What’s not news is that high school is, for many, hell. But the effects of one’s experiences during adolescence (and for this purpose I’ll use “high school” as shorthand for the general puberty-through-adolescence time period, which can include middle school and junior high) are often minimized, at least in my anecdotal experience. For most of my adulthood, I’ve been keenly aware of how my high school experiences have shaped me, mostly for the worse, but even the most well-meaning and caring people in my life minimize them, saying, “But it was just high school. It was tough for everybody!” The message being, really, get over it.

I know better now. Especially after the tough work of recovering from PTSD brought screaming into prominence by a violent attack a couple of years ago, I’ve come to understand just how formative my experiences between the ages of 10 to 18 really were. I won’t go through everything I’ve learned, but suffice it to say, “get over it” was never an option — one forms an understanding of one’s self and one’s surroundings at a time when the mind is most malleable, and most prone to rely upon the lizard brain, as it were. When painful interactions take place, it’s not just unpleasant, the adolescent brain goes into fight-or-flight mode. For me, being the subject of relentless bullying and mockery and humiliation at the hands of my peers, I learned to be in fight-or-flight mode during almost all of my waking hours. My lizard brain never got a chance to rest.

How could that not shape how I behave today? How I perceive myself, and how I believe myself to be perceived by others?

All this comes to mind as I read an amazing piece in New York Magazine by Jennifer Senior on a growing understanding of high school’s effect on us into adulthood. The gist is that research is showing more and more that a) we are far more affected by, and haunted by, our high school experiences than we’d previously believed, and that b) high school itself is a sociological shitshow, a horrible environment to place hundreds of strangers who are all mushy of brain and lacking in self-knowledge. It was, to say the least, eye-opening.

One thing that was enlightening to me was an explanation of what causes this shitshow to begin with. Senior writes:

Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality.

So right off the bat, I was in trouble. Small, clumsy, uninterested in sports, quirky. I was predestined to be screwed. Plus, I was new: I entered middle school having just moved to the area, and I had no connections to anyone in school. Like I said, screwed.

At the time they experience the most social fear, they have the least control; at the time they’re most sensitive to the impressions of others, they’re plunked into an environment where it’s treacherously easy to be labeled and stuck on a shelf. “Shame,” says Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, “is all about unwanted identities and labels. And I would say that for 90 percent of the men and women I’ve interviewed, their unwanted identities and labels started during their tweens and teens.”

Now there was a word with resonance for me. Shame. Shame permeated my every thought and breath during those years, and its essence is still palpable to me today. More on that:

Shame [is a] . . . global, crippling sensation. Those who feel it aren’t energized by it but isolated. They feel unworthy of acceptance and fellowship; they labor under the impression that their awfulness is something to hide. “And this incredibly painful feeling that you’re not lovable or worthy of belonging?” asks Brown. “You’re navigating that feeling every day in high school.”

Most of us, says Brown, opt for one of three strategies to cope with this pain. We move away from it, “by secret-keeping, by hiding”; we move toward it, “by people-pleasing”; or we move against it “by using shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression.” Whichever strategy we choose, she says, the odds are good we’ll use that strategy for life, and those feelings of shame will heave to the surface, unbidden and unannounced, in all sorts of unfortunate settings down the road.

And so I have. I hid as best I could, I tried to blend, to not be noticed. On top of being mired in self-loathing, I was also exhausted from the effort I expended to avoid attack in the first place.

And, as I learned, these patterns did not disappear as I grew up. They manifested themselves even in what should have been the safest, most welcoming, or benign of circumstances, causing me to perceive danger to my sense of self in all situations, causing me to be stunted and paralyzed. I carried with me the shame.

I’m now much more aware of this as a physiological phenomenon than I ever was. Even when I experience this fear, this shame (and I still do a lot), I can at the very least identify it as an artifact of a bygone time. Even if my body and my lizard brain are in fight-or-flight, my higher self can at least understand what’s happening, and perhaps take steps to mitigate. Take the trolling and abuse I’ve been subject to on Twitter and on this blog, for example, because I dared suggest that people in privileged situations should do more listening than arguing. When I’m attacked for this, even by those who are clearly not worthy of my attention, my heart rate rises, my chest tightens, blood flows from my brain to my muscles as though I’m getting ready to run away from a tiger. I’m in fight-or-flight again. I’m in high school again.

But look, there’s no escaping that high school has shaped me, for better or ill, so there’s no point in pretending I’m totally at ease now, or with simply letting it all go — particularly following my assault. Like it or not, I am as I am, which includes the baggage of shame I have been lugging with me since I was 10 years old. The silver lining is that I can identify it for what it is, I can learn from it, I can use it to help my son and daughter manage better than I did, and I can make it serve as fuel for creativity and thought.

