"You can't sit with us"
June 22, 2020 3:19 AM   Subscribe

Being bullied in middle- and high-school have really impacted on my self-esteem as an adult. In addition to therapy, which I am undergoing, does anyone have any advice, "hacks", resources etc to share with me?

It feels ridiculous, but I feel very impacted by crappy stuff that people said to me in middle school and high school. I was very 'different' (I looked different in many ways, I was a fat nerd who read 'weird' books i.e. science-fiction, my parents were divorced while nobody else's were, I'd been born in a different place so I had a weird accent etc etc), so I was bullied consistently for being fat, stupid, weird, ugly, pathetic etc for 10 years by the same group of 'cool kids'. People were just really, really mean to me in a way that it still pains me to remember. It's not that I didn't have happy times and good friends, but I was always haunted by feelings of being weird, too fat, too loud, not good enough.

I'm ashamed to say how much all of this has stuck with me into my 30s and held me back in many ways that are farrrr beyond the scope of this question. I had awful depression as a teenager and an eating disorder which lasted into my early 30s, which totally stemmed from that feeling of being rejected by my peers. In my 20s some of my childhood bullies reached out to me for forgiveness as part of 12-step programmes but even though I said I was over it, I haven't really forgiven them. TBH I feel like that those requests for forgiveness were more about them than about me.

Anyway there's a lot that I'm going through in therapy but I was wondering if other MeFites had experienced something similar and if so what helped you to recover - apart from therapy. E.g. any good books, articles, ways of thinking or just reflections/mentally reframing that helped you get to a better place.
posted by unicorn chaser to Health & Fitness (7 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I was bullied for being the weird kid in primary school - I had one year there and yeah it was bad.

I had a moment, years later, where I forgave them all. It sucked and was hard, but I felt it was something I needed to do to stop them living in my head. I didn’t reach out and let them know (it was years later and I had lost contact with them) but I needed to go through a forgiveness process. Basically I thought of them and thought: “Natasha, I forgive you. Damien, I forgive you.” Etc.

Now, forgiveness doesn’t mean “what you did was OK” or “I forget” or even “I no longer hold you responsible or guilty”. For me, forgiveness is a letting go, a way of ending the mental loops.

Ultimately, forgiveness is about your mental relationship to the other person and benefits you. The cliche is that unforgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to suffer, it might not be as explicit as that but it might be like a festering wound that needs to be cleaned out and healed.

I’m religious and there is a religious component to my process, but I strongly believe that anyone can benefit from forgiveness.
posted by freethefeet at 3:43 AM on June 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

There’s a new nonfiction book out by Judith Warner called And Then They Stopped Talking To Me: Making Sense of Middle School that may be helpful. It’s targeted towards adults and some of the reviewers mention that it helped them process their middle school experiences.
posted by bookmammal at 5:06 AM on June 22, 2020 [4 favorites]

Honestly, the thing that helped me most was time, and surrounding myself with close friends in the present who were actively welcoming and affirming. (And, in a couple cases, hearing third-hand that some of my former bullies had made total hash of their lives.)

I also was bullied in grade school and middle school, and I agree that that shit is insidious. One mindset that helped me a bit, on top of the therapy and the general passage of time, is to every so often interrupt thinking about the bullies by reminding myself that "and despite that, I still survived." It made me sort of re-frame my internal message, where instead of saying "I got bullied a lot and it is holding me back today", my mindset is now "they threw a lot of shit at me but I survived it and went on to live my life anyway." It started to change my thinking from being a victim of bullies to being a survivor of bullies - and survivors have resilience and strength, so that meant that I had resilience and strength. That helped. I had to keep reminding myself of that, but that helped.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:40 AM on June 22, 2020 [16 favorites]

This may sound a little too much like amateur psychobabble, but what it sounds like to me is that you have been judged by other people's subjective standards and been found lacking. I suggest measuring yourself by more objective standards, which will allow you to both see that you are doing some things well, and to view your progress as you do them even better. Basically, my suggestion is to focus on developing and/or increasing competence, in a couple of key areas:

-Cooking. I know you asked a question about this recently, but it's an easy place to start since you have to eat every day. Take some cooking classes, read a Harold McGee book, subscribe to Cooks Illustrated, watch Alton Brown, etc. As you get better, it really helps your confidence, and you can then start cooking for others. They'll tell you what a great cook you are, and you might actually start to believe them!

