I have cried many tears over the years from this experience. It’s time I talk about it publicly.
At the time I was 14 and in the moment, I didn’t realize I was being bullied. In fact, I’m just now realizing it at age 30. For the past 16 years it’s simply been a memory. A season of my life I powered through, and an event I allowed to rewrite the wiring in my brain of how the world works.
Built into my DNA is a drive, a hunger for achievement. I desire to always be the best, perform the best and win. In elementary school this manifested itself by always earning straight A’s. In the fifth grade when I got my first B on my report card in reading, my mom had no idea what to do with me. I cried on the couch for at least an hour. It was devastating to the 10-year-old version of myself.
In middle school this desire for achievement began to manifest itself with titles and influence. I set goals, and I achieved them. By November of 8th grade I was at the top of my game: President of the student body, Editor-in-Chief of the yearbook staff and first chair clarinet. I remember being disappointed over a 94 on a science quiz because it wasn’t 100. I also remember being an ass about all this. I remember flashing my straight A report card to people. I wanted them to be impressed. I remember getting a 100 on some test and leaning over to the person next to me (after peaking and seeing they got a B) and saying “I got 100, what did you get?” Oh my gosh. It’s so embarrassing to think about. I really did need a good humbling, so in many regards I had it coming to me.
Before you start imaging me as Lindsey Lohan from Mean Girls, let me explain how this could not be further from the truth. I was the fattest kid in all my classes from 4th grade through 7th grade. My mom used to shop for me in the Liz Claiborn (think old lady) section of the department store because she wanted me to have nice clothes, but I didn’t fit into anything in the juniors section. I so desperately wanted to wear clothes from The Limited Too like all the cool girls in my class, but I was too big. In sixth grade my grandmother found an XL sweatshirt from there I could fit into, and it felt like winning the lottery. Finally, I could be cool. It was black and white and the logo was a shiny sliver reflector that washed out in photos from the flash.
I remember walking down the sidewalk and a kid who didn’t even know me saying “Hey fat b****” because my P.E. uniform was a larger size and fit much tighter than everyone else’s. I remember being a safety patrol kid in 5th grade and the orange belt being too small for me even with the buckle at full length. I had to suck in and squeeze the fat in my stomach in to force the latch closed. But dude, the power of that orange belt that gave me permission to tell 1st graders they had to walk not run was so worth it.
Fast forward to 8th grade. Puberty hit and my weight started falling off like a magic trick. I squeezed into my sister’s baggy pants (remember JNCO’s?) from The Limited Too, and I thought I was the s***. Granted, they were too small. I could barely button them, so I totally had a muffin top and did not care at all. I was fitting into pants from The Limited Too.
In most schools, and definitely in the movies, you win class president by being the most popular and getting the most votes. I think I had this belief system that if I could just win class president THEN I would finally be a pretty popular girl. It just so happened that no one from our class wanted to run. The teacher said I wasn’t allowed to run unopposed, so I talked a nice girl from my English class into running just so there could be an election. Her words were literally “sure, I’ll run so you can have it.” The election was on! I made flyers and stickers and posters and put them all over school. Election time came and it was a landslide! I peeked into the teacher’s folder and found the count…something like 851 to 110! AMAZING! Now I would finally be liked and popular.
Oh, and the other two titles that went to my head, editor and 1st chair, were legitimately because no one else aspired to have them. They were signs of how nerdy I was. I spent all my free time working on yearbook designs, taking pictures (still a thing in my life!) and practicing my clarinet. I’ve always been obsessed with hard work.
I wasn’t in the friend group of the kids who were pretty and wore clothes from The Limited Too but honestly, that didn’t bother me at all. I loved my friends. Fiercely. Those kids weren’t that nice to others anyway. (In true mean girls fashion). Like always, for as long as I can remember, my friend group was the nice kids who were the inbetweeners. The group that often gets left out of the stereotypes. The ones who are nice to everybody, usually smart but not to the level of nerdy and dressed somewhat trendy but not to the point we would obsess over our looks. Did anyone else have this friend group?
Like most experiences, at the heart of all of this was just a desire to be loved. I was trying to overcompensate for my lack of self-confidence. When I looked in the mirror all I saw was a fat girl. The story in my mind was that fat girls couldn’t be cool. I just wanted to be liked and feel loved. Now, now I was worthy of love. The pounds had melted off, I was class president (that’s always the coolest kid in school right?), and I was perfect at everything. Finally, people would start liking me. Except, this plan totally backfired more than I could have ever seen coming.
