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What we can learn from our inner 12-year-old

Portrait of teen and younger sister on bed.
From our adult vantage point we look back on our twelve year-old selves and think we had it made: no job, no bills, no responsibilities. We could sleep in on the weekends and take off on our bikes and hang out with our friends for hours. Sounds like our idea of heaven now, right?

But if you’ve forgotten what it was really like, let me offer up one, simple word: middle school.

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Okay, that was two words. But you get the idea.

But middle school is just the beginning; do you remember the confusion you felt about puberty? Or the frustration of having virtually no control over major life decisions (i.e. sharing a room with your sister, whether or not your went to church)? And what about some of the other biggies, like being bullied at school or even at home? If, like me, you suffered emotional abuse at the hands of a family member then you know all too well how helpless it felt to be twelve years old.

For better or for worse, that inner 12-year-old still exists in each of us.

Though a 12-year-old is certainly less vulnerable than a newborn from a physical standpoint, it may be the time in our lives when we’re the most emotionally exposed. The pressure to be accepted and find a place where we fit in is unrelenting. At twelve, we’re starting the pull away from our parents and beginning that painful transition to autonomy. Yet all the while we’re supposed to play it cool and not let our doubts and fears show to those around us.

Though we may look back on it decades later and think we had it easy then, these were actually some pretty rough emotional waters.

So let me ask you this: if you could travel back in time and tell your emotionally vulnerable 12-year-old self something, what would it be? If you could be there in one of those pivotal moments when she was hurting, what would you whisper in her ear? Kinda brings out your inner mama bear, doesn’t it? Like, you just wanna flatten anybody who would try to bring this kid down.

When I posed this very scenario to a friend recently – a friend who I knew had struggled with her weight nearly her whole life – she started crying. She told me how she’d been bullied at school about her weight, and about how she got no sympathy at home either. Those people who should have had the most compassion for her told her: “It’s too bad kids make fun of you, but if you’d just stop eating so much then they wouldn’t have anything to make fun of.” Infuriating.

What I know from my own emotional abuse is that when those who you should be able to trust turn a blind eye to your suffering, you learn that there is no safe way to share those feelings. You try very hard to simply turn them off. Of course, even though we become adept at masking them and stuffing them down (in my friend’s case and mine too, with food), the feelings still exist.

Feelings aren’t right or wrong.

Feelings aren’t bad or good.

We tell ourselves that we “shouldn’t feel that way.” But we can’t help the way we feel, and telling ourselves we “shouldn’t” feel something doesn’t make the feeling go away. It just drives it underground, under layers of guilt and shame.

What I would tell my inner 12-year-old, if I could go back in time and whisper something in my own ear when I was under attack, is that my abuser was wrong. Just because he had all the power in the situation didn’t make him right, and just because I couldn’t do anything about it and had to submit didn’t make me complicit.

Our 12-year-old selves have more to teach us than we give them credit for. Their feelings are powerful and raw. But that’s just exactly what feelings are supposed to be! Allowing myself to tap into those feelings – to give my inner 12-year-old permission to grieve over how she was violated – is the only way I could heal. And healing is the only way I could find my way out of obesity.

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