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Blog Post #3: Moving Away from Fear Towards Love and Healing

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

It was August of 2007, the first night of class in graduate school. I entered the classroom full of excitement mixed with a healthy dose of anxiety. I was back at the same university where I earned my bachelor’s degree. It was a place I felt very comfortable because it was also located in the small city where I grew up. The school had been there since 1960, and at that time not much had been done to update it. The cracked linoleum floors, oak doors and florescent lighting in this building had probably seen thousands of students in the over 45 years before this night.

As I entered the classroom where most of our classes would be held that first year, I realized it was one I didn’t recall being in before. There were no desks, so the room seemed larger than others in that building where I had taken many classes. The room was set up with a number of mismatched retro, well-worn accent chairs arranged in a circle around the perimeter of the room.

Some of my classmates had already taken a seat, but most people were still milling about the room talking. We had already all been together once for a large gathering with all of the faculty, and at least 30 alumni. They welcomed us, answered questions and shared some of their experiences from the program. But, on this night, it was just our group of 16 being guided by two faculty members as we embarked on our two-year learning expedition together.

As I scanned the room, I caught the attention of a woman I had met in a psychology class I took the previous semester. A few of us had to take a prerequisite class to meet the requirements needed before being accepted into the program. As soon as I saw her warm smile I began to feel a little more at ease. I felt an instant connection with her, and I felt relieved when she told me she also felt both nervous and excited.

Before talking with her, the imposter syndrome was beginning to take hold of me. I kept thinking someone was going to tell me there was a mistake, and that I actually hadn’t been accepted into the program. I never imagined myself achieving a master’s degree before finding this program. But, there I was, one of the 16 people who were set to be the class of 2009, gathering on the first night of class.

They called us a cohort, (a group of students working together in the same program), and at the time I had never heard that term before. It was the tip of the iceberg of the unknown for me for that next two years. I still wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I just knew I was supposed to be there in that room with those people.

We started with introductions, and what they called a “check-in,” which became a regular part of our interactions over the next two years and beyond. The idea of the check-in was to say what you needed to say in order to leave whatever stress or feelings you had coming in at the door, so we could focus on the work we would do together. It was just one of the many things that made me feel that I had found my people.

The check-ins on the first night were very surface level because we had all just met and had yet to establish a strong foundation of trust. Over time they would sometimes go much deeper, bringing up some intense emotions. I was excited to hear from everyone, but as we went around the room I became more and more intimidated. So many of the people already had these big careers and many of them listed all of these major accomplishments in their introduction.

As my classmates continued rattling off a litany of their achievements, part of me started to drift away in my head to that not good enough place. Another part of me actually felt slightly annoyed with how some of them seemed to go on for a little too long. I was probably a little threatened and jealous, but also I was saying to myself, SHEESH! They asked for a BRIEF introduction not your entire resume! That little bit of inner sarcasm helped me pull myself out of that place of fear in that moment.

Many of my life experiences up to that point had me unknowingly living from the place of fear. The toxic stress I had experienced within my family dynamic, (see blog post:

had me craving safety and comfort, and avoiding anything that might cause me to face my fears. If something seemed too difficult a challenge, or presented barriers I didn’t feel I could overcome, I would typically run in the other direction.

One of the earliest examples of this was my path to college. I earned good grades in high school, but I was never a stand out student in any subject. I didn’t take any college prep courses, or run for student council or anything like that. Many of my friends took the PSAT junior year to prepare for the SAT senior year, but I decided not to take either. My counselor told me that if I didn’t take the test I could complete my general education requirements at a junior college. As long as I was in good standing at the junior college, I would be able to transfer to a four-year college.

Test taking was always difficult for me. Regardless of how much I studied, my anxiety would often get the best of me. I didn’t understand then what my learning style was, and had to muddle through figuring out my own process of absorbing the information. Kinesthetic learning, or learning by doing, is my dominant learning style. I did really well in classes where teachers used some type of activity to help ground us in the material. In high school, I had the most amazing biology teacher who was so good at that. He always tried to create ways to make learning fun for us.