December of that year my little rock-star-status belief about myself came crashing down. A girl in our class started a rumor about me. I don’t even remember the story; I don’t think I ever found out. I just remember the whispering and the staring. I remember walking through the halls and people looking at me differently. I remember my “best friends” no longer wanting to sit at the same lunch table as me. All I can remember is the feeling of having absolutely no friends. And worse than that, seeing the glares of disgust on people’s faces when they looked at me differently. The judgment was piercing at the soul level.
At our school, first thing in the morning when you were dropped off by bus or car, everyone gathered on the patio. You weren’t allowed in any of the classrooms until the first bell rang. For a social butterfly like me, this was fantastic. Everyone is just standing around, and you can run up and talk to whomever you want. I would b-line for my friend group and talk about absolutely pointless things that seemed really important then.
But now, this same morning routine was miserable. The “cool” thing in school became to be mean to Sophia. No one would talk to me. I remember walking up to two girls who had been my “best friends” and saying “Hey Guys. I really want to talk about this. What did I do that has everyone so mad at me?” To say they ignored me is an understatement. They didn’t acknowledge my presence and continued looking at each other continuing a conversation as if I wasn’t standing there. They were making it very clear that I wasn’t welcome there.
When you’re 14, having no friends is the bottom of the pits. And for someone like me, so eager for attention and praise, this was absolute worse case scenario. I didn’t know how to handle it other than to pretend it wasn’t actually happening. I kept it a secret. For a month solid I would arrive to school and head straight for the band room where Mr. Murray would let me in early to practice my clarinet. Social awkwardness avoided. Check. Next time I had to interact with my peers was lunch, which was really easy to get out of because there was so much work to be done for yearbook I could just say I wanted to skip lunch and get caught up on designs. Sweet. No social anxiety there.
I distinctly remember the day that I attempted to eat lunch with the students because my yearbook teacher was absent. I tried walking up to a couple different tables and kids shuffled around to take up all the space so I couldn’t sit there. At my school, 8th graders sat outside and underclassman sat inside. I didn’t know what else to do so I wandered into the cafeteria with my food and found my 7th grade friend who I rode the bus with and pulled up a chair to sit with him and his friends (which felt so belittling in my brain but I had no where else to go). And then the Assistant Principal walked by and reminded me of the seat rule (only so many chairs allowed at a table), and I had to move. This was miserable.
The last social time of the day was P.E. where there was rarely any structure at all. It was pretty much put on gym clothes and walk around the track with your friends. I don’t even remember how I pulled this off, but I managed to get some pass from my band teacher that allowed me to be exempt from going to P.E. class. I could go to the band room and practice more.
This routine worked. The teachers didn’t know I was struggling because I was just my normal workaholic self. My parents had absolutely no idea because I didn’t tell them anything about it. I had developed a survival routine. As long as I didn’t have to be reminded that I had no friends, I could handle this.
I remember walking home from school one day and having suicidal thoughts. Until writing this post I don’t recall ever telling anyone about this. It was an awful, awful plan, but I remember saying to myself “I wonder if I drank a bottle of nail polish if it would kill me so I wouldn’t have to go back to school.” Isn’t that awful? Ugh. I’m tearing up just recalling the memory. Within two minutes I decided it was a bad plan because I was in charge of watching my little brother and sister after school so this would present a problem. Plus, it would taste really bad and had a chance of not working but hurting my stomach badly. However, because I know how I felt in that moment, and I know the thought crossed my mind, even if it was brief, when I read stories of these middle schoolers committing suicide from bullying, and I read about how much worse their environments were, I get it. When you’re that young and immature you can’t see a life for yourself into adulthood with the freedom outside of a school environment.
One morning on the patio I went up to this bubbly girl in our class. She was super sweet, lots of fun and loved by everyone. “Why doesn’t anyone like me?” I asked. She responded by saying,
“Everyone wants to feel good about themselves. When you show off how well you’re doing it just makes other people feel bad about themselves. That’s why I’m so goofy and silly. I’m actually really smart and get good grades but I act dumb because it makes other people feel good about themselves.”
