Disclosure: This is a sponsored post. However, all thoughts and opinions are my own.
The bullying began in middle school and continued through high school graduation. My smile in old yearbook photos may have concealed the pain I felt, but the photos awaken memories. I was determined to excel and to put on a happy face. Test scores and awards provided validation that I was capable and strong, even when I was feeling anything but. Pretending you are happy is draining. Smiling when you want to cry is exhausting.
By my senior year, I felt worn-down. I was counting the days until the weekend, until the next school break, until graduation. I remember how carefully I reviewed the school handbook policy on absences. Once I had determined the exact number of days I could miss per semester without threatening my class rank or ability to graduate on time, I started scheduling “sick days.” With my parents’ support, I used that time to recharge. Home was a safe haven from the bullies, and I felt secure in the love of my family.
By the time I entered college, bullying had worn away my self-esteem. Although I appeared confident, my self-confidence was rooted in external validation. Since academic achievement was such an important part of my identity, I was crushed when I received a B+ on my first paper. My confidence was shaken, and it was difficult to focus. When I got a B+ on my second paper, I called my parents in tears. I felt worthless. (Yes, I realize how ridiculous that sounds!)
My parents booked me a train ticket home for the weekend. When I arrived home on Friday evening, my mother had prepared one of my favorite meals. Afterwards, we watched Cinderella, one of my favorite Disney movies, on VHS. Perhaps she was inspired by the movie, but my mother decided I needed some new clothing. The next day, she encouraged me to try new things just to “see how it fits.” By the end of the day, we’d purchased several pretty dresses and a new fall coat. Among the purchases was an elegant navy suit and matching heels to wear to meetings of the debate society I’d recently joined. The new clothing gave me a small boost of confidence, but the unconditional love I felt from my parents made me feel ready to take on the world. While they had always celebrated my achievements with me, it took “failing” for me to realize that they never expected me to “earn their love.
I returned to college that Sunday evening feeling rejuvenated and excited to try new things. In my new suit, I learned to debate in front of an audience of hundreds of peers. In my new coat, I raced to classes where I found myself inspired by the professors and the material. I wore the new dresses to sorority rush events, where I met the sisters and best friends I’d always wanted. By graduation, I had a long list of academic achievements but was no longer defined by them. I’d led a service organization, served as president of my sorority, edited a magazine, appeared live on national television and loved every minute of it. I’d found my voice, and the smile in my graduation picture was genuine.
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