The small town I grew up in had a public school system with a progression that was: elementary school, junior high school and then high school.
Junior high was 7th grade to 9th grade. So, as a freshman, you were not actually in high school yet. Whatever. That changed around my senior year, when the junior high became a middle school.
Entering junior high at 7th grade was a serious step up from elementary school. You had electives. You had block classes. No more recess (!). No more being big man on the elementary campus. You had your own locker and locker partner. Freshman looked like giants and had facial hair and other advanced secondary sexual characteristics that made 7th graders look like toddlers. Good times. Or terrible bouts of bullying and teasing.
For simplicity sake, I will focus on the locker. This was a kind of civic and educational responsibility I had never experienced before. All your stuff had to fit inside! And junior high made sure you had lots of stuff to cram in there. I wont even bring up the peer pressure of having your locker in the right area of lockers, meaning that your locker was next to the cool kids, thereby making you that much cooler yourself. That was totally random, totally out of your control. You did get to pick your locker partner. That was good. People went with what they assumed at the time were their best friends. That could change a lot in junior high, and nothing prepares you for that either, unfortunately. But the locker itself and the embedded lock was all your responsibility. You HAD to remember your locker combination. And when you went to PE class (where showering with aforementioned giants was mandatory) there was a different locker for you there. TWO combinations? It was a lot for my 11 year old brain to hold on to. Point being that I still remember my locker combination for locker #20 at Lincoln Junior High school. It was 20-10-12. Hard to forget. That I remember this arcane and useless piece of information says something about my earliest sense of social responsibility. Maybe. If you are feeling extremely generous. That I have had nightmares ever since the 7th grade where I cannot remember my locker combination says something about my social anxiety.
Junior high was (and I imagine still is) quite a transition from the small, tiny children we all once were who would rather goof off and play during recess, reciting lines from Star Wars or the A Team, to the sweaty, acne prone, slouching, inarticulate, hormone dazzled train wrecks experimenting with smoking, drinking, and socializing, but also teenage rebellion, Joy Division/Metallica/Led Zeppelin/pick your favorite, and maybe trying to get to second base with the love object of your choosing.
All of that going on need I remind you while under the immediate and merciless scrutiny of our peers and those only slightly better off in the puberty/hormone conundrum. Judgment becomes so much more explicit—social judgment from our peers. All those other sweaty, insecure, dopeheads who are mostly still too young to have jobs or vote, but still exude a power over you that you can’t explain and challenges most known conventional armies in destructiveness and loss of productivity.
Judgment then, whether from them or from within ourselves, really comes out in full force. But it, like the four horsemen of apocalypse, doesn’t ride alone. No, no. It brings friends. Along with judgment comes our idealized future self. Because junior high was a place we all had to endure, but no one ever wants to stay there. The goal was to move on to high school. To our future self over there, after puberty and after the pimples, any maybe a real job, and a real boyfriend or girlfriend and real honest to goodness sex. So, for the purpose of my story today, junior high is about being stuck somewhere when what you really want is to hurry up and go (be) some where (one) else. Your future idealized self.
Judgment and our idealized future self then tag team against poor little us. Maybe you have had some of these thoughts (since your time in junior high).
No one at this party will like me.
No one wants to talk to me because of my (fill in the blank with vulnerability of your choice.)
I don’t have anything interesting to say, or offer, or do.
I will just feel really out of place.
I will disappoint them.
I will start to sweat, or stutter, or mumble, or drink too much, or talk too much, or…
No one would miss me if I didn’t show up.
I don’t contribute enough to make an impact.
No one listens to me when I try to talk about (fill in the blank.)
I just won’t have any fun.
This one time at a different party something happened that I didn’t like and no one cared or noticed.
Social anxiety is what can happen when your own judgment tag teams with your idealized future self and they beat you down with their fears, their taunts, and their torments.
It’s two against one. And as much as I want you and I to be more like Bruce Lee, you and I are not Bruce Lee.
So, social anxiety is a real thing in my life, and I imagine if not for you, then someone you know or love.
The thing to remember, to hold on to, to grow, is that you are not and never have been your judgments or your idealized future self. Never. Now, I am sure you are pleased to know that about the former, but I also suspect you don’t like what I am saying about the latter.
Anyone who has seen me for counseling in my office or via Skype knows what comes next. You put that sense of judgment or the idealized future self in the empty chair and you talk to it. Because they sure as hell talk a lot to you. It’s about time you leveled the playing field. And as you talk to these constructions your awareness grows and you change your relationship to them. You can take your power back from them. And then you don’t have to spend so much internal energy fighting them off. Because they just don’t matter as much as they used to. Just like those kids and all their opinions back in junior high or middle school.
Some of you may be asking: what’s the moral of this story, Henry?
The moral is I have remembered my locker combination for over 25 years but I had two-count them TWO-locker partners decide they didn’t want to be my locker partner anymore. Because of reasons. I am pretty sure they don’t blog.
More stuff to come next time. Thanks for reading.