This Searing Pain Is An Overlooked Root Cause Of Anxiety

by | Mar 8, 2020 | Anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts, Parenthood transitions | 37 comments

8th grade me

I had a dream last week that broke my heart. I was in a large lecture hall looking for a place to sit before the class started. The students were already grouped together, and every time I sat down, I was rejected: someone moved away from me, another group wouldn’t make room for me, I squeezed in between two girls only to realize that they were making fun of me and mocking my clothes. It was your basic high school nightmare, and on some level it mirrored my actual experience in high school. I woke up weeping, allowing my heart to grieve a layer of pain that still lives in me about those years.

The pain of the school years etches deeply into the heart and soul. In psychology, we talk often about the pain that comes from parents’ deficiencies, and while this is an essential pain to name and grieve though, we tend to overlook or minimize the primary, searing pain that young people endure at the hands of peers. In those early years we look to peers to help form our identity and sense of self, and when we experience rejection, teasing, bullying, or we never found our place among them we form the belief, “I am unlikable. I am unwanted. I don’t fit in.” When you can’t find your seat, as my dream metaphorically expressed, the heart breaks.

We’re wired to belong; it’s intrinsically tied to our survival. Most of us spend the majority of those early years trying to fit in, which requires that we siphon off essential parts of who we are and is quite different from a true sense of belonging. Brené Brown distinguishes between fitting in and belonging:

“Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

She continues:

“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

Not a week passes in my work with clients where I don’t hear about the pain of those early years (most often middle and high school but there is certainly plenty of pain that occurs in elementary school). When I meet with a coaching client for an initial session and I ask about early pain, they might stop short when reflecting on parents but a waterfall of memory unfolds about peers: sitting alone at lunch, being picked last for group projects, being made fun of for a facial feature or an accent. My clients tend to minimize these types of stories by saying something like, “I was teased but I wasn’t bullied or anything.” There are stories of unimaginable emotional cruelty at the hands of girls and physical cruelty at the hands of boys (and often both). Sometimes these events occurred day after day, year after year, and other times they were more infrequent. Either way, they leave scars.

Let’s talk about these scars, for what we now understand about trauma is that it’s not so much the events themselves that lead to scars but the failure to process the painful events. When a child has a parent or teacher who intervenes and helps that child process the pain, the experience can move through and actually builds resilience. But when a parent knows about the bullying and doesn’t intervene, doesn’t protect, a secondary layer of trauma sets in. In a sense, this is more traumatic than the original wound because we need our parents to advocate for us, listen to us, and protect us, and a failure to do so sends the unbearable message, “I’m alone in the world. My needs and my pain don’t matter.” This, too, in a layer of pain that needs attention.

It’s no surprise that my high school dreams are arriving now, for our older son is exploring different high school options for next year and we often revisit our source of pain when our kids reach the age we were when the pain occurred. For example, if you endured an excruciating separation process in the early school years you might re-live that as your child enters school, or if your parents divorced when you were seven you might notice an increase of grief and loss when your child turns seven. This is where self-awareness is key so that we can claim our wounds as ours and not project them onto our children. At these critical junctures we can either overlay our own experience onto our kids or we can embrace the pain of the re-opened wound as an opportunity to heal a few more layers of this particular story. For me, my inner work is to meet my own pain and name it as mine so I don’t project it onto my son’s decision-making process.

The pain arrives in waves, as pain does, as if the sea is lapping against the shore of my soul. When the wave of old pain breaks, it feels like it’s going to break me. Too much, my child self says. Too big, my adolescent wails. But I access my inner loving parent, the one who knows that I can handle the pain and that it is, in fact, a great gift from the sea washing up to help me heal another spiral of this shell. I cry until the tears run dry or until I’m ready to move on. There’s a heaviness after allowing old pain to wash through, but eventually a lightness emerges, like the sky after a dark storm. And life continues, the ebb of the sea of psyche allowing me to live with presence.

I share this cycle of pain because I know how many of you struggle to know what it means to feel pain. I hear questions every day like, “What if I start crying and I never stop? What if it’s too big for me to handle? What’s the point of going back into the past and opening up these old wounds? How do I feel pain at all?” Learning to feel pain is a delicate process of great courage and discernment: courage to listen and feel for the micro-moments when old pain begins to lap on your shores, often quietly at first for it doesn’t know if you’re going to stop and listen, and often appearing through the convoluting and confusing pathways of anxiety and projections about a different topic entirely; and discernment to know when it’s time to sit at the seashore but ask the waves to recede, for there comes a moment when we revisit old pain when we know it’s enough. How to know? It’s a process of knowing yourself, which comes with practice and time.

