I recognize that ‘love is louder,’ but mean-spirited jokes can be deafening

In early spring 2001, my mom and I went to our town’s community center so I could sign up for pop warner cheerleading camp. I’d been wanting to revisit my childhood love for dance in a slightly different way, and I enjoyed the spirited attitude expected of cheerleaders. As much as I would have liked to cheer for my middle school, I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk getting made fun of by my classmates, who seemed to think they had more than enough material for a lifetime to draw from, so I chose to join a team just outside of town, where no one knew anything about my less-than-favorable jr. high identity. My parents refused to let me switch schools, but this could be my chance to start fresh, to have a life independent of my hellscape of a school.

Naturally, I did bump into some people from SVMS that night. There were three sixth grade girls eyeing and laughing at me, and I remember being puzzled as to why they were acting that way. I was a year ahead of them and they weren’t part of the usual crowd that poked fun at me, so I was at a loss.

Once I got home and my parents were done congratulating me, I mentioned the gawking girls to my dad, who became visibly angry within moments. Not at the students, but at me.

“Laura, I’m the first to come to your defense with bullies, but you have got to stop thinking everyone is out to get you,” he said, muting the TV. “People don’t have time to think about you as much as you think they do.”

“But this happens a lot, Dad,” I yelled, certain he just didn’t get the situation.

“Then fight back. Do something other than whine everyday. I don’t want to hear it.”

Call it tough love, a reality check, or downright cruel, my father was trying to help me. Though he was almost always right, he was wrong about that particular incident. As I learned the following day via AOL Instant Messenger, the group of girls had, in fact, been making fun of me at cheer registration. They ended up being the least of my problems, but what I learned from all this was that I wasn’t totally crazy or imagining things. I was being mocked, and even now I can always tell when someone is slighting me in even the most discreet of ways. I know because I spent my entire life training myself to drown out the laughter, overlook the eyerolling, ignore the smirks, and turn my head at all instances of mean-spirited gestures. Rather than master it, however, I became hypersensitive to it, and it haunts me on a regular basis.

A couple of months ago, I babysat for a precocious little boy with strong observational skills but issues processing his surroundings. Someone could mention Scooby Doo and he’d start talking about castles. To us, that would seem non-sequitur, but not to him, as Scooby Doo runs off to a castle in one of the books his parents bought for him. He has an interesting way of perceiving things, and I found myself telling his mother I saw a lot of myself in him.

“Someone will say something to me and I’ll take it the wrong way,” I confessed. “Usually I assume the worst. That whoever I’m talking to is trying to put me down.”

“You have a bad doorman in your head,” she said. “You let the wrong thoughts up.”

I’ve talked to a few professionals about this before, and one psychiatrist chalked it up to rejection sensitivity and my previous experiences with harassment. I don’t assume everyone wants to hurt me, but when I do feel targeted, I become defensive. This happened recently, and I tried explaining to the other party that I’m not merely trying to create problems, but suspicious because I can detect humor at another person’s expense from a mile away.

As to be expected, the person said it was all in my head, but had nothing to say when I pointed out that it’s really frustrating when someone laughs, makes faces, whispers, or rolls his/her eyes every time you speak. Whether there’s a connection or not, it’s hard to ignore and very distracting, if anything because there’s a joke going on that nobody wants to share with you. Exclusion is another form of bullying, in my opinion, at least in certain situations.

I’m even more aware of this now because of something that happened last spring. I used to go out a lot with my friend Sarah’s college buddies, and after a night at the bar, she pulled me aside and asked whether I’d noticed her pal “Jessica” making fun of me all evening.

“A little, but I wasn’t paying much attention,” I said.

“Well, she rolled her eyes every single time you spoke,” my friend said. “It really pissed me off. She doesn’t like you and that’s her way of bringing you down.”

“She doesn’t have to like me. She’s your friend, not mine.”

“But she shouldn’t laugh at everything you say.”

To be honest, I wasn’t offended. This girl wasn’t my friend, but when people I care about or know relatively well have ongoing jokes about me behind my back, or worse, quietly in my presence, it’s painful and confusing.

More often than not, I need to avoid taking things so personally, but as I realized in seventh grade, I’m not always wrong about situations of this nature. Not everything is about me, but when I am the subject of a joke on a regular basis, I just want to sit these folks down and ask why they feel the need to put somebody else down. To those of you who connect with others through mutual hatred of another person: Do you really want to spend so much energy belittling others when you could be working toward something positive in your own life? Come on now. Don’t spend your entire night at a bar talking and thinking about how much you despise a girl who happens to be having a really awesome time.

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