It was a convenient excuse to have moved away from home, visiting only at times that never coincided with our reunions. I’d tell my classmates that it was inconvenient to travel that weekend and that I was disappointed that I couldn’t make it but I’d see them next time I was in town. That was all true but not the whole truth.
I didn’t admit this to myself for 20+ years, but I am still afraid of who I was (or wasn’t) in high school and that anxiety is something I can’t run away from no matter how far away I live from my hometown. I’ve discovered that avoidance is my coping mechanism when it’s hard for me to deal with something emotional. I choose to distract myself, preferably with something society deems “more important” like work or the kids or a minor emergency. The anxiety grows as I think of the judgment, comparison, and insecurities that would greet me at the high school reunion and it sends my negative reel out of control.
The anxiety didn’t start in high school, it probably started in kindergarten. I didn’t realize it then, but I was psychologically bullied by girls who I thought were my friends. One of the great things about growing up in a small town is that you grow up with all the same people - preschool through high school. But when you’re bullied, the terrible thing about growing up in a small town is that you grow up with the same people - preschool through high school.
In grade school, they made me feel like I was weird, they convinced me to do things but then would laugh at me for doing it, and they would be my best friends for months and then would exclude me all of a sudden. I believed that it was something I did or said that caused their actions towards me. I felt like I deserved it. One time in high school, one of the girls stole my boyfriend and flaunted it like it was a trophy while going out of her way to still be my friend. The most anxiety-inducing part was that no one seemed to notice that it was even happening! I was left to deal with my frienemies by myself.
All this subtle bullying was compounded by a culture in our town to conform and pretend everything was just fine. So I kept my emotions inside, I shrugged it off like no big deal, I pushed my hurt down and put on a happy face. I kept myself busy with “more important” things to avoid dealing with the issue–this was my survival tactic. And it worked! I survived, but it’s taken a toll on me.
Logically, I’ve forgiven my frienemies for how they treated me all those years ago. I rationalized that their behavior was probably driven by deep insecurities in themselves and that cutting me down was a way to make themselves feel better. My adult self has forgiven them after 20+ years of distance, perspective, and life experience. But my teenage self is still raw with emotion. She still carries that anxiety, that judgment, that fear. And I still carry her inside of me.
I’m realizing that much of my self-judgment, self-questioning, and second-guessing stems from the relationship I had with these girls. There’s a part of me that’s still afraid that others will tease me and ostracize me. These subconscious influences affect my decision making today in my personal and professional relationships. It’s a big deal for me to recognize that and now I’m ready to emotionally let go so I can move forward with confidence without this layer of anxiety tagging along.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough that I’ve forgiven them. It’s not enough because I haven’t forgiven myself for not standing up to my bullies as a child. I haven’t fully let go of that expectation to conform and pretend everything is fine. And most importantly, I haven’t fully embraced that lonely, awkward teenage girl navigating through ruthless high school culture. She still feels alone, weird, and lost. And that’s the root cause of where my anxiety lies.
As part of my process of truly letting go, I reflect back on what happened to me and I don’t regret it at all. Because of my experiences, it’s made me who I am today. I have a natural ability to connect with people - to make them feel seen, heard, and understood because that’s what I so desperately wanted in my childhood. I can now look back and see that my “weirdness” of being kind, forgiving, and open-hearted could have been seen as a weakness or a threat to my bullies, but I’m grateful that I never lost that part of myself because it continues to guide and support me deeply in my life.
I’m still scared that walking into a high school reunion will bring back all the fears and social anxiety that I felt back then. I am scared that I will be judged and compared to my peers because my accomplishments aren’t as prestigious and I’m scared that people will remember my awkward childhood mistakes that still make me cringe.
And maybe everyone has grown up and moved on. It really doesn’t matter because it isn’t about anyone else, it’s about me.
The internal work that I’ve done to recognize the root cause of my anxiety and avoidance issues is what I needed to take action on my next steps. I recognize now that I must embrace that scared, insecure teenage girl because what made me feel alone back then has helped me become the strong and confident person I am today. Embracing ALL of me starts to loosen the stories I tell myself, so I may heal myself for myself, allowing me to let go and flow more confidently in my life.
Letting go for me isn’t about trying to forget or push it away. Letting go for me means loosening the grip on the limited definition I created for myself many years ago. I’m ready to feel confident about all of me and I’m not willing to feel stuck in this part of my life anymore.
I’ll see you next year, Campolindo HS class of ‘98.