Rewriting the narrative

I was eight years old when the bullying started.

A friend of mine told me at third grade recess one day that a classmate of ours was complaining to everyone about how “sensitive” I was and how I cried “all the time.”

I didn’t understand what that meant, other than apparently there was a problem with me and crying.

So I learned that feelings were bad and that I needed to avoid them at all costs – which did not go well.

I became prone to emotional outbursts, likely resulting from my strident attempts to push my feelings down and ignore them. I was a ticking time bomb, and at any point, without warning, just the right inconsequential event could set me off.

Which only caused my peers to continue calling me sensitive. And then a drama queen, irrational, immature, selfish, and out of control.

As I continued to grow up, the bullying intensified, along with my emotions (because, ya know, hormones) – particularly in high school, and particularly particularly when I was field commander of the marching band my senior year. Band moms berated me for forgetting to tell my assistant what our call time was one day. One ex told me via text that everyone in band hated me. A good friend confirmed (after we graduated) that there were days where I was indeed the most hated person in band.

When I started college, I thought my days of bullying were over.

And they were. Sort of.

The same messages that my peers had been saying out loud since the third grade were now playing on loop in my mind because all that bullying had stripped me of my self-confidence. Those bullies had convinced me that they knew me better than I knew myself, that who I was wasn’t good enough, and that they were always right.

In essence, I began bullying myself.

Thankfully, I found a few college friends that seemed to like me, and didn’t terrorize me for my emotions. Unfortunately, I still didn’t know how to appropriately handle said emotions, and I often felt guilty, embarrassed, and ashamed any time I broke down in front of them as I became both bully and target for myself. And as much as I loved my new friends, they could only watch as I played out the entire bullying cycle in my own mind, over, and over, and over again.

I finally figured out after college that all those years of bullying had triggered depression, and I started seeing a therapist. I thought I was finally on the upswing from bullying at that point, but it seemed like as soon as I started going to therapy, the in-person, real life bullying started again, too. I began to come across adults who said the same things to me that my high school bullies did: someone called me selfish and unfriended me on Facebook after mere days because we didn’t hit it off on a missions trip. A couple of grad school peers tried to write out a piece of my work from a collaborative show without consulting me, and then called me a coward for refusing to respond to a text. A person I had never met sent me a nasty email blaming me for the breakdown of their romantic relationship.

I started to believe that maybe this is just how life was – there would always be people out there who could make me feel small and put me in my ‘place.’ The best I could do would be to stay in therapy and keep processing those experiences, and hope that maybe one day, I might actually find the strength and confidence to not let bullying get to me anymore.

I keep waiting for that day to arrive.

… … …

So that section you just read is more or less my bullying story as I recall it today. I’ve gone through that story time and time again – it’s taken up hours upon hours of therapy time, it’s been the focus of multiple autobiographical performances, and it’s occupied far more real estate in my noggin than it really deserves – all in the name of ‘processing’.

And, if you’ve been reading my blog posts this year, you know that it comes up a decent amount in my writing, too.

Clearly I’ve done a lot of processing around my bullying, and as evidenced by some of my previous posts from the past year, I’m learning how to stand up for myself and keep moving forward. To most people, it would seem like it doesn’t affect me anymore.

Yet I continue to talk about my bullying. A lot. Not in big ways, like relaying the entire story, but in small ways, such as drawing connections to a random event to how a particular bully treated me, or mentioning that I was thinking about a particular situation and replaying what I would say to them if I saw them right now, or psychoanalyzing a minute piece of a situation that happened years ago and patting myself on the back for not being affected by my bullying anymore.

And every once in a while, when my mom hears me talking about something bullying-related, she asks me a question:

Why do you continue to bring it up?

She asks not with judgment, but with observation and curiosity – if I’m not affected by my bullying like I so proudly like to boast that I am, then why do I continue to talk about it so much? Why is every situation that makes me emotional somehow related to my bullying? At what point do I just let it go and simply let it be an experience of the past?

I think about her question often, but my excuse never changes – bullying traumatized me for eighteen years, and it’s going to take just as long, if not longer, to work through it. Which is a valid answer – healing is a process, and we can’t put pressure on it just because we think we should be over something.

But today I started thinking about that question with some more depth, and wondered if my excuse was truly just that – an excuse. What if there really is a way for me to truly let my bullying go…

If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve been too scared to even entertain the question of letting it go – my bullying is the way I’ve defined myself for so long. It’s the explanation I provide when I have a seemingly irrational emotional response to something. It’s the central experience of my childhood. It’s the reason I am who I am today. Letting go of that feels like letting go of a part of myself – if I’m not a bullied kid, then what am I?

