No surprises, I was bullied at school. It wasn’t the type where the big bully boy throws your bag on the ground and punches you in the stomach like in the movies. It was more the type where the ‘strong’ (read: insecure) and ‘bossy’ (read: bullied herself at home) girl was mean and deliberately destabilising to my emotional wellbeing. I was an easy target: the child of divorced parents; smaller than the other kids; cute faced and quiet, and the teacher’s pet.
Here’s how it would go. Edith would decide which Abba song we were going to perform as a group around the side of the school building, where the teachers couldn’t see. When I asked to do a different song she would tell me that I was wrong. We’d start practice, and it was my favourite thing to do so I’d be so happy for a second dancing and singing Abba songs imaging I was Frida. She would tell me that I was doing it wrong. I’d try harder. She’d tell me I was hopeless at it and tell me to go away. At this point I would walk quietly across the playground to the other side, sit down on a cold metal seat and cry my eyes out.
This story played out in various ways over the years but I only remember this one, or maybe two other versions in detail.
Some days, if I was lucky, my hero and the teacher who was essentially my surrogate Dad would be on playground duty. He would find me and sit with me, hold my hand and let me cry. Then he’d march me back over to my friends, tell Edith off for being nasty and insist she include me.
I’m in my 40s now, and even though I have experienced a measure of success and overcome various hefty obstacles to become a mother of my own three children, yesterday I was reminded that the little girl being pushed around as a child is still in me.
Here’s how it goes these days. I meet a woman who on some sub-conscious level reminds me of Edith. I feel inexplicably compelled to befriend her. More than likely she is a bit nasty at some point and it hurts my feelings. I search my soul for what I’ve done to deserve it, then I try harder to be her friend. The cycle repeats.
At some point I inevitably question why the hell the friendship of a person I don’t actually like is so important. And how is it that in every other area of my life I’m able to stand up for myself, speak my truth, be authentic - but in this case I’m an insipid puppy dog, trembling and nervous at the sight of them?
And there it is. The inner child in cataclysmic and clichéd proportions.
The teacher that used to save me in the playground is dead now, as are the many relationships I’ve had with men over the years because I wanted them to save me from this. Though I never forgot what he did for me, he was so kind and good-hearted, nothing he could do could incite me to stick up for myself. Why?
The short answer is shame. And why the shame? From what I can tell, it’s because of early life trauma.
Enter Dr Gabor Maté. In a recent interview he talks in depth about the way that trauma can arise for a person who has deep feelings, deep sensitivities, from things that may barely register with another person. He mentions also the Adverse Childhood Experience Studies (read more here) which is a comprehensive program of research into the long term effects of abuse, neglect and poverty. There is now clear evidence that health, both mental and physical, is heavily influenced by early life experience.
“The ACE Study was one of the first and largest research efforts conducted to examine the impact of childhood trauma on health decades later. From 1995 to 1997, more than 17,000 adult members of Kaiser Permanente in San Diego took part in the study.”
The thing that is not always clear but is so important to understand is that poverty, abuse and neglect do not always go hand-in-hand. People of ALL socio-economic backgrounds experience abuse and neglect. The outcomes vary but usually show up as a higher than normal likelihood of stress, mental illness and substance abuse. In fact, even heart disease becomes more likely for those with early life trauma.
So what in goodness name can be done? From the preventative side, by reflecting and healing our own traumas we pave the way for a new generation to move into the world without these factors influencing them in negative ways: but how do we do that?
One study suggests physical activity, smoking abstinence, education of high school or greater, and social-emotional support are the answers. I feel that is true and also there are more and varied ways to heal the hurts. Personally I have participated in so many different things — a 12 step program, yoga and martial arts, so many alternative physical therapies I don’t have time to list them and even various different forms of energetic and spiritual therapies with some amazing practitioners. They are all important and have all had a huge impact. Not one single one of them alone could have done for me what they have done all together. And the quest continues.
From the perspective of humanity, it is only by recognising with compassion and humility that the affects of childhood trauma and adversity are widespread and are fundamentally affect our world, in our leaders, in our family, in our social networks that we might begin to change things and heal.
As for the bully-girl syndrome, I think the answer is to work on a somatic level, with the body, to release the hurt I have stored somewhere deep in my cells and in my spirit. And from there to find another way. For you it might be different. Either way, I have to try. I have to heal and change and progress from this place of helpless hurt. And I will.
To begin with I’ll muster compassionate forgiveness and appreciation for the Ediths of this world for being a direct result of their own adverse experience and take it from there. After all, how else would they become our greatest teachers?
Want to know more about how to get from there to here? Message me if you’d like more information and I can send you links to healing modalities, individuals and places from which I got help. If you have found this article triggering please get help — call a help line, talk to a trusted friend, be gentle with yourself.
Alena Turley is a writer, educator, ethical social creative and personal branding coach. She is a mother of three based in Sydney, Australia, passionate about connecting people to their own authentic selves and to each other.
Find her on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.