How Middle School Years are Often a Root Cause of Anxiety

by | Jul 16, 2023 | Transitions - General | 56 comments

8th grade me

When I was eleven years old, I transitioned from the safe, inclusive, nurturing elementary school I had attended since I was four to a competitive, cliquey junior high and high school. This was a brutal transition for me, as it is for many young people, and, as a result of the groundlessness and anxiety, I experienced my first bout of insomnia and social anxiety.

The social anxiety actually started in 6th grade when I went to dance class with a group of girls who were very cliquey. They had known each other since early childhood and were part of a “dance team”. They were clearly popular girls and this was my first encounter with this type of girl.

One day one of these girls made fun of my leg warmers (I never knew anything about style and I guess you weren’t supposed to wear leg warmer stretched up to your knee but only scrunched down to your ankle – poor me!), and I could feel all the girls snickering about me behind my back. It was humiliating. Eventually I stopped going to that dance class.

But then the class roster came out the summer before 7th grade and, lo and behold, I saw all of their names on the list! My heart dropped. I lost my breath. Apart from the separation anxiety I struggled with during my early years, this may have been my first anxiety attack.

As it turned out, my anxiety wasn’t outlandish. The girls were every bit as cliquey as they were in that dance class, and, as a result, 7th and 8th grade were very hard years for me. I did find a wonderful group of friends in 8th grade, which eased the anxiety enormously, but I still struggled with the sense that I was inadequate. Those girls always seemed “better”: prettier, more physically mature, better dressed, cooler.

The Tween Years are Ripe for Anxiety

Since that time I’ve watched many people struggle during those years. Everything is turned upside-down and inside-out, and without the container of healthy rituals – of being sent on an initiatory journey into the forest or taken into the fold of elders – it’s a time when we’re more prone to reach for the false footholds of intrusive thoughts and unhealthy rituals/compulsions.

It’s also a time when our interests and passions become more clear, and if those aren’t honored they can also morph into anxiety.

We call these years the “tween” years – as in “in-between”. We know we’re in-between but we don’t have healthy ways to guide our young people through these years. And even if we know this as parents and we do our best to offer containment and healthy rituals, it’s not enough because a huge part of this time is finding your place of belonging in the group, in the tribe. The rituals need to be done with peers, but it doesn’t happen, so we end up stumbling through or watching our children stumble through as we helplessly watch from the wings and hope for the best.

The following are some key areas that I see arise during this long, painful portal of middle school. Victoria and I are planning on doing a Gathering Gold episode on The Middle School Years sometimes in the next couple of months. As such, we’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, and insights on this topic that arise as you’re reading through these areas.

The Birth of Shame

For many who find me through the portal of relationship anxiety, they trace their fear of enoughness and shame stories back to middle school. It’s not that we don’t develop stories in the earlier years – we very much do – but it’s 11-14 when these stories tend to shift into high gear and become calcified.

School also becomes harder academically, so it’s a ripe time to grow stories about intelligence. I know a lot of people in the highly sensitive population who struggled with math during this time, and math became the magnet onto which anxiety shards gravitated.

Groundlessness

In short, it’s a time when we feel like we’re falling apart. We’re always feeling that to some degree, but it becomes heightened during the middle school years when our hormones and bodies are quite literally falling apart.

It’s when we’re falling apart that we need extra, healthy supports. The support of family, yes, and also friends, teachers, mentors, community. If we don’t receive this, our groundlessness is heightened, which means we’re more likely to reach for our unhealthy strategies to manage the groundlessness.

Finding Your Center

At this onset to adolescence, we become aware of questions of identity. Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? But to clarify our purpose we have to shed what came before; that’s the essence of transitions – the shedding prepares the ground for the new birth.

What are we shedding? Early childhood. The first eleven years of our lives. Ideally we would be making a space, a vessel, inside of which this shedding could occur and we would be able to get in touch with our deepest sense of purpose and our gifts. But that’s not what usually happens.

Malidoma Some writes about the initiation rituals of his Dagara people in Africa in his book Of Water and the Spirit. Here he describes the initiation ritual for 13-year old boys, where they begin by sitting in a circle around a fire with elders in each of the four directions. Malidoma writes:

“What he said was this: The place where he was standing was the center. Each one of us possessed a center that he had grown away from after birth. To be born was to lose contact with our center, and to grow from childhood to adulthood was to walk away from it.

“The center is both within and without. It is everywhere. But we must realize it exists, find it, and be with it, for without the center we cannot tell who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.

“He explained that the purpose of the Baor was to find our center. This school specialized in repairing the wear and tear incurred in the course of thirteen rainy seasons of life.