But the more I explored that fear, the more I began to see that I’m not letting go of a part of myself – I’m actually taking back a part of myself that I’ve long since denied, and I’m redefining who I am underneath the bullying.

In order to take that part of myself back, though, I’m going to need to tell my bullying story one more time, but with a little bit of a different perspective.

… … ...

Aaaaaaaaand hold that thought for a second. ;)

I need to tell you about a book I read this past weekend – a fabulous book, a 10/10-would-recommend book – that my mom suggested to help me process some anger I was feeling about a recent situation. The book (called The Dance of Anger, by Harriet Lerner, PhD) is all about anger in women, including what culture has taught women about anger and how women can use their anger as information to learn about themselves and change relationship dynamics.

When I feel strongly enough to address a conflict with someone (which is not often), I typically attempt to communicate my feelings and what exactly the other person did or said that made me feel that way.

It doesn’t usually go well. I end up spiraling in my own feelings, getting tongue-tied, and feeling foolish and irrational, and ultimately I never end up feeling heard, understood, or validated the way I want.

As my mom and I have been observing and discussing my ineffectual conflict tactics, she recommended The Dance of Anger to help me manage my own anger (and other emotions, for that matter) in a new and different way, which would hopefully help me learn how to use that anger productively to generate a new outcome that would leave me feeling better.

I devoured this book in 48 hours.

It changed my life, in just one weekend.

It helped me process and clarify my feelings in the current conflict I was having and prepare to address the issue with that person; I distilled my feelings down to get to the core of the issue and then clarified what I wanted, rather than focusing on what they did to me. And then – this is arguably the most important part for me – I carefully found the language to communicate those feelings and wants in a non-blaming way.

… … …

Awesome, thanks for the book recommendation, Kate! But…why did you interrupt this post to tell us about it?

Because I’m sneaky, that’s why. ;)

Lol just kidding. Actually, it’s because that book was the catalyst for me thinking about this entire post.

Did you catch what I said in that last paragraph of the previous section?

The most important part of what I learned in dealing with my conflict in a new way was finding the language to communicate my feelings and wants in a non-blaming way.

Bullying at its core is a conflict, even if the bullied party doesn’t fight back. Now, I obviously cannot go back in time and address the conflicts anymore, but I can address and reframe my perspective on it.

Because here’s something permeating my entire bullying story that I bet you didn’t notice:

It’s a disempowering story.

It centers on what my bullies did to me – rather than myself, the choices I made and why I made them, and the grace I learned to give myself for doing the best I could.

By defining myself by my bullying, and my bullying by the things my bullies did and said to me, I therefore define myself by people, words, and actions that were not me. Even after my bullies ceased to exist physically in my life, the responsibility for my emotions, and the power to change my bullying, has always rested with them – I have put myself in a powerless position by continuing to define myself by what others did to me because I can’t change what they did to me.

That stops today.

I cease to rely on my bullies to define me anymore.

It’s not my bullying story; it’s just my story.

Now, let’s look at it one more time:

… … ...

I am a highly sensitive person, which is a fancy phrase for someone who has a personality trait that makes them more sensitive to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. In my case, I experience my emotions much more deeply than the average person, have a strong sense of empathy, and am prone to take on others’ emotions as my own, like a chameleon.

On the whole, I love being sensitive and emotional; my emotions provide me with a wealth of information about myself and about the world, and they help me to connect with others on a deeper level.

Of course, I say all of this now, but up until the age of eight, I had never even heard the term ‘sensitive’ before, much less knew I had an entire personality trait based on it.

Naturally, the term initially confused me because I had no idea what it meant. From what my little eight-year-old brain could surmise, it seemed to mean ‘crying too much.’

This confused me more – I had never considered crying to be something anyone could do too much or too little of. It was just something I did when I felt sad. And so I felt all the more confused – if crying was bad, was I still allowed to feel sad? Or was crying bad because it was bad to feel sad?

At the age of eight, I had neither the language nor the awareness to actually ask anybody these questions. Out of a desire to fit in, and a fear of losing my friends by being ‘too sensitive’, I made the choice to try to cry less, rather than address it and stand up for myself; in fact, it was never really a question for me at all, it’s just what I assumed was the right thing to do.

