This last weekend was my 20th high school reunion. I hadn't been back since our 10th.
Nothing like a High School Reunion to Flare Up the Insecurities
What started off months ago as excitement at seeing my high school friends, many with whom I had gone to school with since first grade, turned into fear as the date got closer.
I knew it was fear because I recognize that anytime I have a voice whispering a variation of "You're too different from them... they won't accept you" that my own insecurity is starting to put up walls of protection. And the only time I'd need protection is if some part of me thought I was in danger.
Which of course I wasn't in danger. But trying to convince the voice of a little insecure high school girl, who kept whispering that my marriage was too different, that my religious path looked too different, or that my lifestyle was too different, was like asking a baby to stop crying. Somewhat futile despite the best soothing.
You undoubtedly know the feeling. Sometimes it's walking into a cocktail party and assuming that everyone else knows someone, except us. Or attending a ConnectingCircle where you hope to make new friends, but guessing ahead of time that you probably won't have anything in common with anyone. Or talking to someone and guessing that whatever we are (single, a mom, retired, a Christian, an immigrant) isn't what the other person wishes we were, leaving the conversation feeling very much like an outsider.
Fear Divides Us
And I knew that I wasn't the only one showing up at our reunion feeling the fear. In fact, I guessed that there would be many who wouldn't even come, where fear was undoubtedly at the root of their reason. With statements like "Everyone else still acts like they did back in high school," "I'm just too different," "We don't have anything in common anymore," and "I didn't even like them back then, I surely won't like them now," you can see that every excuse validates the voice of fear: "I'm too different." And the unacknowledged fear beneath that statement is that we'll be judged, or rejected in some way.
I often quote Rabbi Harold Kushner who says that our greatest human fear is the fear of rejection. He makes a case that it is the fear of being rejected, or not being "enough," that is at the root of every other fear we hold.
If that is true, and I think it is, then we know that our default lens is often to presume we're being rejected, or somehow not measuring up.
If that's just true in day-to-day life, then the stakes definitely go up at reunions. There aren't many places in life where we "go back" to the same place and group of people. That going back is like a mirror where we can see where we used to be, and where we are now. It's impossible to not see all the other paths we could have taken, how our choices have played out; and to then compare our current life either to those who graduated with us, or against our own hopes of where we pictured ourselves someday being. Much like a door frame where our parents measured our growth with pencil marks, this ritual of going back can leave us feeling measured, evaluated, and insecure for any part of life that isn't "perfect."
I can feel sensitive about being judged for moving away and leaving our town; and someone else can feel fearful that I'd think less of them for staying. Someone can come and feel nervous about being too accomplished and successful; and someone else can come feeling bad about not having finished college. The person who is always being judged for having the "perfect" life is feeling just as insecure as the person who feels the weight of a bankruptcy, weight gain, or divorce.
What fear does is divides. Fear whispers that we're not good enough. Fear insists that there is a separation between you and me. Fear focuses on the .1% that may appear different, rather than the 99.9% that is the same. Fear forgets that we're connected. Fear builds up walls that tempt us to think someone is inside, and someone is outside.
How To Not Feel Judged...
Of course to bring our walls down means we have to feel safe. And while most us think we need them to act loving before we can feel safe, I found it much more empowering to create my own safety.
Here are the two things I did differently this time, that resulted in me not feeling judged:
1) First, I changed my story.
When I listen to most of us articulate our fears about what others might think of us, we say: "I feel judged for x."
Even if we don't use that word, we express those sentiments. You'll know you feel judged by the fact that you start defending yourself. Only someone who feels attacked has to defend. In defense mode we have two options: devalue them and/or inflate us. We tell ourselves whatever we have to to try to feel better about our lives.
The problem with feeling judged is that it leaves us as the victims, implying there is someone doing something to us. The story of judgment always has a perpetrator that we must defend ourselves against.
This time, every time I was tempted to take on the story of "feeling judged" I replaced it with "I feel insecure about x." I owned it!
That shift in language changed everything! Now, instead of being a victim that needs to defend myself against someone doing something (that most often is only imagined!); I am simply recognizing that I feel the fear. Now, I am in charge and I can ask myself, "Why do I feel insecure about this part of my life? Is it because I'm not happy with this myself? Or, am I not at peace with it in some way? What information can I take from this that will help me live my life more in alignment? Is there anything I can do to make myself feel better right now? How do I want to respond?"
Owning it as insecurity, rather than projecting judgment on others kept me loving to them with the clarity that they aren't the problem and empowered me with the information and empathy I needed to look inside and grow myself.
2) The second thing I did was create a mantra that I said silently through out the whole weekend:
"Focus on loving people, not trying to impress them."
So this time... I listened with empathy to that little high school girl inside of me that just wanted to be accepted. I heard it, validated the hunger, assured that little girl that others felt the same way, and decided that my own odds of feeling accepted would increase if I came in ready to give that to others.
I decided that I'd rather leave people feeling good about themselves rather than worrying about them feeling good about me. That means I chose to affirm them, share the very imperfect parts of my life with honesty, and listen deeply-- all things that can't be done with a heart of fear. Walls don't lend themselves to connection and love.
And truthfully, people like people who like them so odds increase that if they feel good--as opposed to insecure-- talking to you, they'll like you! Acceptance has a way of breeding acceptance. Which is what we all want anyway... so why not just get straight to the point? :)
You probably don't have a high school reunion coming up... but I'll leave you with this prayer:
May you know your worth, feeling deeply how valuable you are. May you remember that while your default mode is to feel rejected, that you can choose acceptance instead. May you continue to grow in accepting yourself and giving that gift to all whom you meet. We are all accepted, all good enough, all created with love....we just forget sometimes. Let's remember...