Years later I would realize that this one comment rewired my brain. I would spend the rest of my life (up to this point at least) trying to correct the messaging.
I took it to heart. All of a sudden flashing that point card of President’s Honor roll that I thought would make people like me because they were impressed suddenly become an embarrassment. From that point forward, no one could know about my success.
I think it was around a month that what I now realize was bullying went on. Something happened…some boy who had a crush on my used to be best friend asked me to ask her out for him (because guys are completely oblivious to girls’ social drama) and she started talking to me again. From there everything was back to normal and the girl who started the rumor backed off and left me alone.
Four years went by before I even thought about that experience. I forgave everyone, moved on, and was just happy to have my friends back. I remember getting out my sticker calendar that hung on the wall in my room and placing the “Best Day Ever!” sticker on the day I got my friends back. Life moved on.
I went on to enter high school and we all ended up at different schools. I made a new friend group and no one knew that about my past. The school I went to was one for the academic achievers in the county. You had to apply and be accepted, mostly based on grades and test scores, and you had to be willing to work your tail off for four years. So naturally, it attracted the other high achievers in the county and we were all bused to a central location.
Being surrounded by other high achievers definitely lowered my ego because it wasn’t easy to be the best anymore. I forfeited the fight before it ever began because to climb your way to the top would mean no one would like you. I became quite satisfied being average.
At the very end of our senior year we got our class rankings. On a GPA scale of 0-4, we were all above 6. It was mere decimal points that separated us. Out of my friend group of 7 girls, I ended up with the 3rd highest GPA. I remember one of the girls said “I at least thought I would do better than SOPHIA.”
That hit me. It hit me hard. What did that mean? Did they not realize I was actually really smart? I rewound over those four years and realized I had completely changed my behavior based on the patio conversation in the 8th grade. So in high school, the sharing of grades was reversed. When I got an A, I would slip it into my backpack and not tell anyone. When I got a C or a D I would whine and grope about it so that everyone knew I struggled too. It worked. No one thought I was better than them. I had amazing, wonderful friends who loved me, and I wasn’t an overachiever. There was still something sad inside though. I could feel a part of me had died.
The girl was still inside who loved the fight, the climb to the top, the exhilarating feeling of winning. She was in my core. I just buried her. “You can’t come out. People don’t like people like that. It makes them feel bad about themselves.” So I settled for living a B life. I came to LOVE second place. It showed I was “better than average” but I didn’t have to deal with glares people give first place. I could happily float along in just above mediocrity.
But here’s the problem. My inner wisdom knew that “good enough” wasn’t “good enough” for me. So verbally and mentally I would strive for first place, desire first place, want first place, but would subconsciously self-sabotage. Right on the brink of crossing over into success, I would back down. I would do something to throw myself off and have to start all over. I had no idea I was doing this to myself until I was introduced to a book that opened my eyes.
In The Big Leap, by Gay Hendricks, he explains the 4 hidden barriers that hold us back. At the point in my life the book was introduced to me I was 29 years old and frustrated as hell. I was an entrepreneur with multiple businesses that were stuck a mildly successful. Well enough to keep my family of three self-employed but not doing well enough to create the life we wanted for ourselves. The story of my adulthood. I KNEW there was this woman inside capable of achieving whatever she set her mind to but no matter how hard I tried I continuously would reach “almost there.” And almost might as well be last place.
Gary explains that we all have a success barrier. It can apply to money, or weight, or any area of our lives. We believe we are only worthy of achieving X and we can’t seem to cross over that line. If we do have a breakthrough and cross over it, we seem to fall right back to where we are used to. It’s the classic case of losing weight and a year later being back where you started. It’s our comfort zone. Something at the subconscious level is telling us we are only worthy of X, and anything beyond that is more success than we deserve. In his book, he explains that there are four barriers holding most of us back:
Hidden Barrier One: Feeling Fundamentally Flawed: You feel that something is wrong with you.
Hidden Barrier Two: Disloyalty and Abandonment: This is a belief that achieving success essentially means you have to leave your tribe.
Hidden Barrier Three: Believing that More Success Brings a Bigger Burden. This fear will immobilize you because you believe that the life you create will burden others and triggers the emotion of guilt.