My work hinges on two main tenets: The awareness that anxiety is a messenger, an arrow that is pointing to deeper pain or needs; and that in order to heal we must be willing to feel the pain that lives in our bodies (we can’t think or talk our way into healing). As you’re exploring possible root causes that underlie your anxiety, projections, and intrusive thoughts, remember to comb the annals of memory that lead back to school hallways, lunch rooms, and P.E. There, huddled in the underwater heart of your inner child or adolescent, you will find a treasure chest of pain that is awaiting your loving attention. Anxiety is the treasure map. When you listen closely and follow the cues, you’ll be guided to the X that marks the spot of your next layer of healing.

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37 Comments

  1. No words to tell how I am thankful for this ??

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  2. What a delightful picture Sheryl. So much life and spirit in that picture of you. My heart goes out to your 8th grade self xx

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    • Thank you! She gratefully receives the love ;).

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  3. First, you are as beautiful in eighth grade as you are today! Stunningly beautiful, actually!
    Second, thank you for speaking to this subject. I spent K-8 at the hands of a girl, who was “my friend” for three weeks and then would rally my other two friends together and ignore and torture me for a week. This cycle continued until high school were I finally broke away from that group. At 29 years old, when my dad passed she called to make a snide remark that he brought his illness upon himself. I never spoke to her again. Today, I work in an elementary school and it breaks my heart when I see the children go through this friend/enemy cycle, but it’s very hard to step out of it for some reason.
    Your son is very fortunate to have you by his side.

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    • Oh, goodness: the friend/enemy cycle is really the cycle of emotional abuse, and it can start quite early as you painfully experienced. It brings tears to my eyes as I think about it. While overt bullying receives more attention these days than ever before, the more subtle cycles of emotional abuse that you’re describing really haven’t made it to the mainstream consciousness yet. Hopefully that will change soon.

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  4. Oh yes. My experience, to a T. Not exactly bullied, but excluded and dismissed. So very painful. Especially for a sensitive / shy little girl, in the 1970s. The lump in the throat before school. Especially in gym classes, lunches, or group projects. Those wounds never heal.

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    • I think they can heal, but they take a very long time and require devoted attention. Sending love.

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  5. This is a deeply moving and essential lesson you’ve shared! Thank you! I see how devistating the pains of exclusion, cruelty, and rejection from peers are for many of my clients, and how deserving these wounds to the inner child are of tenderness. Your reminders to witness and foster our essential need to belong provide a helpful window into how to be our brightest, most liberated and creative self!

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    • Yes! Beautifully said. Thank you.

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  6. Seventh and eighth grade were hardest for me. My “ugly duckling” years. I outgrew them by becoming “cute” by ninth grade. The fact that my parents were very appearance-conscious didn’t help.The upshot is that I over-identified with my physical appearance, so I was OK on a “good hair day,” but it was a very conditional type of self-acceptance. And, not being a natural beauty, that little ugly duckling was always in fear of being found out! It’s taken a long time to make peace with that part of me. Thanks for sharing your experience, Sheryl.

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    • Thank you for sharing your experience as well, Ceci. x

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  7. Beautiful and important post. Thank you Sheryl. I had a lot of very early trauma from my dad, brothers, babysitter, and peers that I somehow looked different and “wasn’t ‘man enough’ even as early as age 4-5. I was the kid on the receiving end of so many negative messages and attention that I can still hear people laughing at me in my mind or my late dad calling me names or physically punishing me for no reason–other than the fact that I was the sensitive, peacemaker middle kid. So I’ve always carried those deeply held scars–that sense that I don’t fit in. Living with those lonely memories of many years is very hard, and, a part of me, on the inside, is that lost little boy from 45 years ago.

    Thank you again for this. Peace. Don

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    • Those are extremely painful experiences, Don. Keep meeting that young child with as much love as you can and eventually he will start to believe that he’s acceptable and lovable exactly as he is.