A perfect example of one of his fun activities was the eye color game. He labeled dice with all of the possible genetic combinations used to determine eye color. For example, two green-eyed parents have a less than one percent chance of having a child with brown eyes, 75% chance of a child with green eyes, and 25% chance of a child with blue eyes. We would pick the possibilities available based on the two parents’ eye color and roll the dice to see what we got. The lesson was over 30 years ago, but it is still fresh in my mind today. I always earned top marks in his class because he presented the material in such a dynamic way that truly enabled me to absorb it.

Unfortunately, not every teacher was a long-haired, guitar playing, hilarious storyteller who truly knew how to reach into the depths of our hormone-filled high school brains. In most classes I had to revert to using all my senses but in a very kinesthetic way to study for a test. I would take detailed notes in class, then scour the chapters for pertinent information, writing it all down, and then re-writing it to try to commit it to memory. Flash cards were also something that worked well for me. Once I got into college, I began the practice of recording myself reading my study notes, and I would play it while I slept to help my brain to absorb it on an unconscious level.

It was an extremely time-consuming process, but I learned how to make it work for me. But, to me, the SATs just seemed to be this massive test that covered every subject, and it was a mountain I didn’t have the confidence to even attempt to climb. My self-confidence had taken a huge hit at the age of 12 when my family began to fall apart, and the family addiction issues became more prevalent. I adapted a coping strategy of flying under the radar in my family in order to avoid escalating the stress and chaos.

I could never have imagined that the turmoil in my home would soon lead to the destruction of most of my friendships as well. At age 13, after one of the worst arguments I had ever had with my mom, I made the rash decision to move an hour away with my dad. It all happened so fast, and I didn’t even tell the girl who had become my closest friend over the last year until I was already there. My lifelong best friend had moved to another school in another town at this time, and this other girl and I had become very close.

She was sad when I told her, but she understood. I loved my dad, but I realized how much I missed my friends and felt bad for leaving my mom like that. Within a week I was back at my old school. I had no idea that my friend felt hurt because she thought my decision to come back was the result of the “popular girls” telling me I should come back, not her repeated requests. I had already made the decision to come back before I talked to those girls, I just didn’t want to say anything until I talked to my mom and dad first.

It was a simple misunderstanding that turned into a year of absolute hell for me. I know now, it was very little about me at all; but, back then in my already emotionally fragile state I internalized it, and it became all about me.

Almost every friend I had turned on me, and I was bullied relentlessly for almost my entire eighth grade year. The result of the bullying meant that both my life at home and at school were in crisis. This is another experience I go into great detail in my book, but it is important to share here because the impacts of my experience in eighth grade stayed with me far beyond that point.

Relational bullying is the type of bullying that girls specialize in, especially during adolescence. Words are the weapon of choice, in the form of venomous insults and destructive gossip, as well as the practice of excluding and isolating the target of the attack. I spent almost an entire year of being told on a daily basis in one way or another that I wasn’t pretty enough, smart enough, or tough enough. I was too sensitive, and too much of a wimp to stick up for myself.

It was the first time in my life I remember being told it was not good to express my emotions. The more I did, the worse it got for me. I have always had a big heart and cared deeply about the people in my life. I have always felt everything deeply, not just my emotions, but other people's as well. It was extremely difficult for me to cope with too much negative energy; it was like poison to me. I didn’t understand then why I was so sensitive in that way, all I knew was that my peers were telling me that feeling and expressing my emotions was a sign of weakness.

Too much, and not enough were the words that rang through my head on a loop from people who used to be my friends. The fact that my very loyal best friend had gone to a different school that year only added to my isolation and loneliness. Not everyone was as cruel as my bullies, but most people avoided me in order to stay out of the line of fire as well. The only friends who were brave enough to share space with me while at school slowly disintegrated down to a group of two brave girls. Without them, and my temporary escapes to visit my best friend in the next town over, I’m not sure I would have survived that year.

The cruel methods my bullies used didn’t just occur outside of the classroom. I stopped participating in class because my bullies, or their disciples were in every single class I had. They would find ways to humiliate me during class, sometimes when the teacher wasn’t looking, but often times right in front of them with little to no consequence. If that didn’t work, they would find some way to use what I said in class against me for their daily torture sessions at break or lunch when they had a much larger audience.

