When I was in elementary school, the recess bell cued my palms to sweat and my gut to wring itself into knots. What will it be today? I wondered, biting my nails. The usual ‘fat ho or ‘ugly dog’? Or will I be spit on again like last week? Junior high perpetuated the torment. There I found saliva-drenched gum gluing together the pages of my text books, my locker vandalized and cruel notes hidden in the outer pocket of my backpack.
I remember looking in the mirror for hours at night, studying my face, wondering what was wrong with me. Tears streaked my cheeks as I berated the person looking back at me from across the counter. You are so stupid and ugly. No one likes you. You are all alone. I stared at myself until my features seemed to dislocate from my face and float.
My stories of being bullied are not unique. The name-calling. Being picked last. Eating alone. Isolation and self loathing; many people have experienced these things. Yet for me, and likely others, it didn’t stop there. What I didn’t know at the time was that the greatest bully I’d ever face, the one whose words would cut the deepest, was the very person I wished to protect: Myself. Bullying became a disease. It got in my bloodstream. When actual tormenters moved on from me to prey on others or ended up in different schools, my inner critic remained.
As a young adult, I found this internal bully still haunting me. Just like when I was a kid, she’d tell me I was never good enough, that I was unattractive and unworthy of love. Why did I listen? It’s hard to find true north when your compass is off and it’s almost impossible to love yourself when you don’t believe you deserve it. Perfection was the solution, I reasoned, because then I would have no faults to ridicule, no shortcomings to define me. I recognize now, years later, that this way of living robbed me of joy, new experiences and personal expression – but it took a long time to come to this understanding.
My inner bully thought she had me locked in her destructive cycle of insecurity, yet something happened she did not anticipate. My life’s journey took twists and turns and eventually brought me back to myself, the little girl I once was. As a child, I was confident, a dreamer, a free spirit. I loved painting and writing stories, playing make-believe and singing and dancing till I was out of breath. It was a big step but after years of living to please everyone else, I made a deliberate choice to follow my dreams and make my own happiness and fulfillment a priority. It wasn’t like I woke up one day and magically found my strength; instead it came with small victories, intentional decisions and willful disobedience to my bully.
Throughout my twenties I began to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be; it was like time folded back upon itself and I could be free again, unencumbered like a child. It was in that time that I committed myself to my love of the creative arts – even in the face of being told, “go out and get a real job.” In one of my art classes in university I experimented with combining photography and painting and despite a professor belittling my work and saying, “photography is not art,” I pressed on. In these situations I discovered one of the major foils of my bully; she withered in the presence of passion and determination.
Eventually I came to a point where I faced my bully head-on and told her to fuck off. It was a bold statement but I have come to believe that life is too short to live for the approval and acceptance of others. Life needs bold statements, both in word and in action. I became free when I told myself that I was in fact good enough, beautiful, strong and creative. I felt true worth when I opened my heart to love myself just the way I was and welcomed the support of family and friends. Their words became my true north and my place of safety when storms rolled in, which they inevitably do from time to time.
I stopped bullying myself when I embraced my imperfections and celebrated my shortcomings. It was the better option compared with masking my insecurities in make-up and camouflaging myself in accomplishments – those things did not quench the ache in me to live in an authentic and genuine way. No one is perfect. Perfectionism is a form of madness. It is unattainable, an ideal so high on a pedestal you’d sooner fall to your death trying to reach it than ever basking in its glory. The imperfections in people, and in life, are what hold beauty and originality, they are what define who we are and make us special and unique.
Some days are still a challenge. My inner bully mostly whispers under her breath but negative thoughts do invade my head from time to time, uninvited like bad houseguests. And when my bully does pipe up to devalue my self-worth, instead of making me feel two feet tall, her cruel words remind me of how far I have come. I acknowledge each thought and then choose to let them go. I thankfully survived the recess bells and tears of my youth and along the way discovered what makes enduring it all worthwhile in the end. We cannot change our pasts but our futures, like our inner bullies, are within our control.