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      • Thanks Sheryl. Every day, I try to go back to that little kid, my inner child, who was put in situations early on that are almost indescribable and in a broken family where he was on his own and I talk to him. I tell him that he’s okay–that he’s safe. That he’s a good kid and person. That he doesn’t have to apologize for being kind and a peacemaker. That the bad stuff that happened to him wasn’t his fault. That there are good experiences down that road and really cool, beautiful people (including people like you) in that little kid’s future. I try to give that little kid the respect and safety he never had back in my childhood. And I find myself choosing to respond–and it is a choice–very differently to my experiences, no matter how hard or painful, than people like my dad did. I try to act with wise intentions and find equanimity even with challenging emotional legacies tucked behind my smile. Take care–and thank you again, Don

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  8. Thank you for this post. I had a lot of trauma around the age of 8-9, older sibling passing away in an accident, parents divorcing, moving and at the same time being bullied and tortured in my final elementary school year by my group of friends who I had had since kindergarten, all because of a new girl who arrived and didn’t like me, somehow influencing and my friends against me. I ended up having to leave the school, thankfully my Mum was there to see how bad it affected me, however at the new school I was also bullied by a group of girls who knew my former friends. Funnily I don’t have a lot of memory about this time, I think I’ve blocked it out. But I can see how you make the connection between this time and anxiety/panic. I’ve healed a lot through different methods but I feel that there is always that underlying feeling of not being good enough and fear of not really belonging. Your sharing and methods are a good reminder to be aware and be gentle with this old pain that still surfaces every now and then. Wishing everyone healing from this kind of pain a loving and enlightening journey back to your true essence.

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    • Thank you for sharing your story, Em. It’s so very painful, and sadly, quite common. Sending you much love and blessings as you continue along the healing journey back to your true essence ;). x

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  9. Thank you so much for this. I was bullied for my weight by my peers in school and also at home without any repercussions for either. Also, as an adult, I have had more men than I care to remember make negative comments about my weight and how I am unworthy of a relationship because of it. I now have body image issues and have problems loving myself because of the way I look. I blame my weight for being single. I don’t even have to shop in the Plus sized section of the store but I still feel like this. I don’t look at other people and judge them for this, but I judge myself for this.
    I’ve often thought that at 40 I should be over it and it makes me feel ashamed that I still feel this way. Thank you so much for making me feel like I’m not alone in still processing these things.

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    • Oh, Jennifer, you’re so far from alone. It can take a very, very long time to heal from these early sources of trauma and wounding. Sending you so much love.

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  10. What an incredibly beautiful and vulnerable sharing, Sheryl. It is resonating deeply among us as shown by the responses left before mine. We are not alone in our pain.

    I know I felt badly going to school as a child, but it took me a few minutes to remember why… oh, that’s right. The kids in 1st grade who decided together not to come to my birthday party, the girls in 5th who suddenly shunned me from our lunch group and spit in my milk when I wasn’t looking, and the strange feeling of not being able to connect with eighth grade girls at my new school in the middle of the year only to find out later that a couple girls had decided they didn’t like me, so no one else was allowed to like me either. No wonder I feel paranoid that people are nice on the surface but secretly don’t like me on the inside. And in the midst of this unhappiness, I’m certain I inflicted similar feelings of unwelcome on my younger sister who just wanted to belong as much as I did.

    Thank you, Sheryl. I think this insight has unlocked a door of healing to my past and potentially shed some light on some work of reconciliation with my sister in the present.

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    • What a beautiful, insightful, vulnerable share, Laura. Those incidences are SO painful, and yet the movement toward reconciliation with your sister is the stream of hope and healing that hopefully alchemizes the pain. I hope it goes well and brings healing for both of you.

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  11. Thank you so much Cheryl for this post. My son will be starting primary school this September, I noticed I felt numb when doing the application and have felt almost like I’m “feeding him to the wolves” so to speak. Reading your post has helped me to look a little deeper as my own pain from going to school . Thank you with all my heart x

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    • That’s the exact phrase that has been going through my head: “feeding him to the wolves” (we’ve homeschooled until this point). What I’ve seen is that when parents stay involved and are paying attention we can attend to any bullying that may arise and utilize it as a strengthening experience for our kids. The key is to stay awake!

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  12. Thank you so much for shining a light on this particular topic of trauma. For so long I didn’t understand why I seemed so “damaged” in particular areas of my life. When I first realized, through your work, how peer trauma can indeed lead to those issues, it normalized me and I was able to understand myself so much more, feel the pain, and grieve. I wish I had my parents or school administrators to help me, but no one came to my aid and I felt so alone. But twenty years ago (and beyond I am sure), people didn’t really understand the implications of bullying. I know now that should my future children ever go through something like I did (gosh I hope not!) I will be there wholeheartedly. I am still grieving from time to time, and I am ready to grieve again whenever my children pass through this phase of life.

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    • Beautifully expressed, Nina. Thank you. x

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  13. I hear you. Those scars etch deeply and is a common source of pain and trauma for so many people. Sending love. x

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    • Hi Sheryl,

      I was also teased and bullied growing up. I often feel insecure, unsafe, or unseen in my relationships now even when the situation does not warrant that response. Is there a blog post where you provide exercises for this Trauma release work?