The influence of the daily verbal assaults I received in school, coupled with my family crisis created a massive chasm between me, and what was left of my self-esteem. Even when the bullying finally calmed down at the end of eighth grade, the fear and emotional trauma I experienced as the result of it stayed with me. Being bullied while dealing with the tumultuous instability of my family was the perfect storm of emotional chaos in my life. Those two upheavals taking place simultaneously cemented my negative view of self, and fear-based decision-making for many years to come.

After eighth grade, I had learned that in order to survive, and to keep things somewhat calm and manageable at home and in school, I needed to just keep my head down, be nice to everyone all the time, and avoid conflict at all costs. I had seen what could happen with even the simplest misunderstanding in eighth grade, and the fear of that happening again sent my people pleasing into overdrive.

I also couldn’t let on that anything bad was happening in my home for fear that I would get my mom in trouble and be taken away from her. I even feared that my dad would get in trouble too for not intervening. Regardless of what was going in my family, I loved my parents and never wanted anything bad to happen to them.

I learned not to call attention to myself by standing out as a student, or in any other way. I always made sure to maintain good enough grades that I stayed in good graces with my parents and teachers, but I avoided putting myself in the position where I excelled at any one thing. I became as invisible as I could as I hid myself in the middle of the pack trying not to stand out.

This strategy kept me living in fear of stepping outside of my comfort zone and compounded my self-doubt reinforcing the belief that that I was not capable of more. When it came to the SATs, I was deathly afraid I would not do well and then be unable to get into any college. At that time, college was a hope and an expectation my dad had for me, and for me it was another way to gain his love and respect. So, I made the choice to take the path of least resistance and I planned to enroll in junior college.

The summer after high school graduation I had started to feel stuck in a rut, and I was ready for a change. My dad and his girlfriend had broken up, and he had moved out of their shared home and bought a home of his own. I wanted another chance to live with him, and to spend more time with him. I decided once again to move an hour away from my hometown to live with him, but this time I was ready to stay for a while.

I got a job and enrolled in the local community college, and was looking forward to a fresh start in a new place with my dad. Since my dad had steered me away from studying psychology, I decided I would major in English instead. I had a passion for writing, and my hope was to become a writer. Once again, my dad’s voice rang through my head telling me to plan for practicality and security over passion. I figured I could always teach and improve my writing skills so maybe someday I could at least write on the side.

I loved my first college English class. The instructor’s lectures were interesting and engaging, and he gave really thoughtful feedback that I found helpful and encouraging. I saw myself thrive in his class the way I did in my two favorite English classes in high school. Those three educators were actually part of the reason I was leaning towards majoring in English. It felt good to be inspired and excited to finally feel safe enough to put myself out there and try to excel at something I loved.

The following semester I decided to take an English writing class to continue down that path. The class was taught by a different instructor with a very different teaching style, and it seemed no matter what I did she never had anything positive to say. We had peer-reading groups and my peers always gave great constructive feedback that I found helpful in improving my writing. However, the instructor’s feedback was quite the opposite.

I found her comments to be harsh and critical in a judgmental way rather than a helpful way. Overall her demeanor was, to me, very unapproachable, and remained that way for the extent of the class.

The feedback I received from her translated to me hearing her say that I wasn’t a good enough writer, and it would take a great deal of work for me to ever become good enough. Just as I was starting to come out of my shell and gain some sense of confidence in my abilities, my experience in her class sent me running for my comfort zone. Her teaching style might have worked for some, but for my 18 year-old wounded soul it was a horrible experience.

All of my not good enough/not smart enough stuff just came screaming back at me, fear took over, and I reverted right back to searching for the safer option. My experience in her class, combined with my lack of self-esteem, had me silencing my voice by abandoning my passion for writing. It never occurred to me then to get a second opinion, or lean into her criticisms. Back then when someone told me I wasn’t good enough, I tended to believe it.

I had never been to therapy to deal with what happened with my family, or to process my feelings about the bullying experience. I just pushed my feelings about all of it deep down inside, and kept on pushing through. Once again I took the path of least resistance and decided right then to switch my major.

I had always liked history, and I had an instructor I really liked and learned a lot from, so I switched from English to history. I planned to become a high school history teacher. In my mind, it was a clear path towards a career that helped me avoid dealing with the hard stuff like facing difficult criticism. It also kept me gliding along in the middle of the pack where I would most likely remain unseen, and therefore “safe”.