Of course, I still felt confused about the whole notion of me being ‘too sensitive’ and why my friends thought there was something wrong with that – that clarity didn’t come until over a decade later – but the relief and safety that came with fitting in socially was crystal clear, which only reinforced the choice I had made to prioritize friends over feelings.

What I did not realize (nor could I have realized, at age eight), that crying and expressing emotions were a way of giving me information about myself so I can learn to take care of myself and meet my own needs. They tell me when something is wrong, and offer me an outlet to express the weight of what it means to be human. Emotions are beautiful because they make up the unending spectrum of human experiences, and there is nothing inherently good or bad about them.

But I thought there was.

In my efforts to maintain the feelings of relief and safety that I felt in being a part of my friend group, I did my best to push down my emotions because I believed that any emotion other than happiness was bad. I disconnected myself from this powerful source of information in favor of friendship and approval – a choice that was both valid and understandable for an eight-year-old.

But as I grew older, the price I paid for that friendship and approval grew higher. I started to learn more about myself based on the feedback I was getting from the world. More labels joined the company of ‘sensitive’ – immature, selfish, irrational, drama queen – and I found ways to rationalize those words in order to relieve my own cognitive dissonance and make sense of the world. My emotions were becoming more intense as I grew into a teenager (because, ya know, hormones), the effort it took to ignore those intensified feelings increased. Oftentimes they reached a tipping point, and everything burst forth during the most seemingly inconsequential of moments; every time that happened, I felt ashamed and embarrassed, and I put even more pressure on myself to do better the next time. I didn’t want to let my friends down.

I didn’t want to let my friends down.

This notion was the catalyst for my discovery of another facet of emotional experience called empathy – another word I didn’t know at the time, but learned several years later.

While I continued to deny my own emotional expression, I could at least focus on connecting with others through their feelings. This helped me feel a small sense of self-worth because I could connect with others and offer my attention and kindness to them when they needed it.

But with this hyperfocus on empathy and hyperdenial of my own emotions, my sense of self slowly eroded: I lost touch with who I was. I had no awareness of what boundaries were, much less how to set and maintain them. I didn’t understand reciprocity and how to stand up for that in friendships. I didn’t know what healthy relationships (friendships, dating, or otherwise) were, and that I was allowed to have expectations of my friends and ask for things from them.

I didn’t know how to stand up for myself when some band moms crossed a line about my leadership.

I didn’t know how to ask for attention and command respect from my peers appropriately, without letting my emotions come out to play.

I didn’t know how to ask my college friends for the support I needed, or even verbalize that I needed more help than they could provide.

I had become a machine that existed to serve others – but was malfunctioning from the heat, oil, and water that my emotions threw into the gears. And the more it malfunctioned, the harder I tried to keep it running smoothly, and the more ashamed I felt.

Eventually, I did figure out – with the help of my mom and good friends – that the machine had malfunctioned to the point of actual mental illness.

The soup in my brain made up of confusion, lack of boundaries, shame, the belief that I had no value, guilt, low self-awareness, and the plethora of damaging labels I had stuck onto myself were the perfect recipe for Major Depressive Disorder (or MDD – although I always just call it depression).

The moment I heard my mom say I had depression was the moment I felt instant relief – a special kind of relief that I had never felt before. A relief that signaled the start of undoing the decade-plus damage I had done since that first day I chose to separate myself from my emotions.

With the help of two glorious therapists, a graduate school program in counseling psychology, and a wildly wonderful friend group, I began the process of dissecting that nasty mess of a soup that was sloshing around in my brain.

I began to heal, and I began to find myself again – my self-awareness, my self-confidence, my self-worth, and my self-love.

I began to redefine what ‘sensitivity’ was and what being highly sensitive meant to me.

I began to discover what boundaries were, and how I had been missing them for so long without even realizing it.

I made great strides – and continue to make great strides! However, I’ve still run into situations that test my rediscovered sense of self:

I attempted to resolve the situation with the individual from the missions trip who decided not to be friends with me, and learned that their decision was their responsibility, not mine.

I put a boundary in place by choosing to ignore a text message from my peers that made me feel small, offended, and hurt, rather than engaging with it.

I stood up for myself in response to an accusatory email that crossed a line and attempted to hold me responsible for the breakup of a relationship that was not mine.

I did all of these things imperfectly, but that’s not the point.

The point is that they were stepping stones on my way back to myself – a self that knows her boundaries and her expectations of others, what is her responsibility and what isn’t, and what rights she has to take up space in this world.

She is also wildly emotional and empathic, and she is committed, first and foremost, to never denying that part of herself again.

… … …

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