The group of girls came up to me -- I recognized them immediately as the pretty and popular ones. And then one split off and came forwards. She was smirking at me, trying to contain her laughter, while the others giggled behind her.
"Hey, Jesse -- Wanna go out with me?"
Nervously, I said, "Umm, sure?"
Then she could contain herself no longer. She blurted out, "OH MY GOD! HE BELIEVED ME!"
She turned to face the other girls, who had erupted into fits of laughter.
Then she turned back to me, grinning meanly.
"Do you honestly think there is any way I would go out with YOU?"
And then I felt the shame slide over me like icy water, stealing my exuberance, my vitality, my sense of worth and pride.
I wanted to disappear from the planet -- to drop into a hole in the ground and never come back.
This was what 6th, 7th, 8th, and some of 9th grade were like for me.
I was called out "to fight" by the popular kids almost every day, asked out as a joke, and ostracized for no other reason than because I showed it when people hurt me -- I couldn't hide my shame, and that made me a target.
The other kids could smell fear on me, and they took advantage of it whenever possible.
Why? Because although they were just as terrified as I was, they'd learned that it was safer to hide behind a "bully" mask and pro-actively strike others than it was to be peaceful and risk becoming targets themselves. They'd learned that they could direct focus away from themselves by bullying someone else and making THEM the center of attention. Perhaps more than anything, they'd learned that they could make themselves feel superior to others, if they could see on someone else's face that THEY believed it was true -- that they'd actually managed to convince someone that they were on a different "level" from everyone else. Just seeing that expression of shame on another person's face reinforced the mythology that their entire self-esteem depended on: The idea that some people"belonged", and other's didn't. That they were "somebody" in a world where some people were simply "nobodies". And the more people around them they could get to buy into this distorted worldview, the more persuasive it became for everyone, including those getting bullied.
In junior high and high school, this absurd way of seeing the world became ingrained in the culture, and it was so pervasive that resisting it seemed impossible. The social dynamics of this environment were something I didn't learn until years later -- and it wasn't until years after that that I learned how to navigate such social dynamics and work with people who bullied others as a way to prop themselves up. Fortunately, such attitudes became increasingly rare as grew older. Over time, as people around them matured, those who insisted on sticking to the bullying tactics found themselves as the ones being ostracized. Most of the reformed, and those who didn't found themselves unable to function in society. I recently learned that one of the chief bullies from my adolescence is actually now in prison. After dropping out of school, then spending years as a vagrant, he finally robbed a convenience store and was captured by the police.
That said, the idea that many of these people who seem like the kings and queens of the social scene in 8th grade might one day struggle to function as normal people in society seems hard to imagine when you're in the thick of it.
At the time the bullying was happening to me, it didn't help that I wasn't built like the other guys, physically or mentally. They were getting bigger bodies, and tough-guy attitudes, while I was still small, slight, and sensitive. While other guys were playing sports, I was drawing, holding philosophical conversations with adults, and even writing poetry. I was good at it. My imagination was my sanctuary, and I escaped there every day after school... Into books and artwork and fiction writing. By the time high school rolled around, I was still far from "popular", but I managed to find a few friends who "got" me, and even a few girls who didn't give a shit what some of the popular kids thought of me. They didn't care because they liked me for who I was.
Now I'm 37 years old, and I'm a successful manager at a software company. I have a family, and as a hobby I still write fiction -- I'm actually a published author. In addition, I've dabbled in filmmaking, and have written, directed, and produced 3 short films, all of which have won awards. On the side, I've even started coaching people who struggle with the kinds of shame and insecurity that I once experienced for so long.
Most importantly, I've learned that I MATTER, that I'm unconditionally worthy of love and belonging, and that I'm equal to everyone else on the planet. I don't need anyone else to affirm that for me, nor do I need to DO anything prove it. I know it in my heart, and I carry it with me where ever I go.
It is my power, my birthright, like a light I have inside -- one that shines only for me.
Believe it or not, you have the light, too. And it is always there, inside you, whether you see it or not.
Shame only conceals it temporarily. It cannot snuff it out. Turn inward and you'll find it -- give it all your attention, and turn away from any thoughts about what other people think of you.
They key is learning to recognize and turn away from any thought you have that there is something wrong with you. These thoughts are nonsense, they are meaningless optical illusions, like Escher drawings. The only difference is that these illusions are actually dangerous. They are illusions that can trap you. That doesn't make them TRUE though.
The TRUTH is that the whole idea that it is POSSIBLE for there to be something wrong with a human being is nonsensical. Everyone is whole and complete and perfect just as they are... And those who seem imperfect or flawed are actually only pained and confused, so have some sympathy for them. It will help you to create sympathy for yourself, even when you do things you later regret (which everyone does sometimes).
Lastly, always remember that as tough as things get, you CAN survive this, though it may be the toughest thing you've ever done...
This experience will make you stronger than you ever dared imagine.
By writing some words below, you are showing your support and letting everyone know they're not alone.