Mean Girls

Let’s face it: For all but a select few whom I have yet to meet, high school is or was a very difficult time. Few people make it through unscathed — and those who claim that they had no issues whatsoever are either lying or in denial. The ages of approximately 13-17 are rich in development. Young adults are figuring out their personal identities and where they fit in society and, at the same time, coming to the realization that in life, one is truly on his or her own.

Fortunately, this crucial time of developing identity doesn’t last forever. By one’s mid twenties, a clearer picture of self emerges, and high school with all of its trauma and drama is never looked at or felt again. Yeah, right! Unfortunately, this is not at all the case.

As we enter adulthood, the experiences we had in high school, especially those in which we tried to fit in or be accepted, may feel as if they are forgotten or resolved. It may be difficult to remember a time in the recent past in which we felt left out or pressured to do something in order to fit in. Although these issues may seem to happen less often in adulthood, it is more likely that we have simply learned to navigate our social circles to avoid such situations, rather than our coming to grips or resolving past wounds.

I frequently have clients who experience intense depression and anxiety. When I ask them to identify when their most recent episode of discomfort began, many of them are unable to pinpoint the moment with clarity. As the session progresses, however, I have found that on more than one occasion adults get triggered by a relatively new technology: Facebook. The media would have us believe that cyber-bullying only occurs with young adults, and for the most part, this is probably true. I’m not talking about overt bullying, such as threatening and name-calling. What I’m referring to is the root of discomfort that began in middle or high school: the fear of not fitting in.

Adults and young adults are victims of cyber-bullying in its more discreet Facebook form. Some may choose to believe they have grown up and are no longer concerned with who’s in and who’s out; unfortunately, cliquishness and clannishness have been refined by some adult “buddies” into a science. As I’ve sat with clients experiencing depression, almost all of them report feelings of being left out by an interaction (or lack thereof) on Facebook. Some individuals trigger this intentionally in myriad ways, including:

Ignoring comments
You post on a friend’s wall, either in reply to a status post or perhaps just to say hello. The response? Nothing…

Replying to everyone else’s comments, and never to yours.
The message sent: You can be on my friends list, but I’m not comfortable letting anyone else know that we’re friends. You’re not really one of us.

Giving everyone the “thumbs-up” — except for you.
The thumbs-up is a great tool for acknowledging comments on Facebook and indicating approval. When one sees that everyone else’s comment has been “liked”, and theirs is left with nothing, it can leave someone feeling on the outside. Even worse, some people will create passive-aggressive statements disagreeing with another individual and conspiracy builds as everyone else gives that comment the thumbs-up. The message, once again: You don’t fit in here.

Declining friend requests
Ouch. This one is tough, yet it is one I’ve found can trigger a reaction almost immediately. Your friend has 832 friends, many of whom are from high school — and your friend request is declined. The damaging message received: Are you kidding me? I’m not going to talk to you in cyber-space!

Pollyanna’s Timeline
Oddly enough, more people complain about overly positive profiles than they do negative comments. It seems that some treat Facebook as a 10-year high school reunion, in which they are in a constant quest to prove to all of their classmates that they are richer, happier, sexier, more successful, you name it. Imagine the client who describes her ex-boyfriend posting pictures of him and his new girlfriend in Hawaii — and then tagging his ex-girlfriend in the picture! The message transmitted: I’m better than you.

Status update: “Hmm. Well, better her than me.” “I guess some things never change.” “Yup. That’s what I thought.” “Ha! It happened again. You know what I mean, @Jim.” These types of comments send a message pleading for attention at the very best, and at the worst they leave others feeling suspicious, paranoid, or even alienated.

There are several other creative ways adults have discovered that may create drama — and indeed, many times, they’ve been successful. The first thing I help clients realize when they present an issue with Facebook bullying is that the issue is most likely not about them, and it is not about the other person, either.

When we feel reactivated as an adult by an event in which we feel like an outsider, chances are it’s not the actual event that is troubling us; in fact, it’s our thoughts about the event that trouble us. That time when you weren’t invited to a birthday party at school? That happened when you were in 9th grade — the feelings you are experiencing now are about that event in 9th grade, not the Pampered Chef party happening next week. The trouble is, our minds do an automatic Google search on every event looking for similar events in our past. While this serves us well in some respects (you probably haven’t tried touching a hot stove intentionally because of this), in other respects, it does not serve us well at all. In fact, several of the above Facebook happenings may have no malicious intent whatsoever. Our minds, on the other hand, are excellent at protecting us. The reason for the Google search in our mind serves only one purpose: To help us survive on some level, whether it be ego, emotional, or physical.

The next time you find yourself feeling triggered over being left out or being given the cold shoulder, think to yourself:

  • What wound from the past is coming forward?
  • Who does this belong to? Does this have more to do with me or the other person?
  • View it as your psyche letting you know there’s still something unresolved from the past. Your inner teenager is coming forward letting you know that something is incomplete.
  • Treat yourself gently, and talk to yourself as you would a child seeking your support.
  • Approach your feelings with understanding, letting yourself experience them. You can identify the wound that is calling out for healing, and give it the salve of compassion that it yearns for.

As you attend to your inner young adult, you’ll find that you become less triggered less often. Remind yourself that you are responding to the wounds of the past — not to the event that is happening in the present. Doing so with compassion helps release the past and allows space for a new experience to happen in the present. And that provides sanity and peace of mind — a quality we’d all like to develop a little bit more.

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Jeremy Savage, MA, LPC

2727 Bryant St. #104
Denver, CO 80211

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