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  14. Wow, I feel like I’ve been grappling with the issue of handing down unresolved trauma and how helpless I’ve felt that what’s done is done and I’ve made a mess. I process a lot with my kids though – I talk through a lot of school social discord and do what I can to be there all the time so you’ve just rescued me from my own self battery by saying “its not the trauma, but how we process it”. We are in an age of so much pressure to be an almost overly perfect parent….I sometimes resent the trauma talk and it puts so much on the parent – who also have a journey… it’s not as if someone who procreates is done evolving….. On another note, I had a wisdom of anxiety moment today…I had an aha that my parents, my camp counsellors, probably my teachers would say “you’re so slow” (leaving the house, the bunk, getting things in order) which made me feel something was very off with me when really I was just in my own world. However now I see that the midlife crisis “I’m behind” anxiety has some roots in that.. it was a great epiphany.

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    • “It’s not as if someone who procreates is done evolving” – YES! So much pressure on parents to do it perfectly. As I often say to new or impending parents who worry about passing down trauma, “If we were meant to be perfectly evolved when we had kids there would have been a different plan. This must be part of the plan.” And I LOVE your epiphany! That’s amazing.

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  15. Great post Sheryl, as usual! I’m wondering if you have any words for someone who was bullied, but could also be a bully to others? I find it difficult to think about the pain I was put through in school because I’m aware that I was, at times, cruel to others. So I suppose I feel that I’m *not allowed* to heal, but rather deserved the bullying that I got. Actually… Typing this out has helped me realise that perhaps that unresolved trauma is why I put myself through the last relationship I did because the basic story of it is ‘he yelled and threw things and called me names but I deserved it, because I was unkind first.’

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  16. I’m so happy you wrote this. I am 38 and think about the pain I endured in middle school often. The thing is, I am even embarrassed to discuss it with counselors and have neglected to my entire time in therapy. It’s much easier for me to discuss family issues. I am still so ashamed.

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    • I hope this post has given you some courage to discuss it in therapy. It’s so important that it receives attention.

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  17. Hi Sheryl, I can’t belive the synchronicity of your post, it really hit home! Last week I attended the funeral of my former middle and high school best friend’s father, who passed away quite young from a sudden cancer.
    We both are 36 years old now, married and with kids. I lost touch with her at 18, because I felt she was much ‘cooler’ than me and I didn’t fit in with her new set of friends, many of who were our school classmates, too. Our school only admitted girls, and it was very focused on externals, achievements and looks (exactly the opposite of the one I currently enrolled my 6 year old daughter who’s a HSP like me!).

    It’s not my intention to sound dramatic, but sitting there at the church bench, staring at this good man’s coffin, looking at her and her old high school crowd, I realized the humanness of it all, the frailty, and made a bow to try, most importantly, to forgive myself for thinking there was something wrong with me. That I wasn’t enough. Because I was, and I always will be, even if I have trouble believing it sometimes. We are ALL enough. As Rumi so beautifully said, ‘The crack is were the light enters you’. Sending love to all!

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    • That’s so beautiful, Catalina. Thank you so much for sharing. xoxoxo

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  18. I have a problem trying to find the “root” cause of my intrusive thoughts and anxiety, especially since it came out of nowhere. My biggest childhood trauma came from my mother, (still does) and I try to find the root by sinking down and sitting with myself and the thoughts and feelings about my husband and our marriage. Trying to fine the difference in intuition and fear. Some days it’s so clear then other days I can’t tell the difference, then that scares me because I just want to love my husband like I did before the thoughts and want to have that feeling of “I know this is right” before the thoughts. Are there ever times where there is a reason for this or is it just false feelings and thoughts trying to take over?

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  19. I am so thankful for this post. I woke up from a dream where my current colleagues rejected me in a very high school way. I wasn’t overtly rejected in high school but that’s because I morphed as needed to fit in or used every bit of strength to be proud of my differences. It wasn’t easy. I might have made it look so, and probably still do. I really appreciate your description of the child, teen, and accessing the parent. I will explore this. In my fear I forgot about the parent that can help me get through! Thank you so much.

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  20. Needed to find some comfort around this today. My childhood pain is very close most of the time, but especially when dating and in friendships. I seem to have to work really hard with people, to try to create a situation where they ask to spend time with me and want to talk to me. I’ve tried both fitting in (changing myself) and belonging (accepting myself) but neither works. Men treat me like I’m ugly, just like boys did from when I was 4. I’m very aware of how little value I have in the eyes of others, which feels impossible to overcome. I’ve felt the disrespect of being ugly all my life. The pain is ‘searing’, as you describe.

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