His name was Charles Philip. That’s not his real name. His real name was Steve Markham. That’s not true, either.
The name doesn’t matter.
It’s not that I don’t want to embarrass him—I’m not even sure he’s still alive. It’s that he represents every person who ever bullied me, from Grade 3 to last summer.
We were in the same homeroom for several years of high school. This was long before my ADHD had been diagnosed, and I was in the class of underachievers.
It was a motley collection of tough troublemakers, bad eggs, and a few bright nerds who really were underachieving—a toxic mix of bullies and four-eyed, asthmatic, gawky, puny, victims-in-waiting.
I lived in fear of Charles, and the cocky gang of sneering smart guys.
Back then we called them hoods, recognizable for their black leather, pointed toe shoes for fighting (called ‘Shooting the Boot’ in a rumble).
I’m sure the fear was all over my acned face. And certainly all over my brown corduroy pants, plaid shirt, and hush puppies.
The worst was the year he had the locker next to mine. I was careful to get in early to ditch my sensible coat and proper winter boots.
At the end of the day, I lingered with friends (imagine the cast of The Big Bang Theory) until it was ‘safe.’
Luckily, Charles often skipped classes altogether and hung out and smoked with the macho men and tough girls at The Wall across the field.
At the time, I didn’t much enjoy high school.
Now I look back on it and see it as even worse than I realized.
Years of stress, low self-esteem, hiding out, struggling, dying to be anywhere else, writing stories in my head, imagining places I would travel, girls I would seduce, inventions I would create…
Charles was gone a year before I graduated. What became of him, I did not know.
A decade later, a mutual acquaintance told me about his awful home situation. Drugs. Police. A parent incarcerated.
And then, 28 years later, came the call from a friend, “Hey, are you going to the big High School Reunion? It’s the school’s 50th anniversary.”
I went to the reunion, eager to meet old friends and see all those girls I never had the courage to ask out.
I had no idea what anyone was doing, or what they were up to. But a lot of people knew about me, and the shows I’d done. That was kind of a shock.
It was an evening of delightful surprises and semi-sad updates.
Like when a girl who I had totally forgotten asked me for my contact information. As I was writing out my email address, she screamed, “You still hold your pencil funny! And you still stick out your tongue when you write!” Wow.
I hadn’t seen this woman since Grade 8 and she remembered that?
Then came a small guy, dressed like a pimp out of a Ralph Bakshi cartoon. “Hey! Rick!!! Remember me?! Charles Phillip! I had the locker next to you! I tell everyone I meet that I know you…”
A billion thoughts and feelings exploded in my head—a standout moment in a night of, “Oh my gods!”
For a millionth of a second, the old fear hit me.
And then I saw the look in his face: Desperately hoping I remembered him. Wanting to be acknowledged. And completely oblivious to the fact that I might view him as anyone other than an old buddy who used to tease me about my appearance.
I won’t tell you how the conversation went. It doesn’t much matter.
I was barely there for most of it!
Instead, my brain was undergoing a seismic shift, one that took weeks to fully process. Fears and past beliefs about myself came to the surface and popped like bubbles. Anger and dread evaporated.
Charles the Gangster, whom I had imagined might stick me with a jackknife just for the thrill of it, turned out to be… a human being looking for validation. Wanting to fit in. Needy. Just like the rest of us.
If I hadn’t be on television, Charles would have doubtless forgotten about me, and I’m sure he had forgotten my fellow nerds who slipped past him in the hall, eyes downcast, or pretending to be lost in thought.
But all the crap in my head about being bullied, about being a coward, how I was the weak one in my family, and a dozen other things I had imagined suddenly occurred to me as complete inventions.
Things happened, and I had given them the worst possible meaning, turning every scrap of “evidence” into yet more proof that I was weak, cowardly, a loser…
Enough is Enough
I share this with you because I have learned that we all carry similar beliefs.
They are all, ultimately, variations on a theme: I’m weird. I don’t fit in. I’m not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, tall enough, manly enough, girlish enough…
Basically, “I’m not enough.” Enough of whatever it is we have been told we should have more of, if we hope to succeed and be happy.
I look at myself. I look at my wife. I look at my kids.
I look at all the experts we’ve interviewed, and the thousands of people who come to the site every week, or who come out to see us live, or join us here for webinars… and I think every single one of us is enough.
All of us gloriously, uniquely different. And enough.
Since that reunion, I’ve learned to focus on what I do well. I focus on the areas where I know deep down that I am enough—maybe even more than enough!
I’ve learned to choose way better explanations for things. Because, if you’re going to make up a set of beliefs, why not make up good ones? So, instead of Coward, how about ‘Kind and peace loving’?
Lazy? How about, ‘Thrives on the really big challenges’?
Underachiever? Try ‘In the wrong environment.’ (In this case, the wrong environment was school. But more on that in a future blog.)
I invite you to try this super-empowering shift for yourself.
Take a negative belief that you have about yourself, and see if you can reframe it, transform it, and see the strength rather than the weakness of it
. Explore the flipside or upside or “what if” of that limiting view. If you have someone caring you can work with, try this practice in conversation with them.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the strength by yourself. Not because you’re stupid, weak, or a loser but because you’re sensitive, modest and… human.
We all have blind spots! The trick is to try to see things from a different, more powerful perspective.
Take it from me… and Charles.
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