That is, when my heart rate goes back to normal.

24 thoughts on “Shame”

  1. Paul, I really appreciate the principled stand you’ve taken on this subject. My middle school experience was similar to what you describe–I know all too well how easy it is to awaken those old ghosts and how hard it is to get them to leave. I’m glad you’ve found a way to harness the pain of those remembrances and make them work for the current and future good. Be well.


    1. Thank you. I am by no means always successful of course. I hope we can all have a little more sympathy for each other.


  2. It’s always nice to know you’re not alone…I can relate; physical symptoms associated with confrontation of any kind can make it difficult, even online, to deal with conflict. But it can be done. You have my undying respect.


  3. Paul, I’m reading through the attack links (sorry to bring that up) and my heart just breaks. I’m a DC-area resident, so I feel able to relate on some level, if only in the sense of being able to picture the setting vividly, but I have no capacity at all to understand what it’s like to deal with the aftermath. I know it doesn’t do anything at all, but my heart goes out to you nonetheless.
    On this specific post, I had a very non-traditional high school age experience, as I was actually in undegrad at the time. The result, I suppose, is that I was shaped in a different way than most people by the unusual experiences relative to my age group, but the odd intersection of the superiority complex of being a smart kid and the insecurities of not relating to the people in my surroundings have never gone completely away. I don’t spend a lot of thinking about this, so this post is a good way of getting me to dive into some introspection.
    Thanks and keep up the good work!


  4. I substitute teach for three local high schools. What would be the requirements–should you give permission in the first place–to make copies of this for discussion the next time a teacher leaves me without a workable lesson plan?


  5. I can totally relate as I’m sure so many can (see A Hermit above). Shame is the best word for it. All through middle school, high school, and long after. It has abated and is no longer quite as soul crushing, but as you say I feel it even now.
    On the other hand, I’ve become oddly outgoing as an adult. It’s like I’m not afraid to do INTENTIONALLY stupid or embarrassing things. I dress up in silly costumes, I leave my goofy amateurish drawings for all to see, I tell dumb stories and dumb jokes, talk about personal stuff and do a million other dumb things that my high-school self would have been mortified to do (heck, in high school I was mortified to appear like I was trying to do anything at all).
    Yet honest mistakes and faux pas… it comes right back at full force. Utter shame and self loathing and not just in my brain. It’s physical – like my throat and heart turn to lead when it hits.
    No idea why I’m sharing this… Why the hell are all your posts so spot on, dammit?


  6. Interesting. High school was so much better for me than public school–I finally had friends–that even with the cliques, crushes, and boys’ whispering, penny-throwing, and occasional rape threats it was still easier to deal with. I emerged stronger and caring less what people thought of me.


  7. Ugh, Paul this so resonates with me. Heck, even an interest in sports was no insulation from the shame inflicted on me by my peers in that vulnerable age. It still to this day baffles me that adults in authority were so seemingly powerless to stop the wanton torture that teens inflict on each other. I have kids now and the one paralyzing fear i have is that they might have o go through what I did.


  8. It’s not often that you get out of bed in mid-afternoon (I’m working night shift this week) and, within a quarter of an hour, come across something that sheds a whole new light on your personality. So much of what you’ve written here could have been written about me, almost word for word. Especially the shame and self-loathing, and the way that that still affects my life, three and a half decades after I walked out of my school for the last time.


  9. I can relate. My son is a freshman, has Asperger’s Syndrome and is way into Pokemon, so he’s frequently the target of abuse. The school says they have a “zero-tolerance” policy for bullying, which translates into my son getting in trouble when he verbally lashes out at the abuse. As the target of a lot of abuse myself in high school, I was at a loss when it came to advice to give him to deal with it. About the only thing I’ve been able to tell him that’s been helpful is to defend others who are getting bullied or abused.


  10. Damn…
    High School was actually pretty good for me, although I lot of that had to do with how comparatively awful Jr. High School was. “Hiding and Secret-keeping”… yeah, there’s something I recognize.