I did earn my bachelor’s degree in history, but I never pursued my teaching credential. I was burnt out after finally reaching that milestone, and that led me to the decision to take a break before signing on for at least two more years of school. I think I would have made a great high school history teacher, but I’m also really grateful that I listened to my intuition in that moment and took a beat before forging ahead.

Eventually, after working, living my life, falling in love and getting married I felt that familiar pull to once again change course. I was back living in the area I had grown up, now with my husband, and I decided to take a few courses at the junior college with the goal of getting a better job. I had no idea that one class assignment would end up truly changing my life for the better.

The class was Human Relations. To me, it was like they had taken a psychology class and mixed it in with a business class. It was more about leadership and less about management. The emphasis was placed on finding how to motivate and inspire workers, and by doing that you can retain loyal, hardworking employees and that would lead to an increase in profits. It was the people side of business, and it spoke to my core values in a way nothing ever had before.

I had no idea what job I could get that would allow me to do this kind of work full-time, but I was more excited than I had been in a while about the possibilities. However, when were given an assignment to do an informational interview for the type of job we wanted to pursue, I was at a loss. I could never have imagined that my mom would be the one to guide me right to the answer I had been looking for all along.

The older I got, the more I came to realize that my values definitely aligned more with the kind of work she did. She worked for the county, and her office was constantly doing work to help people in need. Service to others was where my heart was as well. She set me up with a woman who was a volunteer coordinator at the county where she worked. I had no idea then what a volunteer coordinator's job was, so I was skeptical at first. But, the clock was ticking on the assignment, and I had no other ideas so I went with it.

Within the first few minutes this woman asked me a few simple questions to get a sense of what I was interested in doing, and then she dropped a giant celebratory glitter bomb that changed my life when she said, “Well that sounds like Organization Development.”

Suddenly my brain perked up and my eyes widened with joy as I said, “It has a name? It actually exists?”

She said, “It absolutely exists. Not only does it exist, but there is a master’s degree program for it right here at the local university!”

I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I earned my bachelor’s degree from that very school. In that moment I knew that my mom was guided to connect me to this woman. She helped me find exactly what I had been looking for, which was right under my nose all along. My fear kicked in for a minute, and all of the I’m not smart enough to earn a master’s degree stuff reared it’s ugly head. But, I was so excited, intrigued and inspired to finally be able to pursue something I was so passionate about, I put my fear aside and charged ahead. And, I got accepted into the program.

The road to that classroom in August of 2007 was a bit of a wild ride, but I made it. Once I was there, I no longer tried to hide in the middle of the pack. I definitely didn’t hide or suppress my emotions, I began to learn how to deal with conflict, I said the wrong thing more times than I could count, and in the end I not only survived, I thrived. I believe that I, and every other person in that classroom, brought in our unique lived experiences, which helped deepen the learning experience for us all.

I would have many opportunities to face my fears and step outside of my comfort zone over the two years it took for me to earn my master’s degree. Grad school acted as a huge catalyst in my healing journey. Even though after graduating I would still have plenty of steps ahead of me, I’m so grateful for that truly transformational experience.

The people in my cohort challenged me, supported me, and a few have even become lifelong friends, including that woman with the warm smile. It was a unique learning experience that bonded us in a way nothing ever had for me before. Many of them helped me begin to heal, and a few of us are still connected on that journey together.

I had spent so much of my life going along to get along, trying to assimilate in different ways in order to stay safe. Each time I have learned to lean into fear rather than hide from it, I have been rewarded. It’s not always easy, but it has always been worthwhile.

The moment I tapped into myself to set out to find what I was passionate about doing was the moment I mark as the beginning of my healing journey. I still had a lot to learn, and to let go of before I could get to where I am today; and, it didn’t happen all at once, or in the same way. It was incremental, and each piece of my healing arrived at the exact moment I was ready to receive it. Knowing what I know now, I’m grateful for that too.

I’m not going to cram 16 years of healing into one blog post, but I thought it was important to start at the beginning. As with all of this, my intention is to share my experiences in an effort to support and encourage others on their own journey. With each new post I will share key turning points and experiences that helped me learn to remove my armor, let go of patterns and behaviors that no longer served me, and most of all taught me to love and accept myself unconditionally.

And the journey continues…

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