The slightly crisp air. The sight of school supplies lining the aisles of the pharmacy. The sound of the school bus. Autumn leaves. The loss of light at the day’s end. And my clients are suddenly sharing dreams about showing up at school without any clothes on or forgetting to study for the test.
Why would September bring anxiety? One reason is because it reminds us of school. And, sadly, for many people school was a place where their freedom, creativity, love of learning, and social exuberance were clamped down and, quite often, annihilated.
I often think about the one-room schoolhouse that my grandparents attended in upstate New York. Back in the 1920s, school was a luxury, a place where farm children could escape their chores, learn the essential skills that would help them elevate themselves and attend college, which would then secure a career away from the drudgery and physically-demanding work of farm life. (I find it interesting and ironic that there’s been a huge “back to the earth” movement in recent years. I wonder what my grandparents would say.) While still dependent on the luck of the draw regarding ones’ teacher, I imagine that, for the most part, school was an experience that kids looked forward to.
That’s not always the case these days. I, for one, loved school through sixth grade, but when I had to change schools in 7th grade I experienced anxiety and insomnia for the first time in my life. With the introduction of tests and grades, my genuine love of learning was replaced by the pressure to succeed. Being exposed to social hierarchy and cliques for the first time, which seemed largely based on being well-dressed, my social ease was replaced by the need to please. Where school had once been a place of joy and freedom, it now felt like a prison. September, once an exciting time when I looked forward to clean notebooks and freshly sharpened pencils, was now fraught with dread.
And my school experience was a walk in the park compared to what I hear from many of my clients. I’m always amazed and heartbroken by how many people who find their way to my work – struggling with relationship anxiety and self-doubt – suffered at the hands of bullies in their school-age years. If I had to give a rough estimate I would say that at least 75% of my clients and course members were bullied. Why would this be so? Bullies often target the sensitive, smart, introspective, and introverted kids, which describes my clients to a tee. Perhaps the bullies themselves were highly sensitive babies whose sensitivity was judged, shamed and trampled down so early in their life that they couldn’t tolerate the sensitivity in others. Whatever the cause, when you’ve been emotionally abused at the hands of your peers, it’s very difficult to trust your peers, of which your partner is one, later in life. When your heart has been shattered, it’s difficult to believe that it won’t shatter again.
Aside from school anxiety, September heralds the change of seasons, and the sensitives of the world are highly attuned to this sense of loss. Here in Colorado we taste the first intimations of autumn’s arrival in August. There’s a morning chill in the air before the day’s heat rises into the 90s. Some of the leaves respond to the shift in temperature and start to turn color. There’s an ending, a death, as the season of water and heat descends into colder and darker days. As the world turn inward, psyche follows suit.
The healing response, as always, is to turn toward the difficult feelings instead of pushing them away with judgement, shame, resistance or minimizing (“Silly self, why are you feeling sad when it’s still summer? Nobody else is sad. Get over it”). If grief arises, we breathe into the grief. If a bubble of emptiness hollows the chest, we breathe there as well. If memories of earlier transitions punctuate a moment of day or night, we make room for it and remind ourselves that loss triggers loss, transitions trigger transitions.
My clients often struggle with the idea that sensitivity is a gift. “Why can’t I just be normal?” they bemoan, hoping to be more like at least the external image of people around them who seem to accept life on life’s terms more easily. So I take every opportunity to point out the gift of sensitivity, one of which is that, when you’re highly attuned to the loss inherent to the shift in seasons, you’re also attuned to the potential for growth on the other side. With every death comes a rebirth, and this applies to loss on every level. The gift in this is that when you allow yourself to feel the losses fully, you also experience the joy and potential for new growth on the other side. Transitions shake up the terrain. Without these essential crossroads, life would remain stagnant. And when we dive fully into the fray of the transition, allowing ourselves to surrender to the feeling of being out of control, vulnerable, and groundless, allowing the tears to flow in response and transposing the experience into creative expression, we find ground in the underlying and overarching sense that it’s all okay.