In commenting on this recent blog post, a number of readers had their own stories of painful echoes from the past and asked for a follow-up: what do you do when painful echoes still resonate?
While those old words may always be a part of your life experience, you can defuse their power by considering them in light of present day reality.
Question the authority of the speaker. A classmate from decades ago cannot judge you for life. You took in the pain of his or her words because you were young and vulnerable or in a situation that caused you to doubt yourself. Look back over time. The 11-year-old boy who called me "Fats" was being an 11-year-old showing off to his friends. He was also observing, in his clumsy way, that my body was different. Indeed, it was. While I wasn't fat, I was developing curves at a time when every other girl in my class still looked like a child. My self-consciousness about that made me especially vulnerable to his careless cruelty.
Consider the mental health of the person speaking hurtfully: a critical parent may have been criticized relentlessly himself or herself in the past or may have been in the self-hating mode of addiction and was displacing this pain onto you.
Or a person may have a mental illness. Sister Claudine, my second grade teacher, who made fun of my partial paralysis as I struggled to recover from polio and rejoin my classmates in school, was very young, very far from her home in Ireland, and so depressed that, even as a 7-year-old, I knew that her words were coming from a dark place within that had nothing to do with me. In fact, she soon had what was then called "a nervous breakdown" and, before the school year was finished, was sent back to Ireland.
The realization that the speaker may have been mentally ill or emotionally damaged or simply immature doesn't make what they said not hurt. It doesn't make his or her words okay. But it does diminish the authority of that hurtful voice. The person was speaking from his or her own pain or ignorance or immaturity -- not from fact.
And if what you were teased about was fact -- you were a chubby child or wore geeky clothing or stuttered -- the mind-set that made you an outcast then was an immature one. Chances are, those who teased you would not do the same today -- and if they did, there's some impairment there, some arrested development going on.
Consider your strengths now. You're bigger. You're stronger. You have more resources now. You aren't limited to one dress. You look, more or less, slim or zaftig, like most people now. You don't have to take in someone else's garbage. You can walk away. You can dismiss the verbal abuse. You can question motives, telling yourself that this person is damaged, unhinged or simply an asshole. You can tell yourself or, internally, speak to that long-ago tormentor through time: "Yes, I do look different. But it's terribly unkind of you to point that out in such a hurtful way." If the person who caused your painful echoes is still in your life, still ready with critical remarks, you can stop the pattern with the realization that you are no longer a powerless child, that you can break the pattern and speak up for yourself, even if your tormentor is a parent or sibling. You may gain more respect --self-respect and respect from the other person -- in the process. And if it causes greater distance -- maybe that distance needs to happen for the relationship pattern to adjust to your new strengths.
If you've thirsted for revenge, remember that living well is the best revenge. Living life as a loving, giving member of society is the best possible outcome from childhood pain.
When I was taunted or excluded by some classmates in elementary school, I used to tell myself angrily that "I'm going to be very famous and successful one day and they'll all be sorry!" I'm sure if any of those kids even knew of my later success, they didn't care much one way or another. I doubt that any of them felt a strong enough connection to me to be either sorry or glad. They may not remember being unkind. But I remember -- and being kind, being thoughtful, making an effort not to speak words that could wound another is my way of putting the past behind me.
Reconsider the words in the context of now. You can reframe your present. You are not chained to past victimhood. You call the shots now. If you spent a sad childhood feeling abused, left out, ridiculed, this doesn't have to follow you all the days of your life. Now you're in a different phase of life. If you weren't pretty or popular in school, this no longer has to limit you now as it did then. None of us is likely to be as conventionally cute or pretty as we once were -- or yearned to be. But we've grown into our own beauty, our own power, fashioning lives uniquely our own.