Hidden Barrier Four: The Crime of Outshining: You believe that if you become too successful you will make others look bad.
Bam. I was listening to this audiobook driving down the road, and I started crying. The author said, “This fear is prevalent among gifted and talented children, and often plays out into their adulthood. Children are blamed for taking the spotlight away from others.”
Memories started racing through my mind. The patio conversation. My youth pastor at church asking me not to wear all my honors cords with my cap and gown because it would make the other kids who didn’t have any feel bad. Being told I needed a smaller role in the play because I’m too strong at public speaking and it will make other students too intimidated to perform.
I remember driving down the road and tears streaming down my face the entire half hour to my destination. I arrived and had to sit in the car and sob. This was my life. Not only did this come up on so many occasions but it translated into every moment of my ever day. The tiny, seemingly insignificant thoughts started racing through my mind:
“I’ll eat this cookie in front of them so they don’t feel bad about how unhealthy their plates are,” after losing weight and feeling amazing because I was strictly eating clean foods. When friends or family around me were staying the same or even gaining weight, I would be more likely to make bad choices IN FRONT OF THEM rather than in private. I would hit my goal weight and then return back to my comfortable zone around 170. At this weight I wasn’t fat and could fit into clothes at any store I went to (wearing medium to large) but I still had some chunk on me. That way other people would know I was relatable.
“I shouldn’t wear makeup today,” because the last three times I saw that person I had on a cute outfit with my hair and makeup done so it will make them feel better about themselves to see me in yoga pants with no makeup. When truth be told, I love wearing makeup and looking in the mirror and feeling pretty. I’m totally content without it, so it’s not a superficial matter. I genuinely don’t care who sees me without make-up; I just honestly enjoy wearing it and feeling girlie and pretty.
And then one of the largest hurdles in my life, money. I can’t tell you how many times I would hit an income level for a month and feel AMAZING and then the next month have the worst month of the year, completely robbing the success of the month before because I now had to use that success money just to survive. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. I had so many financial goals and yet I could not seem to break through this limit that the months had to average out to me making X (which was just enough to get by). I made it to the top 8% in my company, but I LONGED for the top 1%. I was banging my head up against the wall.
It’s been about a year since I listened to the audiobook version of The Big Leap. It’s one of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve ever had. I listened a second time and then bought it for my kindle and hardcopy. There are so many nuggets. I highly recommend this book for everyone because he goes into so many other areas of life as well. Most of us have a story in our minds that was rewired when we were children. We adopted a belief about how the world works, and it’s holding us back.
This is not the point in the story where I say “And now I am a fitness champion, making a million dollars and look amazing every morning before I leave the house.” HAHA! Sooooo not the case. I’m a work in progress. What I can tell you is that one year later, I’m less quick to be concerned with what other people think about what I am eating, wearing, or not wearing. I am getting more comfortable in my own skin. I am giving myself permission to let that achiever out. One step at a time. It’s been 16 years since I buried her. One day at a time, I let her out a little bit more. I feel very confident in saying just give me a little bit more time. Soon I will finally hit, and keep my goal weight. I have gone from wearing makeup once or twice a week to probably three or four times a week. Eventually it will be part of my morning routine, only because I want it to be. I can already see the progress financially. I’m not crushing my goals, but I have raised the bar. That number I used to feel comfortable with is now bigger. It’s been six months straight of a new number. I would like to double it so my husband and I can get out of debt, build a large savings, remodel our house and be able to adopt children. Those things will happen.
Now when I look in the mirror I don’t look at the outer layer. For the last few weeks when I look in the mirror I talk to the girl inside. I sing “this little light of mine” to myself, and I am determined to let her shine. I’ve been wearing a lampshade for 16 years. I so desperately want to take it off and let her shine in all her glory. It’s just a comfort zone thing, and I’m expanding. I used to feel the flab on my stomach, arms or thighs. Now I ignore it. I acknowledge the muscles I can feel underneath, and I tell them “I’m working to remove the layers. I’ll allow you to be seen soon. Just keep growing in there. You’ll come out soon.”
I know this was a long post. If you made it this far, I appreciate you. Writing these words brings me so much healing. Hopefully there’s a nugget or two in here that inspires you to let your inner light shine too. We all have greatness within. We all have a comfort zone. What’s holding you back? Do you know what your fears are?