I was a geek in school, complete with glasses, braces, and a stack of books that each weighed 5 pounds. Each night, I completed every detail of my assignments. I looked forward to learning new vocabulary words. It was exciting to successfully solve a word problem. But the one thing about school that I dreaded was PE.
On the days we had PE, I had a pit in my stomach. I kept glancing at the clock, hoping the hands would somehow slow down before we trekked to the gym. My hands were sweaty. My entire body was tense. It was hard to concentrate on what the teacher was saying. I had to force myself to breathe properly*. If only I could do extra math or pick up trash- anything to keep from going to PE.
PE was just awful for me. The “physical education test” required the teacher to test us individually in front of the whole class. I missed the erasers during the shuttle run. I’ve never done a pull-up to this day. I slipped and twisted my ankle when we did the 1-mile run (on the day I had a special luncheon for us geeks who made straight A’s- talk about luck)!
I was always the last kid chosen for the team. Everyone laughed when the only way I could make a hoop was to do a granny-shot. During softball, my dad happened to drive by the field at the exact moment when I struck out. Even typing this, I can feel every one of those old emotions.
In 7th grade, we had health as part of our PE class. I was ecstatic to have a book and notes and a written test! Finally, something I could do! My PE teacher was a former EMS worker, and she was determined that every one of us would be able to perform CPR and First Aid perfectly. I listened and took notes. I studied. I dreaded the test because that meant we’d have to start choosing teams again.
But I flunked the test. Truly. Flunked it. With tears, I told my parents what to expect on my report card, in PE! I have to be the only person on earth who’s managed to flunk PE!
Fast forward many years. I’d graduated from college (yay for no more PE). I’d secured a job in my field, working for a national non-profit that helped families. I was ecstatic. Until I found out that I had to be certified in CPR and First Aid.
And immediately, I was a 7th grader all over again, paralyzed with fear. I imagined flunking the test. I imagined losing my job because of it. I saw my future go right down the drain because of a bad experience I had in 7th grade.
I let the past define what I expected to be my fate for the rest of my life. Because of my bad experience, I had decided that I wasn’t capable of mastering CPR and First Aid. I would always flunk those tests, and I would never be able to save someone’s life, pass that test, or keep a job working with families because they all required you to be certified in CPR.
You’re probably thinking that I’m silly. And you’re right. I was being silly, but I was also afraid. It was a real fear for me. And I was basing my future performance based on my past experiences. And that’s something we all do.
No, flunking PE in 7th grade was certainly not the most traumatic event that’s ever happened in my life. And while you may be laughing at my phobia of PE, you probably do know what it’s like to experience something in your life that you just couldn’t shake. You probably have experienced some secret event that subtly impacts you every day.
Maybe you were adopted and you’ve always struggled with being wanted. Maybe you were abused, and you’ve always questioned if actions hurt worse than words. Maybe you’ve survived a terrible car accident, and you never drive at night anymore. Or maybe someone put your heart in a blender when they suddenly ended your relationship, and you question if you’ll ever be open to finding love again.
And while you may feel alone with those feelings, I can promise you that you’re not the only person who’s experienced those things. Sadly, they seem to be the rule and not the exception. We all have baggage. But, you don’t have to drag that baggage around with you for the rest of your life. You can safely store it under the bed, in the closet, or in the attic. You can even get really cute bags these days!
So here is my message if you’ve working hard to keep the past from defining the rest of your life:
Keeping the past from defining the rest of your life can be a journey. It can require you to think in ways that you’ve never thought before. It can require you to let go of thoughts that have been in your mind for years (and strangely enough we can become quite accustomed to those damning thoughts, making it hard to let go of them).
Keeping the past from defining the rest of your life can be scary at the onset. But, if you find the right person or people to support you, if you set your mind to it, and if you’re truly ready to be free from those past pains, I promise you, that it can be done. Truly.
“And thus like the wounded oyster, he mends his shell with pearl.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you’ve tried working with a professional in the past, and it wasn’t a good experience, I am so sorry. I hope that doesn’t keep you from trying new ways to work on it in the future. There are support groups, books, friends, hotlines- a lot of different resources available. If you do decide to try a professional, I encourage you to find one that you can connect to, trust, and feel safe with. Find someone who “speaks your language” and uses a style that fits for you. Here are some hints to make working with a therapist a helpful and rewarding experience.
*Note: All of these symptoms (pit in stomach, sweaty palms, dread, feeling your body tense up, and difficulty concentrating) are some signs of anxiety. If you experience these constantly or for a prolonged period of time, you should consult with your health care provider.