“No one’s center is like someone else’s. Find your own center, not the center of your neighbor; not the center of your father or mother or family or ancestor but that center which is yours and you’re alone.”

How Things Could Be Different

Can you imagine if the middle school years had only one aim: to help young people find their center? Which essentially means finding their self-trust, their gifts, their purpose.

Can you imagine if we took a 3-year break from learning math and writing and history and instead focused 6th-8th grade on finding your center and repairing from the wear and tear of the first 11 years of life?

Instead, we’re thrust into the worst social situations, expected to learn subjects at a faster pace than we were used to, and asked to learn in a model that might not be a aligned with our learning style. We’re doing it all wrong. During a time when we’re at our most vulnerable and tender, we’re thrown to the wolves.

And then we wonder why we’re so anxious.

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56 Comments

  1. This entry resonates with me deeply. Middle school years are difficult. I recall the harassment and teasing started more in middle school and because my parent were not emotionally safe people for me I internalized the beliefs that there was something wrong with me.

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    • My exact same experience!

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    • Me too!

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    • Interestingly many of my nightmares are tween years related…this article helped me understand why

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    • Yes, it’s when parents aren’t available to process the pain that it becomes entrenched.

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  2. I definitely know my anxiety rose to new heights during these years. I was thrust from a local school and my friends, to a high school that required me to get a bus on my own, and then 2 separate trains! I had to do all of this and at the same time grapple with making new friends.

    I realised very early on during these years, that I wasn’t one of the cool kids. It didn’t matter what I did, or even if I was friends with one cool kid, among the group, I was still the loser, ripe for the picking.

    I remember on my travels home that I first began worrying about getting kidnapped or bashed. I was always afraid of cars slowing from behind me.

    My fear and anxiety ultimately led me to start acting up. I started drinking and smoking quite young, in order to fit in, and my grades at school dropped off. The pressure of the peer group, combined with the added pressure of learning things I didn’t care about was all too much at times.

    I can remember that this was around the time that I became body aware too. Comparing my body to others. Feeling shame for how I looked compared to other kids my age. I got picked on for the way I looked and in turn I would then pick on other “weaker” kids for how they looked. There was no safe space until I got home, but once I was home, I wasn’t able to talk about these things. My parents had split up many years before, and I lived with my dad and brother. My dad was never, and still isn’t, one to discuss feelings. He’s always been more of a “she’ll be right mate” kind of guy.

    As time went on and I reached closer to manhood, things settled down, but by then, I was on a trajectory that perhaps wouldn’t have been taken if my teen years had been better. I found my people, but I also lent into more alcohol and drugs, and I basically didn’t know who I was, or what I wanted for my life.

    It’s taken me MANY years to turn the ship around and find myself. There are still so many parts to heal, but I am now in a good place. A huge reason why, was finding the work of the magnificent Sheryl Paul (or SP’s as I like to call it haha).

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    • Thank you for sharing your story, Brent (and for your super sweet words at the end :)). As I commented above, I do think a great deal of the pain of those years could be processed if parents were safe and emotionally attuned. Left alone, we can only turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drugs/alcohol, anxiety, or another addiction.

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    • This resonates so much with me. I went from a very small primary school (UK) at 11 into a huge secondary school where I knew only 1 other person. I struggled so much to find my way, socially and academically. I never found a place where I fit in. I was always trying different hobbies, friends and got myself in some very silly situations to try and fit in.
      As my eldest child starts his schooling journey. All of those feelings come up again as I navigate the school gates with other parents!

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  3. I can totally relate ♥ sending our inner tweens a comforting hug! (It was at the age of 10 for me… I’m 30 now and I can still remember that being one of the worst years of my life)

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  4. Oh… And if you could please elaborate a little more on effort and ease. It would be amazing to read more about it, great topic!!!

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    • I also really loved that bit in the mail!!

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      • Thank you for the feedback. I’ll run it past Victoria as a possible Gathering Gold topic.

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  5. I’m wondering if anyone else finds this hard- I despise going back to my hometown to visit my parents. I love seeing my family but going to my childhood home and driving the familiar roads just brings back all of those horrible memories! My biggest wish from my heart is to raise my children right next door to my parents and have some much needed help but I told my parents I could just never move back there, it’s too much of a loaded painful place.

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    • So what the heck do we do? If parents can only provide so much loving support/healthy rituals—and if friends/community don’t, then what? Article is definitely speaking to me, but I also feel sad that mamas rituals will be of no support to my children as they are in middle school age.
      Also, adorable picture of you Sheryl:)) so cute!!