-Something creative. Photography is probably the lowest barrier to entry, because all you need is a camera and eventually some lighting. You can get to the point where you're a better photographer than 90% of your Facebook friends in a day or two, and unless you have friends who are professional photographers, you can be better than all of them in a few months. It's also supremely shareable, so, like cooking for others, other people will be able to see how good you are. Painting, singing, etc. are all good too, but with more barriers to entry or longer learning curves.

-Something athletic. Again, running is probably easiest, and it's common enough that other people will be able to recognize your achievements. Pretty much everyone knows what it means to run an x-minute mile, or a 5k in under x minutes, or to finish a half-marathon. Things like cycling and swimming are also rewarding, but the milestones aren't as well known. Running also has a lot of free beginner coaching available, things like Couch to 5k. The alternative would be something like CrossFit or Olympic weightlifting, which again has easily measurable milestones and would probably result in you feeling like kind of a badass is short order. Physical activity has also been shown to help with anxiety and depression, so that's a nice side benefit, although I don't think just joining a regular gym and running on a treadmill or lifting freeweights would give you the same sense of accomplishment.

-Gardening/house plants. The most objective standard of all: are they still alive? If so, you've succeeded.

Aside from running, none of these are particularly time-consuming, and they reinforce each other: you can take photos of the food you cook or of your plants, you can run to places to take photos, etc. And they offer additional benefits to your life beyond the obvious. The creativity you display while taking photos can be beneficial at work, for example, and that creates the opposite of a vicious cycle. You do some things better, that improves other things, the improvement in those other things allows you to do even more things better, and you're spiraling upward.

The basic idea is that you've gotten used to feeling like you're bad at things because some middle school assholes created a game specifically so that you would lose the game. The antidote is to start feeling like you're good at things instead. I've probably made it sound too easy here, but my point is that it's possible.

One other suggestion I'd make is to buy and read "The Inner Game of Tennis, which is only superficially about tennis. I recommend it constantly because it's about removing judgment from your self-talk. I think it's the single most important book I've ever read on the topic of making mistakes, and that's important, because you're going to make some mistakes. You'll mess up a meal, you'll go a few weeks without running or taking photos, one of your plants will die. You've been conditioned to think that it's because you're a bad cook, or a bad runner, or whatever, which is, you know, not true. Babe Ruth striking out and all that. "The Inner Game" teaches you how to view your mistakes without any sort of judgment so that you can get back up and keep going.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:04 AM on June 22, 2020 [9 favorites]

A few points:
  1. It's not ridiculous to process trauma as long as you need to, or if it is there are a lot of ridiculous people in the world.
  2. Speaking as someone who has been on both sides of the equation, you were not chosen for bullying for any of the reasons you've listed. You were chosen because you were most vulnerable and least likely to fight back. That's how bullies think, particularly at that age.
  3. My forgiveness for the bullies of my childhood has largely been the recognition that kids are mean little fucks and that they mostly grow out of it. I have no interest in interacting with the bullies because of the memories they bring up, but I'm sure they've moved on with their lives.
Speaking of memories a few months ago, at age 51, I decided it was time to deal with the painfully embarrassing incidents my mind likes to bring up at random moments. With the help of my therapist we teased out the fact that it's a two step process -- first the memory pops up, then I judge myself harshly for it. That leaves an opportunity. When the memory pops up, before I start doing my overzealous rush to judgement I interrupt by saying 'HE'S A WITCH! BURN HIM! BURN HIM! HE'S A WITCH!' This is a triple win as it a) derails the process, b) always brings a smile to my face, and c) places Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the central place it should play in everyone's lives.

