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Shark Tank

Every so often I find myself confronted by a seemingly innocuous phrase that rubs me the wrong way. This week, the offending line is “Don’t let it get to you,” a sentiment that simultaneously comforts the recipient while displacing the blame. It has a way of scratching into one’s psyche, leading one to believe, I let that get to me, therefore any hurt feelings I’m experiencing are my fault.

The simple fact of life is that people can be jerks. The interwebs have increased the average person’s exposure to jerks by an order of magnitude. If I could have bought stock in internet trolling, I’d have a few planes by now. From the playground to the office to the comment thread, at some point we all have to deal with a generally unpleasant person who derives pleasure from putting others down.

If Psychology 101 taught me anything, it’s that those who lash out at others (trolls, bullies, abusers, whatever your name for them) are unhappy and insecure. But that’s only a salve to slap on a sting while the poison gets under your skin and spreads.

I was bullied mercilessly in junior high. I had a tier of tormentors. It wasn’t the ruthlessness of the lone individual at the top that got to me, but rather the number of people who jumped on the bully-Barb bandwagon. My main tyrant — a 13-year-old sadist — wasn’t the worst of my problems. Sure, he made me dread showing up to school — taunting me with unflattering nicknames like Bar-Barf, putting melted chocolate in my backpack, and Vaseline in my shoes. But even in the eighth grade I could tell he had issues. So, as irritating as he was, I could write it off as, That one’s not right in the head.

It wasn’t the name-calling or the physical harassment that ruined junior high for me — it was the psychological agony that stemmed not from my being targeted so much as my being tested. I had a close-knit group of girlfriends and a few “best friends.” One day, without warning, I found myself unwelcome at the lunch table and told to go away if I was walking too close to the group in the halls; it was as if I’d ceased to exist. It was a collective shunning — I was like a diseased monkey being pushed out of the troop.

Meanwhile, my friends welcomed the new girl I’d introduced to them. She’d been a mid-year transplant from another school and, until then, I’d been the only one to reach out and offer my friendship. Even she joined in on the shunning. Too embarrassed to sit alone, I began to take my lunches with a teacher whose work I helped grade.

At the end of the school year, one of my “friends” was passing out invitations from a giant bag on her shoulder for her end-of-the-year party. There had to be at least a hundred of those little scrolls. I thought it was so cool she’d thought to roll them like that. As I stared at the bag expectantly, a girl named Sarah stepped forward to shoo me away and said, “Don’t think about asking for an invitation. You’re not invited.”

That summer, I spent a lot of time crying. My mother and sisters did their best to cheer me up, from deriding my ex-friends to attempting to rebuild my shattered self-esteem. I smiled and pretended their antics were working so that I didn’t seem like such a miserable chump.

It wasn’t meant to be cruel, what those girls did to me. When school began again, we were all friends like nothing had happened. It wasn’t until senior year that one of my besties finally shared the answer to the question that had plagued me for years: Why?

To my surprise, the answer had nothing to do with my failings as a person. “I just wanted to see if I could get them to do what I wanted,” she explained. “I told them to stop hanging out with you, just to see if they would.”

My friend’s revelation conjured images of a documentary I’d seen in which lion cubs tackled and tumbled, unknowingly honing their predatory instincts as they played. I didn’t blame my friend for her little power trip; she was just unwittingly preparing herself for the shark tank that is adulthood. What I didn’t realize at the time was that rather than being just a victim, I, too, was growing — developing and hardening my emotional armor.

Sometimes I feel like I live on a little island inside of my head. I’m on this island, and there’s a giant ocean between my shore and the physical me that interacts with other people. My survival mechanism is to detach myself emotionally. But, words…they’re such good swimmers.

I live my life in the public eye, a lifestyle that invites commentary. It’s one thing for someone to disagree with my opinion — I respect and value disparate points of view. That’s cool. It’s a big world with room for a lot of different ideas. However, when all talk of opinion is tossed aside, when people revert to their scared, confused, still-figuring-out-the-world middle-school personalities and resort to name-calling when there’s no objective defense, what’s left? “I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you”?

“Don’t let it get to you,” David will say after I read him a message that has already gotten to me.

“I just…I don’t understand why,” I respond, wiping a tear from the corner of my eye and then huffing at myself for caring what some person on the internet thinks about me. In that moment, I hate myself. Not because a part of me fears that every terrible thing that is written about me might be true, but because I allowed those words passage across my ocean and onto my island. I let them get to me.

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