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      • I wouldn’t say that parental rituals will be of no support! In fact, as I commented above, having the support of parents during these years is often the key piece that prevents long-term anxiety from taking hold. Community support is ideal but mama’s love is GOLD. I probably could have said that more clearly in the post :).

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        • Thank you Sheryl. Well said regarding MAMA’S LOVE. Amen💞

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  6. So beautifully written and poignantly expressed! I agree 100% and resonate with everything described, illuminated, and proposed. Thank you for offering brave new ways to re-imagine how we work with one another during these pivotal years of life.

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  7. I wonder, could these years still have that profound an effect on anxiety if one never attended public school? Or maybe it makes sense that some of that could have felt delayed for me? Cause I remember the ages of 11 and 13 feeling pretty nice as compared to when I was an older teenager and starting to see increased anxiety. And on the other hand, I also had a severe ulcerative colitis flare when I was 12.

    I just wonder if the weight of the tween transition could still be the same if literal middle school wasn’t a part of it?

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    • Yes, I think there’s a lot happening psychologically and hormonally during these years that can affect young people even if they’re not in school.

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  8. I remember having feelings of shame and inadequacy all the way in first grade and it only magnified as a tween.

    Then starting to develop friendships and then crushes on boys, I was finally feeling like I had some worth and wasn’t unseen.

    This lasted until I was 14 until the boy I was very close with, (who we also never spoke of our bond), came back from summer break and refused to talk to me. I had no idea why or an explanation and was just abandoned- discarded.

    I had to pretend I didn’t care (since we never made anything official, why would it matter that I cared?), and instead absorbed the feeling of continued inadequacy. Something clearly must have been wrong with me.

    This caused the awkward period of the tweens/teens to last through my early 20’s until at 23, someone took me under their wing to guide me, my style, that my voice was okay and it was meant to be heard.

    Five years later, at 28, the boy who I was so close with, announced that he was transitioning and identifies as a woman now. The pain and failure I felt as a girl still cut deep but at least there was a name to why I was abandoned. It was good to finally know that I wasn’t defective or repulsive. But that she (he) was on a different journey that was also difficult.

    I wish we all had more support or someone to confide in during these years.

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    • Thank you for sharing this, Ali. It’s very painful, but also what a gift that you were able to receive an answer to the initial abandonment. I hope young you can take in that it was never about you.

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  9. I personally resonate with this. I also noticed that many preteens have absorbed much of what is deemed “valuable” by socially through media by this point (even earlier now). Many tv shows aimed at late elementary, preteens, and teenagers capitalize on storylines centered around gossip, romance, peer disputes, and money. I know I internalized those messages along with my peers. It breeds feelings of unworthiness and resentment from a young age.

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    • “Valuable” by society through media*

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  10. I can still feel the dread, the disorientation and the ‘not enough-ness’ of that time. I remember thinking so clearly when I was in it: I felt (mostly) so confident when I was in primary school, why am I now finding being 11-14 so hard, when the movies make it look so glamorous and fun? It was very confusing. I just felt like I was failing at being a teenager in some way and that’s when intrusive thoughts began to creep in and some of my compulsive behaviours. There’s a really great film called ‘Eighth Grade’ that was written and directed by Bo Burnham that comes to mind; it perfectly captures the toe-curling awkwardness and difficulties of the ‘tween’ age. Not an easy watch at times but it’s a great reflection on all of this.

    I am really loving the focus you are bringing to this topic; I journaled and really took time to reflect after the last episode of Gathering Gold and found it very nourishing and healing. A few of my strongest themes and hooks stem from this period of time in my life and, whilst I have done some work on it in therapy, I feel brave enough to tend to another layer of it now. Thank you, as ever, for guiding me x

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    • Thank you for your beautiful reflections, Elizabeth, and I will check out that film. I may have watched it years ago but it will land in a new place as our younger son just finished 8th grade :).

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  11. The years of 11-14 were really difficult for me. Where I live in the UK we have an exam that you do to decide whether you will go to a grammar or comprehensive school. It’s based on academic performance and basically sets you up for life. I find it barbaric that we separate children at such a young age into these categories which really define whether you ‘succeed’ or not.

    I failed the test but was borderline and my parents appealed to no avail. This was the first time I truly remember feeling not good enough and lead to me rebelling, playing truant and starting to smoke and try alcohol, weed etc in these formative years.