In any case, dealing with the memories on the spot has given me a lot of relief. While they still need long term processing they're not disrupting my daily life like they used to.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:07 AM on June 22, 2020 [9 favorites]

I second EmpressC. Knowing that I have friends who accept me as I am has been invaluable. I was bullied a lot and it didn't stop in childhood. It kept going when I was a woman working with all men in forestry and then when I worked with all women in offices. I remind myself that they put others down because they feel bad about themselves. That's crucial to me: it's their problem and they are not going to make it mine. I fought back as an adult...with words...and that made a lot of difference to my self esteem. I empathize with you. Bullying causes trauma. It is no small thing. You survived it. Therapy should help but in tandem with other self-affirming things like keeping physically healthy, keeping in touch with friends, trying new activities and knowing that bullying can also make you a more empathetic person who is good at helping others.
posted by DixieBaby at 11:40 AM on June 22, 2020 [4 favorites]

I think the answers posted so far are right on.

Here is a bit about my experience and what really helped me make that leap out of the s**tpiles.

I was bullied a lot by my family (parents and large/aggressive brother). Some of it was outright, some of it was really psychologically f***ed up and cruel -- like, I-literally-cannot-imagine-how-someone-could-do-this-once,-much-less-consistently-over-18-years cruel. I mean, it is beyond my comprehension.

When I was in it, I DID have an inkling that the family was not "normal," but that didn't stop me from doing the usual adult-child thing of taking it all on and really internalizing what was wrong with me. Their voices WERE my thoughts, because that's how it is when you raise a kid. I also became, weirdly, very compassionate and sensitive toward them and all their bizarre abusive struggles -- they were hurt and not quite as aware of others as I was (lol, I was such a nice little kid!... bc this is a gross understatement), and this was why they hurt me. I remember understanding this from the time I was about 3 years old. And yeah, that was true; but it literally nearly killed me, not to mention screwed my self-esteem and set me up for a couple decades of mediocre-to-dangerously-abusive relationships. All of this stopped about five years ago when I finally went no-contact with them. We've talked some, like when someone has cancer or something, and they've trashed me a lot to our huge extended family for being so "selfish," but IDGAF, bless them, and going NC was an AMAZING DECISION.

It sounds like you don't have the same problem and need to physically go no-contact, but essentially you kind of do need to stop a certain kind of subtler contact, since those a**holes from before are still getting free rent in your head. It's helped me a lot to find out that brain development stages in earlier life just make a person much more susceptible to taking on those messages, because our critical thinking capabilities haven't kicked in yet. I think I used to blame myself at every level for everything, including being so vulnerable/dumb/whatever that I allowed all of that stuff to happen. But that's BS. I was a kid, just like you were. In a just world by our standards, we would have been cherished by our peers and by our protectors. We had a right to that.

On the anger and unresolved trauma stuff, btw: I've found in my life that this stuff will KEEP COMING UP in a million different forms every day ("why does this keep happening to me?!" -- like, it will seem truly random) until I deal head-on with whatever it is, and reprogram my thinking, which reprograms my feelings -- which all gives me new and different lenses of possibility though which I experience the world. Yes, talk back to those jerks in your head - I love the Monty Python suggestion! I mean, really, get in there and just have a nice row. Feel what it feels like to stand up to those brats now, as an adult.

Better yet, here is one of my favorite exercises, which I learned from John Bradshaw: You, as an adult, return to the scene of the crime and RESCUE "little you." "Big you" is powerful, kind, compassionate, and defends "little you", then you go home together and have a nice time. Waterworks, seriously. But effective!