  11. I moved a lot as a kid, so I can particularly relate to the idea that high school was full of strangers. I went to three high schools. They aren’t all strangers to each other; they have some established hierarchies, even if two or three middle schools feed to one high school. I definitely had the feeling my freshman year in college that I could relax and stop hiding. Even though I wasn’t harassed much at all, I definitely tried to vanish while I was in high school.
    My husband had much worse school experiences, that took place in a rougher part of town. He experienced quite a lot of physical abuse, along with the verbal abuse. Even decades later he really feels uncomfortable in crowds, so there clearly was a lasting influence. And we took the extreme step of not sending our son to school in order to spare him this kind of trauma. He seems to be turning into a fairly confident adult without having turned green or grown a second head, so we are happy with our extreme path.
    There’s probably a social justice link that can be made to this in that people who chose the “fight” response to abuse may be at heightened risk for being on the fast track to prison.


  12. I remember playing football in high school, and no one wanted to tackle me because that would mean touching me, a queer. When the phys. ed. teacher was told why, he put me over on the girls team. Yeah, high school sucked.


  13. I remember all of school being absolutely horrible. Once i was reading a book and a bully slapped it in half (this was during recess). I snapped and ran after him screaming, never really got to him (I was a clumsy sort). Eventually teachers piled on me to hold me down.
    Later in the principals office while talking to us about the problem, they asked how much the book cost. It was a 25 cent used old sci fi book. when i told them, they laughed at me. That was the big moment where i lost all faith in my teachers.
    Yup, it wasn’t the recesses where they would stand right next to me and punch me everytime the teacher looked away, and wouldn’t do anything since they didn’t see it. It wasn’t all the times in the lunch room when someone on the other side of the room would stand up and shout nasty things about me, only to be looked at a bit by the teacher. No it was when the principal, laughing, ordered the bully to pay me 25 cents to make the whole thing all right.
    Yeah school is often a terrible thing. I’m very sorry you also ended up with social anxiety. I feel for you and hope it gets better.


  14. I’ve been there — middle school — except, unusually, I didn’t respond to the bullying (routine physical assaults — in a functioning justice system, grounds for arresting the perps) — with shame, but with anger. Administrators and teachers were frequently useless (as catof many faces describes), but I had backup from powerful parents, and from *some* teachers and *one* administrator (praise be to her).
    Of course, this seemed to make the bullies — and it was a tiny tiny group of people terrorizing the whole school, less than 10 people in a school of 400 — really really want to pick on me. Until I got a reputation for being *both* really consistent at reporting them to authorities who would get them in trouble *and* dangerously violent if that wasn’t working; at that point they started backing off. Mutual Assured Destruction works.
    The situation did make me realize that some people are evil and need to be removed from society. If they’re powerless, they’re unimportant, but they usually aren’t; they often hold positions of power. Channeled and organized aggression — “getting even” — is, in fact, the only long-term functional response to bullies in power. Well, Malcolm X understood this. I was less angry at the bullies than I was at the teachers and administrators who acted like there wasn’t a problem.
    At least I know what a healthier, happier, environment with decent relationships is like — I learned what that was like in my unusually excellent private *elementary* school. So I can deal with both, and more importantly I can *tell* which one I’m in.
    I definitely have signs of post-middle-school PTSD. Going into an environment where violent attacks were to be expected, at random, at any time, and being required to go there, is pretty much a guarantee of getting PTSD.


  15. One fellow, with no credentials in the field mind you, had an idea that I think might have merit: Sorting children by age, creating large groups of immature people in the same birth cohort with minimal adult supervision, creates an unnatural situation that leads to the positive feedback loops that create this shit. He thinks we wouldn’t act the same way in groups of mixed age, adults and children together. I have heard other people who have tried living in “alternative” communities talk about how sweet and intelligent teenagers can be when removed from their peer group. Thoughts?