    I was horrendously bullied between the ages of 12-14 and would wake up every morning feeling nauseas and sometimes being sick. I also turned to food to control my feelings first through binge eating and then through limiting my food intake. Years later I realised through study that this was an effort to control what was happening internally.
    This was one of the loneliest and humiliating times of my life. I remember really feeling ashamed and this feeling has stayed throughout my life.

    I thought I’d found solace through an older boyfriend when I was 15 but this was riddled with abuse. Eventually I left my hometown (escaped) at 19 and began to define life on my own terms but those wounds are still present even at 43. I have no doubt that the core beliefs of being not enough, something being really wrong with me have fuelled my intrusive thoughts. It was in my early 20s that I began to have OCD symptoms. I wonder just how different life would have been if I had been guided and supported in those years differently. No one had the language back then. I’m training to be a counsellor now as despite the pain I hope that I can use my experiences to help others. Finding meaning in these experiences has been a huge step to healing for me.

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    • I have no doubt that you’ll be able to draw on these painful experiences and all of the wonderful healing you’ve done to help others, Sara. You’ll be a true gift to the field.

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  12. “And even if we know this as parents and we do our best to offer containment and healthy rituals, it’s not enough because a huge part of this time is finding your place of belonging in the group, in the tribe.”
    This made me realise just how freaking hard tween years were for me: I didn’t even have this kind of support from my family. Both of my parents were struggling with mental health issues. We also moved, which was immensely disruptive for me. Trying to fit in in a new school in a new city at 13 sucks…

    What really helped me through these years was everything around Harry Potter. Books, the movies, collaging photos from magazines, learning English to be able to read the original books, making up stories in my head about being a character in Harry Potter… and the online community I had found of like-minded people. Back then we would find each other via blogs. I had a Harry Potter fan blog and I fondly remember spending a lot of time on the family computer making GIFs or using tricks in my (illegally downloaded…) Photoshop to get beautiful results. My blog did end up pirated and it was an extremely sad day for me, but I wonder if tweens nowadays manage to find these safe spaces online – and at the time they were not as addictive as today… – like I did.

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    • Yes, I do think that one of the upsides of the internet is the possibility of teens finding safe spaces online where they can find and connect with other like-minded teens.

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  13. What a timing. I just read a post that said ocd is pretty much always caused by childhood trauma. There was a lot of talk about faulty parenting and attachment styles etc, but finally it was concluded that trauma can be anything that exceeds a child’s ability to cope. And for me, most of those situations I remember have nothing to do with home environment, but school – even preschool. And like with sooo many other people struggling with anxiety, when I was around 11, it kicked into full gear.

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    • Yes, it all makes sense. And for an highly sensitive child, just being in the world can be too much at times and can cause a rupture.

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  14. Just like everyone else, this resonates so so deeply for me. And it is comforting to know it is not only me. Looking back I would never have thought I was anxious in those years but this post made me realize I definitely was. The social anxiety specifically. Not feeling like I fit in, was pretty or skinny enough, was ‘cool’ enough etc. I remember standing on the outskirts of large groups of girls wishing desperately to fit in and some were the ones that would bully me. I now see this core false belief of ‘not being enough’ as the underlying cause of my relationship anxiety. And I think those middle school years are when that belief was really created and cemented within me. It’s really painful to reminisce on but thanks to you, Sheryl, I now allow myself to see and feel my pain and grieve my past and false beliefs about myself so I can open up to the joy and goodness of life. That is so present in my life. Yet it’s so easy for this shame to keep me contracted and in a constant fear state.

    I have been following your blog and podcast for the last few months and you, your work, and your book have hands down been the most life changing thing for me. I have felt better than I have in years thanks to the work you have inspired me to do. This does not mean I don’t have bad or hard days. I am now able to see them in a different light. So again, thank you and I look forward to signing up for some of your courses in the future 🙂

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    • Thank you, MMS. I’m so glad you found your way here and the shame is softening as you learn to open to the joy and goodness in life. Music to my soul ❤️.

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  15. I agree, and I have helped build middle schools that are thoughtful and deliberate in growing young humans with purpose at the center of learning. One example, https://www.millenniumschool.org/

    Parents, there are some schools and teachers that really care and can help you! Just search for project-based learning, Montessori or Waldorf methods of teaching, or even an after school program that focuses on those methodology, so your kiddo will have a safe haven somewhere in a social setting.

    I was ruthlessly ridiculed for being overweight, and found a sense of belonging in theater and art classes after school.

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  16. That would be an interesting podcast episode, maybe with the add-on of possibly talking about homeschooling as well. I had a horrible time in high school, it felt like a prison. Eventually, I developed my first depression there the year before going to university. I was bullied for many years as well. For these reasons, I am considering home-schooling my kids, even though it is not “legal” in Spain.

