Last summer was my 20th High School reunion. Reunions are interesting in this social media day and age because in some ways we reunite anytime we log on to the internet. I suppose the reunion is game day for all the pre-gaming we do on our social media accounts. Regardless nothing beats seeing people face to face and I was genuinely excited to attend.
I reunited with girls that were my closest friends in high school and we swapped stories of awkwardness and silliness and sleepovers and crushes and delighted in the late bloomers that we all were. These women are beautiful, accomplished, smart, and delightful and we all found that life got so much better after we graduated.
After Mr. Wear-More-Makeup therapist, I wish I could tell you that I found my inner gangster and made the most out of life and all was miraculously better.
It was not.
High school was hands down the worst four years of my life.
(But wait, you said you reunited with friends, how could it be that bad?)
You know that scene in Mean Girls when awkward new student Cady eats lunch in the bathroom because she doesn’t have anyone to sit with?
Yeah, I know that scene too because I lived it.
I had people to sit with, but I was so uncomfortable in my own skin that often times I rejected others just to protect myself from being rejected first.
Acne (especially the kind I had: severe, cystic, all over my face, arms and back) is a particularly traumatizing condition because your body is a war with your soul. Before the acne came, I liked myself. Despite going to a brand-new school for only my 8thgrade year, I was a really outgoing and happy kid.
When your body rejects you, as mine did, it’s hard to like any part of yourself. No amount of makeup (or positive self-talk for that matter) can cover up what you stare at every morning.
The shame starts small and grows with every rejection or perceived rejection. Add actual mean girls to that and it’s personified a thousand times.
Lose the student government election? Probably because I’m ugly.
Have your crush choose someone else? Probably because I’m disgusting to look at.
Watch girls laugh and whisper? Probably because they are talking about you.
One day at lunch a particular bully came up to me while I was eating with my friends and grabbed my lunch away from me. No reason, just to provoke me. I chased after her and my lunch and a game of keep away ensued with me being the monkey in the middle. No one came to help me and at the end of the game I was made to look like the fool who couldn’t take a joke.
It was demoralizing.
There were some days that I would fake being sick just so I didn’t have to go to school.
Now I know some of you are thinking, what about your parents? Why didn’t they intervene? And they did. The best way they knew how. They were fighting some of their own battles and for the most part knew it would eventually get better and held out hope that it would for me too.
I do a lot of speaking to high school and college age students and a few years ago as I was speaking to a group of college women without even thinking I said, “I don’t know that I would be here today if social media existed when I was in high school.” I was taken aback at my own statement, but I believe it could be true.
Kids were brutal to my face, I can’t imagine if they could have done it behind a computer screen.
As a self-conscious emotion, shame informs us of an internal state of
Shame is a clear signal that our positive feelings have been hijacked. When you have little to no self-esteem, you find ways to survive that are constantly putting your body into fight or flight mode. My nervous system was on overdrive for all four years of high school. I wouldn’t come to know the effects of this until many many years later. Shame began to conquer my spirit in profound ways.
The shame grew like a wildfire in those high school years and the internal messaging was clear: Stay small, don’t have needs, don’t make them look at you and you will make it. Be successful, make friends with the teachers, find allies and get out. You will survive but you are under attack and you need to fight for your life.
And fight I did, for many many years. Alone, in and out of therapy, not really aware of how this shame would manifest as I became an adult. Trading my authenticity for safety. Safety First.
Brene Brown tells us that, “If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the
following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage,
blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.”
This became especially clear as I was swapping stories with those girlfriends at our reunion. As we lamented the pain of high school for all of us, I was shocked to realize that NONE of them knew how bad it was for me. Echoes of “I didn’t know that happened”, “She said what to you?” “Oh Tracy, why didn’t you tell anyone?” were confirmation that I lived in the warzone of my mind battling alone because I didn’t want to have needs. I felt as if I couldn’t.
But something magical happened when they responded with such compassion and kindness. I felt loved and valued and my high school heart was healing.
TWENTY years after graduation, wounds were being healed.
That’s the power of talking about our hurts.
That’s the power I feel when I lead clients there.
As I know I have been there myself.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”