Group Therapy Thursday: Looking Back and Letting Go
Does it feel to you like we’re beginning this challenge with one of the hardest of topics? There’s a reason for this. No more ignoring the elephant in the room. Let’s get right to the heart of where our self-esteem took a big nose dive. Instead of working our way towards the inevitable, maybe we should get to the most difficult piece of the puzzle first. It may bring us more clarity as the month progresses. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and dig in. Are you?
Think back to a time or place in your life when you formed negative thoughts about yourself. Why do you think you are undeserving of praise?
When I was in therapy last year after my mother’s accident, I kept mentioning that I felt inadequate. I didn’t think I was capable of being strong enough to get through whatever lay ahead. ‘Why do you feel that way?’ the therapist would ask in her usual Dr. Frasier Crane I’m Listening tone. I sat there, not knowing what to say. I really didn’t know the answer. So, she wanted to go back. Way back.
Therapist: What kind of childhood did you have?
Me: Not a very good one.
Therapist: Why wasn’t it a good childhood for you?
Me: Because I was extremely bullied in school.
Therapist: How long did the bullying last?
Me: A few years while I was in grade school.
Therapist: Tell me about it….
…well, I didn’t want to tell her about it. I didn’t want to think about it. In fact, it took most of my adult life to completely ignore it. Wasn’t I seeing this woman so that I could feel better? Talking about these issues was just going to make me more upset. But she just sat there, waiting. And because I dislike uncomfortable silences almost as much as I dislike talking about my past, I took a deep breath, looked down at my wringing hands and started talking….
When adults were nearby, verbal bullying occurred. Hurtful, hateful words. ‘You’re so ugly. Everyone hates you. You’re stupid. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing your clothes. When the bell rings you won’t be able to run fast enough to get away.’ When adults weren’t nearby, physical bullying took place. Being pushed down a flight of stairs. Being spit on. Rocks thrown at me while walking home from school. To those who tormented me, I wasn’t human.
Because I was bullied by my classmates I had very little social skills. I was never invited to birthday parties. Never had sleepovers. I was so painfully shy I wanted to disappear, so I kept quiet, kept to myself, and prayed every day that I wouldn’t be noticed by anyone, and I never told anyone what was happening to me. Even though the bullying eventually stopped when my school closed, the seeds were planted and I entered middle school, high school and college carrying those less than feelings with me.
My therapist wrote a few things down in her notebook and then began pointing things out to me that deep down, I was already aware of: when you’re young and impressionable, it’s very easy to believe the things you’re told. If you don’t have anyone telling you good things about yourself then you just continue to accept those untruths as fact.
While I’ve always felt as though I’ve made peace with my past I’ve recently begun to realize that the years I was bullied has played a hand in creating the person I am today. All this time I’ve felt that the correct thing to do was to simply ‘forget’ about the past: Yes, it was unfortunate. It was sad. But I’m not a child anymore. I accept responsibility of my life and don’t label myself as a victim. But here is where it gets tricky. If I know these things to be true, then why is it still so hard to look at my reflection and say, I am beautiful. I am worthy of friends. I am intelligent.
During last year’s challenge when when I worked on the Positive Reinforcement Sheet, I would stare at myself in the mirror until my eyes welled up with tears. I knew what I wanted to say but when I’d open my mouth I couldn’t get any words to come out. I never really allowed myself to figure out why I couldn’t do it. Last year I chipped away at pieces of my adult past, but I never allowed myself to consider that I had to go back further than that. I think I ended up compromising by repeating words like, ‘my husband thinks I’m beautiful,’ and thought that was good enough. It wasn’t until I began this years challenge that I realized why I have such a hard time with that exercise. I thought I was trying to convince myself that I was worthy, beautiful and intelligent but the truth is, I attempt to confront and try to convince them – my tormentors. As a result, I’ve changed my words a bit. I’ve started looking into the mirror and saying, ‘I’m not ugly. People don’t hate me. I’m not stupid.’ I have to put to rest the idea that I am not those things before I can begin believing in the positive things that I am.
So, the hard question from this exercise was: How can I find a way to forgive those who have hurt me? Well, that is the million dollar question, isn’t it? I think part of the answer depends on what our individual stories are as well as what our definition of forgiveness is. Some of you have been hurt so badly, so deeply, that the act of forgiving seems like an impossible task. Since every story is different, shouldn’t there be different definitions of forgiveness as well? Some experts use the word ‘forgiveness’ in a literal sense: they suggest that you write or call the individual and tell him/her that you forgive the hurt they’ve caused you. Others use the term more loosely: Forgiveness is simply about no longer allowing other people to control you. I think that will be my definition of choice.
It’s wrong for me to assume that my past was just something that happened; that it doesn’t define who I am. When you hear phrases like, ‘I am who I am because of the experiences I’ve had in my life,’ well, I believe that’s true. Yes, I’m a bit of a loner. I would rather have one good friend than 10 gal-pals. I’m deeply compassionate. I fight for the underdog. But I’ve also spent much of my adult life fretting over people who don’t like me. I gained over 100 pounds and ate to numb uncomfortable feelings I thought I’d buried. I’ve sacrificed my own happiness in order to please those around me; and sometimes, people mistake my shyness as arrogance.
This is the first time I’ve ever written about this part of my childhood; the people who know I was bullied can be counted on one hand. Even my husband is only vaguely aware of what I experienced. My choice to write about it here was not just so I could work through my own issues, but also to share that sometimes, even when we think we’re done with the past, it may not be completely done with us. If I were truly free, I would feel it in every aspect of my life. And I don’t…..yet. But with perseverance and finally, with this sense of understanding and clarity I’ve recently discovered, that’s going to change. My past and I need to be done with each other, once and for all.
I’m looking forward to spending the day visiting your blogs and reading your own stories of strength. If you’re here for Group Therapy from another blog be sure to comment below with a link to your post so others can read and offer their support. Have a good session, everyone.