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    • I’m so sorry you were bullied. It’s all-too common, and is one reason why we homeschooled our kids for so long.

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  17. Thank you Sheryl! This is so spot on as my daughter is 11 and she’s going through a lot of the anxiety you mentioned. I’ve been helping her actively by listening to her, creating a safe space, helping her search for the answers inside her, and cuddling a lot! Rest assured that your post has added a lot of insights to our experience – my daughter as the experiencer of her feelings and me as her mum. Much love from Barcelona.

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  18. Loved this post, Sheryl, and I’m sorry you dealt with those mean girls. Your words were very relatable. I was so awkward in middle school but also boy crazy. I would get crushes and those same boys would ask me to help ask out another girl..it was gut wrenching. I felt completely inadequate and unwanted in that setting. While I only dealt with cliquey girls a bit, I do know that awareness of realizing I wasn’t in the “popular” group. Those “other girls” seemed to have it all together. When my clothes didn’t fit and I had frizzy hair, they seemed perfect. I thought getting a perm would help but then a boy at school called me a poodle. I couldn’t win! I still deal with a lot of comparison — thinking others seem happier, their lives seem easier, they have the perfect marriage, house, etc. but the comparison definitely started in middle school. I also know that the stories I tell myself about others aren’t true, but my mind loves to compare! I really look forward to the episode.

    Another episode or blog post I was thinking about was around raising boys. My boys are just 4 and 7 but I’m already seeing such a push to play organized sports – and be obsessed with sports! My kids like to be active, like sports and games but they also like a lot other activities too. I’m somehow feeling some weird cultural pressure for them to fit the mold, maybe because I know it will be “easier” if they do. I feel like I’m in my head, when I really just want to support them and love them in being themselves and loving whatever they enjoy doing. They are exploring now and their interests change often so it’s hard for me to see families doing traveling soccer for their 2nd grader and thinking they have it figured out. Just thought you’d have some good insight here around cultural expectations for boys and how highly sensitive moms should proceed 🙂

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    • Thank you for these reflections, Nicole, and yes I do have a lot to share about raising boys, including the pressure to do sports!

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  19. This post speaks so eloquently to everything that feels so deeply real and relevant to me right now! As my own son struggles his way through this challenging liminal space called middle school, I too feel my old wounds of groundlessness and desires to belong surface. And as always seems to be the case for us therapists, several of my clients are confronting the pain that took root in their own middle school traumas. Thank you for exploring this most precious and delicate time of transition with such curiosity and care! You are right on with this intention to discover rituals and initiations to aid our inner children and real-life children through such a trying passage!

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    • Thank you, Crystal! Yes, it’s extraordinary how the same themes can show up in our personal lives and work lives, showing up that we’re all tapped into the same archetypal realm.

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  20. Thanks for this. I can really relate. The transition from primary school to secondary school (UK terminology) was strange and, looking back, very sad. I went from being at a tiny school with loads of friends, to being at a very large school with no friends and no real clue how to make them. To this day, all my friends are either from primary school, or friends of my wife. I’ve no idea how to make ‘new’ friends!

    I don’t think I viewed the aforementioned transition as being traumatic at the time – I just sort of got on with it – but looking back I think it was. It was a confusing and bewildering time, and I’m glad I was not alone in thinking this.

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    • The friendship piece is very interesting and common, Joshua: how hard it can be to make new friends as an adult. And I think this is especially true for men.

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  21. Thanks for this post, Sheryl. I often feel shame for not having “gotten over” the trauma from my middle school years. From 4th grade to 6th grade, my “best friend” was a very emotionally abusive girl. She was probably the first person in my life who called me “too sensitive” and “babyish” regularly because her manipulation tactics and mind games made me cry at school on a daily basis. It was hell. One of the greatest achievements of my life was finally being able to walk away from that “friendship.” That being said, I still often reflect on how defining those years were for me. Thank you again for all that you do. xox

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    • What a painful experience, Desi, and it makes sense that you’re still processing it. Good for you for walking away from that abusive friendship! Such strength you showed at a very young age.

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  22. I am so grateful God put your work in my path! I feel so seen and loved through the words you write on the pages of your book. Having dealt with anxiety for my entire life, this approach is something I just NEED. Thank you! You speak to parts of my soul I haven’t ever accessed. And you remind me so much of my mother (such a compliment !!!!!) thank you again, Sheryl. God bless you!

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  23. I am going through these years now and it is sometimes hard. I don’t know what to do. If anyone can please help me haha

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