I was bullied in middle school. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. My mother told me to turn the other cheek. I did my best to ignore the bullying, but I still hurt. I remember a friend coming home with me from school on the bus. She was shocked at the taunting and name calling thrown at me. I felt I should do something. I felt I was weak. I felt something was wrong with me for not standing up for myself. That is partly why writing feels so good. I am no longer hiding. I am speaking up.
I remember sitting on the bus feeling like a coward, feeling not good enough, feeling unworthy. I would sit in the hot lava of my shame day in and day out. Then we moved. We moved clear across Canada to the West Coast. I didn’t ever have to go through that kind of experience again. However, even though the experience ended, the bullying didn’t.
Instead of enduring the name calling in the morning and afternoon on the school bus, I now had an inner bully in the form of the thoughts I would focus on. There were no time restrictions on me focusing on those thoughts. I could focus on them day or night. As a result, I continued to experience myself as weak, unworthy, not good enough and a coward. I believed the self-critical thoughts when I had them so I continued to live with the feeling of shame.
I believed the negative thoughts about myself for so many years they became a habitual pattern of thinking. They were so normal I didn’t realize I was believing them. I didn’t see they were distorting my perception of myself. I believed it was my natural state to feel unworthy and insecure. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that my feelings changed, and sometimes I would feel just fine when I wasn’t focusing on those thoughts. I didn’t notice there were times when I would forget to think I was unworthy.
Now I see I was not weak or a coward because I didn’t fight back or try to stand up for myself. I recognize I was doing the best I could. There was nothing wrong with me because I felt scared to speak up. How I navigated that situation didn’t mean anything about my worth. I made all of those ideas up and placed those judgments on myself.
I had the misunderstanding that my emotional experience was coming from outside of me. I felt the bullies were responsible for my distress. I could not see my pain was coming from everything I was telling myself about what the experience meant about me.
I use an analogy to help clients who are struggling with taking other people’s anger and low mood behavior personally. I ask them if someone came up to them and angrily yelled, “You are purple! You are purple! You are purple!” would they take it personally? They usually say no, and are easily able to see that the person yelling at them may not be okay. They recognize what the person is yelling has nothing to do with them. As a result, they don’t feel upset or hurt when considering this scenario. They may even feel compassion.
Then I ask, “What is different when an angry person in your life yells at you or is unkind?” This helps them to see, when it comes to the person they are struggling with, they are believing what the person is saying is about them. They are not recognizing that the person who is angry, and acting out, is in pain and suffering. They are not seeing the unkind behavior as a reflection of that person’s state of mind. They are taking the other person’s behavior and words personally. They think they mean something about them. They have untrue thoughts such as: I am not loveable, I am not good enough, I am bad, and believe them. They feel the pain of believing these false statements, but mistakenly think the other person is the source of their suffering.
It is never the outside circumstance that creates our feelings of upset. It is always the distorted thinking, we innocently believe, that causes us pain. Being called a “Paki” did not hurt me. It was what I made up, and believed, it meant about me, when I didn’t know how to stop the name calling that caused my suffering.
If I could have seen the source of my pain was my self-generated, irrational thoughts, I would have not believed them, and not given them any attention. I would have recognized that I was fundamentally okay. I didn’t have the problem. The kids who were calling me names had the problem. I might have wondered why the boys found it so entertaining to be mean to me. I may have been curious about their suffering. As the Buddha said, “If you truly love yourself, you could never hurt another.”
The main lesson for me to remember is, I am not my thinking. Any feelings of disturbance I have are temporary experiences that reflect the thoughts I believe in that moment. The emotions and the physiological responses that accompany the emotions are real, but they do not mean the thoughts are true.
In fact, if I am feeling upset, I know my thoughts are distorted. The more I accept my upset feelings are based on unclear thinking, and remember the feelings will come and go, just as my thinking comes and goes, the easier it is for me to relax and allow my emotional experience to wash through me. This creates space for the stabilizing force of my innate intelligence to come into play.
When I allow my disturbed thoughts to settle by not identifying with them or fueling them, I naturally have fresh, new thoughts and insights. I eventually see myself and the situation more clearly. My thoughts and feelings always settle, and they have nothing to do with who I AM.
The more I relax and let go of any preconceived ideas about what my experience should be, and how I should behave, the more open I am to accepting myself. I let go of trying to live up to an idealized version of myself or believing I am a not good enough. Instead, I accept the real, raw, human, warts and all me that the divine I AM finds just fine as a vehicle through which to express.