guess, the later happened more often than the former. I was constantly searching for the perfect combination of “in” (the cool kids let you sit with them at lunch and walk home with them after school) minus any real vulnerability (telling them who you liked or something you truly wanted opened you up to ridicule and the inevitable, “I’m going to tell everyone…”). I can still see those 13-year-old girls, huddling in a group to determine what level of social acceptance someone warranted that day. There were many times when my recipe came out wrong and I wasn’t invited to a party or included when everyone else went to a concert or got together during the weekend. There were also rare times when I was included in the group who made those fateful in or out decisions. I’m ashamed that my acute awareness of the impact of exclusion did not lead me to stick up for whoever was being targeted that day. I knew it was wrong, but all I felt was relief. Flimsy and fleeting, to be sure, but relief nonetheless. I took it, but I wish I had done better.
Today, I am a 52-year-old woman intensely aware of and deeply grateful for the blessings in my life. I don’t think they just happened – I doubt anyone would describe me as naturally lucky, but I am determined and resilient. Facing high school with the same group of “friends,” I found the courage to leave, move to a new school district and start over. After high school I went far away to college. Each of these decisions felt to me like a do-over. I wanted so much to just be myself but after spending my childhood trying to fit in, and be liked, I found I never really knew who that was. I had spent so much time and effort conforming to what I thought others wanted that I had almost no sense of self. This lesson hit me hard on Outward Bound, between my freshman and sophomore years of college. If you don’t know, Outward Bound offers experiential trips (mine was backpacking in the Colorado Rockies for two weeks) to connect with the outdoors and grow personally. At the end of the trip, the group of 12 18 and 19-year-olds offered positive and constructive feedback to each other. Until it came to me. Not one of the people with whom I’d spent two weeks hiking, cooking, climbing, building fires, putting up tents, handling rain, hunger, and exhaustion, could say something authentic about me. I was shocked and embarrassed to realize that my fear of exclusion had driven me to become a chameleon. I didn’t get eaten but I was also alone.
During my senior year of college my future husband and I connected and for once, I felt so good about my choice. We were married for 20 years, but ultimately divorced, and the transition proved to be the most difficult of my life. I was quickly transported back to the familiar and overwhelming sense of not being good enough. But in the struggle, I eventually heard that other voice, the softer one that I listened to when I got up and went to middle school, even when it would have been easier to stay home sick; the same one that whispered I was brave enough to start high school in a new place; the persistent voice that reminded me I’ve dealt with hard things all my life.
I’ve always known the experiences during middle school shaped me, but the last few years have also taught me to be incorporate what I’ve learned for the benefit of my clients. Ironically, the déjà vu I experienced during divorce (and yes, years of therapy) have helped me articulate the lessons from both periods. Here are the things I try to live every day and share with my clients:
We are all worthy of love, connection and belonging. Always. This is true regardless of who says it or does not say it.
My “flaws” are part of the unique composition that is me. I don’t have to hide or bury them anymore.
I wouldn’t wish my experiences on anyone, but they shaped me and made me stronger and more empathetic. Part of why I’m good at my work is because I understand so much about surviving difficult times.
Almost everyone is doing the best they can at that moment. We all have a back story that influences who we are; being empathetic and giving people the benefit of the doubt as often as possible creates a positive cycle of grace.
Forgiveness is for you, not the person you are forgiving. I forgave those middle school girls because they were also finding a way to survive, and I doubt they enjoyed that time much more than I did. Most importantly, they don’t know if I’m carrying around anger toward them, but I sure do, and I don’t want to.
Our best plans may be just that. And plans change.
Healing isn’t a line to cross and claim victory. Rather, it is an unpredictable journey that begins with self-love, and is fueled by grit and gratitude. Every day I find gratitude for a life my 13-year-old self would never have thought possible. I have adult children who are amazing human beings, friends and family that fill my heart, work that is meaningful and fulfilling, and a life partner that I’m convinced I manifested. Yes, that bullying shaped me, but I can finally say that I am proud of the person I’ve built.
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