So that's a little bit of the basic emotional boundary stuff I had to figure out. Reading about, and practicing with, boundaries and anger was really helpful to me. It wasn't until I learned the positive power of anger (not rage, not abuse, but anger) as an inner signal that things really took off for me, and the forgiveness could follow more honestly and fully. "Forgiveness" really means: "taking your power back," being so abundant and strong in your heart and your being that you can more than afford to extend this goodness toward any dips**ts who wrong you -- and really meaning it. I mean, just doing this will release SO much energy and free it up for good stuff in your life -- it has in mine, and I've seen and heard and read of it happening the same way so many times that it looks like that's just a law of life. Even just imagining what it might feel like to be strong enough to forgive someone has actually transformed me into that strong forgiving person. Usually the imagination is enough.

There is a beautiful story that illustrates the power in forgiveness, told in a talk by the spiritual teacher Ram Dass: Soldiers are laying waste to a countryside, taking everything over, and killing all of the monks who hadn't fled their monasteries. A great soldier comes upon a monastery and there is one monk standing in the middle of the grounds. "Don't you know who I am?" the soldier said. "I could cut you right in two with this sword and not blink an eye." And the monk replied: "Don't you know who I am? You could cut me right in two, and I would not blink an eye." And the solider bowed and left.

Even if the soldier was an a**hole and didn't recognize the power in front of him, it wouldn't have mattered. The monk was on a plane of truth that was beyond the physical body. And that is a powerful idea. Others can physically harm us, including mess up our brain's wiring, but really, we're untouchable -- IF we choose to be.

I am not religious, but I am spiritual. I am also a pretty scientifically-minded, evidence-based sort. But I honor the truth of my own intuitive heart. Here are some of the things I now understand and believe about my own life.

-Personal power is health. It is a natural balanced state. Being out of balance at times is also natural, and okay.

-I have real gratitude today for the radical abuse I experienced in the first 18 years (and then the next 15) of my life. I am stronger, happier, more resilient, self-reliant, independent, and self-trusting today because I have been through the fire and I KNOW how to take care of myself.

-Nobody is going to love me like I love me. Period. And I am one form in a whole huge mess of forms in the universe, totally unique and totally not special. My lifetime is just as valuable and suited for joy and flourishing as the life of any plant or animal or other being.

-I believe I was born into the family I got in order to work out some REALLY old stuff. And then I kept recreating the form of that stuff in the rest of my life, wondering what was keeping me in this miserable place. It was my THINKING (and feeling). Still working on this, always will, but it's much improved.

-Relatedly: One can be addicted to thinking/feeling cycles. Most of us are. Never underestimate the biochemical power of FAMILIARITY as a potential issue-causer.

-Feelings live in the body. You MUST do different things with your body to get a different mind (unless you're on your way to mastery).

-Visualization is huge. It's not enough to see, or even analyze and understand, what isn't working. My life only really changed when I was able to intuit and see (NOT go off the rails with ego/intellect/ambition) what it was that I really wanted to be. This is an ongoing process and very powerful. It's not enough to name the dark; you have to turn on a light, and live differently. I've found that the right thing is sometimes the scarier thing. But it's only scary to that surface insecurity stuff, and feels like the most peaceful thing deep down.

-Take care of yourself and, when you're ready, of others. Diet, exercise, houseplants, volunteering, learning, relaxing... you deserve all this stuff. Flood yourself with positivity, and then share it with others.
-Someone once told me that when I let my own light shine, it gave others permission to do the same. Seek out whatever it is that lets your light shine. Don't be ashamed of positivity or risk, or of making mistakes. Celebrate mistakes as signs you are free of perfectionism, which is the worst mistake of all.

-Finally... JUST DO IT. You are an intelligent person and there are likely things you want to do but feel you can't. JUST GO FOR IT, if it's something that seems fun or beneficial. Life is an experiment. You deserve way better than to live with those awful messages the rest of your life. You don't have to; you have the power!

Blessings and growth to you! <3
posted by Orlando_Vita at 12:44 PM on June 22, 2020 [14 favorites]

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