  16. Your experiences mirror my own in many ways. I ended up becoming a “people pleaser”, but unfortunately I’m lazy by nature so that doesn’t go as well as I wish.
    For some reason I never fit in at school. I’m told that moving around all the time was supposed to be “traumatic” for me, but it wasn’t that. I was fine with moving, because I never had any friends at school to begin with.
    At any rate, I went to school, tried to keep to myself, and others would deem it fit to mess with me in varied ways. It got rather bad at one point. I won’t go into details but suffice it to say I’ve always been rather lazy and this manifested in the form of me just letting go of doing any of my school work. That went on for years until a moment when I suddenly got my act together and started doing the work. Now doing things others tell me to do is the easy part. (Actually initiating and coming up with plans on my own? That’s the impossible thing for me…)
    I often got advice on how to deal with these things. I’m a child of the 80’s, so 1980’s advice was presented to me. Well meaning, but ineffective, I was told that if I “ignored them, they would go away” or “they just feel bad about themselves and are jealous of you”. I too got teachers that couldn’t act unless they actually witnessed something. The “cliques” I always heard about on TV? Never saw those. I felt that any advice about “cliques” was outdated advice from people who grew up in the 60s and 70s. Now I wonder if I simply was too far outside the social network to be capable of noticing them. Never did any sorts of drugs. Still don’t. I listened to the anti drug stuff at the time. Even if a lot of it was unrealistic hyperbole, I did dissect the lungs of a smoker at one point. That was enough, and as unpopular as I was, peer pressure was never an issue. No one thought of me enough to TRY to pressure me.
    So it went, often getting that after school special “well meaning” advice that didn’t work. There was a time when I was forced to defend myself in the halls at one school. I was tripped, I threw a punch that never connected (and likely wouldn’t have been effective had it), and that’s all she wrote. I got weekend detention because of that. I recall trying to stay inside the cafeteria during recess. A teacher told me I “had to finish quicker or I’d miss recess”. I told her that I was fine with that, and I ended up having to write a long winded apology for being a smart alec (it ended up dripping with sarcasm). Later, I got advice along the lines of “don’t wear your heart on your sleeve” and “you need to learn how to interact with people better”. Personally, I had been in a “shell” of sorts the whole time, so I had no idea my heart was “on my sleeve”. As for the latter, yeah, I know, I haven’t figured that part out yet.
    I’ll share this at least. Near the end, at the end of the 90’s, Columbine happened. Schools everywhere got very worried about loners. Yeah, that meant me. An incident occurred where “concerned” classmates went up to me as I was eating during lunch and asked me if I would ever “do something like that”. I said no I wouldn’t ever do such a thing, and to lighten the mood, joked “besides, I wouldn’t know where to find a gun anyway”. Was it funny? No, not really, but as I said I had poor social skills. That joke eventually turned into grounds for expulsion from that fine institution. The rumor mill churned and churned, eventually culminating in numerous parents demanding that either I was removed, or they would remove their kids. The principal said his hands were tied. At the time, I didn’t want to make a big deal about it. I didn’t go to the news, I didn’t start a lawsuit, I was attempting to simply take it all in stride. My mother was furious about the whole thing, of course, but she couldn’t do anything and respected my wishes to simply not consume my life with the whole affair. Only recently have I managed to recover from that incident (not really emotionally so much as in my career). That wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it did send a clear message. The problems of the outcasts, by their very nature, are overlooked. Not intentionally, but as a consequence of being an outcast. I was seen as expendable compared to the countless students they would have lost, so they cut the strings with a note that hopefully I “learned something”. Well, I guess I did, but I’m not quite as cynical as all that.
    What I will say is this. In later years, I’ve heard an argument countless times that school “was the best time in someone’s life” (no it wasn’t, even at my worst, I wouldn’t want to go back to school days). I’ve heard that the memories will last a life time (true I guess, and I am the sort of person who views even my negative experiences as a part of me, whether I like it or not). I’ve heard that school “teaches kids valuable social skills they need”. I did read that recent study showing that popular kids are actually more successful in life than unpopular kids, but I don’t think it is because of “valuable social skills”. I had to systematically unlearn every single “social skill” I ever picked up in school in order to get along well in the adult world. For the unpopular, the only social skills they learn are ones of distrust and emotional survival. Those aren’t healthy or useful skills.
    Yes, I’ve heard that I need to “get on facebook” so I can “make amends with” my aggressors. Well, thing is, they were and still are strangers to me. I feel no regret for not getting in contact with them. Some people have, heck I may do so in the future, but I have no obligations to.
    Suffice it to say I feel much more sympathy for home schooling than a lot of the rational types around here. Oh no, not the “keeping you away from evil civil rights and evilution” home schooling, but the sort that actually provides a great education by caring parents. Any social skills school can provide can be provided literally anywhere else. Being home schooled doesn’t mean being kept inside all the time.
    At any rate, school was very much like a prison I left every day. At home though, to my great fortune, I had a very loving and supporting family. That was, I think, what prevented me from becoming a total sociopath.


  17. Yes, I’ve heard that I need to “get on facebook” so I can “make amends with” my aggressors.

    That’s actually not a bad idea. I had a couple of tormentors try to friend me, and I told them what they could do with their friend requests. The flipside is, there were a couple of people that I participated in the making fun of, and I used Facebook as an opportunity to apologize to them. We’re not friends now, but it made me feel better and they seemed to be fairly happy about it as well.


  18. To be frank, I don’t even remember the names and faces of anyone I ever went to school with, excepting a small handful of friends. As a result, it would simply be a waste of time. I owe them no more effort than anyone else. I have no need of “closure” with them, or any other such psycho babble.


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