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.”
“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.