mental engineering

by Olga Reinholdt
Meditation Teacher and Author
I'm convinced that schools around the world are all the same.

They may look different, teach different things, have different rules, but they all share the most important factor — the kids.

And all the kids all over the world share the most important struggle — how to navigate in this world of dichotomies between what's being said and what's being demonstrated through actions, the right things and the things you really want, the rules and the actual experience.

Finding your own truth in these dichotomies is probably the most challenging part of growing up. We all managed it differently.

This is why a high school is such a crazy place: it's a concourse of people blindly trying to find their way and themselves through the paradoxes of life.

So kids start creating something they can make sense of: hierarchy, popularity ratings, authority positions, ideas of beautiful and ugly, cool and not cool. Human mind loves segregations, because then the world somewhat makes sense. Segregating means understanding, understanding means surviving. So kids zealously hold on to the segregations they've created, no matter how random they are.

Just a few months ago you were best friends, just girls, and suddenly she is the princess, and you are the nerd.

Just a few months ago they flocked around you to get your help with the homework, and suddenly you are "the weirdo".

Just a few months ago the boy was just a playmate, and suddenly you want his attention, and he is as distant as a shiny star.

High-school life, as we know it. So much pain, right?

I don't know how about you, I fell into the "weirdo" and "nerd" caste in my school, although there wasn't really anything weird and nerdy about me. The most amazing part of it was how readily I "accepted the role" and believed that I was that. I lived accordingly. Again, it might not be the best part, but it was at least something that made sense in the storm of attitudes, further life and career decisions, and hormones.

I became "unpopular". I thought it was unfortunate back then, I wished I was more attractive, thinner, smarter (or maybe dumber, who knows…), trendier… Looking back I realize how fortunate I was, because being unpopular in school taught me life lessons, that I still value.

Lesson #1: What others think about you doesn't really change who you are

Let's be honest, most times we judge ourselves by what others think about us, and how others act around us. Even if it manifests in an "f u" attitude, even when one claims not giving a ***, others' attitudes tend to form our own attitude to ourselves.

When you are a popular kid you enjoy the attitude, and you let the attitude form your self-identity and perception of your own value. Why would you question others' opinion, if the opinion is "oh, she's so cool?"

It feels good, but it also trains the brain for self-identity through the eyes of others. It creates dependency, and the need to maintain the flattering opinions at any price.

When the high-school with its random cast segregation is over, you no longer have the "spotlight" you've secured. Thus the life of proving self-worth begins.

When you fall under not so flattering description, you start questioning it, at least once in a while, at least when you are away from your "natural high-school habitat", when you meet new people, or when you stay with yourself.

Then suddenly you realize, that if you question the identity, it's no longer your identity. Who is questioning?

You understand that what others think, is nothing more than what others think. Who you are is a whole separate thing. You gain freedom.

Lesson #2: You learn doing what you really love doing

I believed that those popular kids were really enjoying their gigs.

I wasn't part of the gigs, and honestly — although it sucked to not be a part of something considered "cool" among your classmates, I didn't really care for those activities as such.

I didn't go to the parties, because I wasn't invited. But if I was, I didn't want to go.

I didn't participate in school activities, and I didn't want to.

I spent plenty of time doing things that I really loved: playing guitar, weight-lifting, reading books, writing poems, choosing my own projects…

I took it for granted, until I found out that most of the "popular" kids hated what they "had to do". Girls complained how they hated to go to the parties, how they hated the outfits; boys complained how they hated to go on dates, how that stupid drama project they were involved in was such a pathetic waste of time.

I couldn't understand itl: why forcing yourself to do things that you hate?

Turns out maintaining the status quo demands certain sacrifice, and free choice of activities is one of them. If a kid's self-identity depends on the "status quo" of the "cool one", then the kid feels obligated to participate in activities that come with the status.

Wasn't my story: no status quo, no entitlement, no obligations. Of course, there were still things that I forced myself to do, such as waking up early to go to school. But I knew WHY I did it. On the whole, being liberated from the status quo I learned to be honest with myself about things that I wanted to spend the time of my life on, and the things I didn't care about.

This skill turned out to be essential for living a meaningful life.

Lesson #3: You learn that love and friendship really have nothing to do with social acceptance

It is amazing how relationships come and go with status.

In school it happened all the time. People don't become friends with you — they become friends with the informal status that you get.

Romantic relationships are even worse: boyfriends and girlfriends seem to be a direct function of your own "popularity", not feelings or at least sexual attraction.

Popular kids and their surrounding seemed to delegate their real human emotions to the status quo as well. It was weird how couples broke up, just because one of them compromised their position in the "cool crowd". It was even more weird to see how couples married just because the "cool crowd" accepted them as a couple, and they remained attached to this acceptance even after the school was over.

I loved making friends and meeting boys in places where there was no predetermined level of coolness or any sort of judgement outside of who the person really was.

Turns out real friendship, love, attraction have nothing to do with acceptance in certain social circles. Ability to see people as they are and to trust my own feelings towards them became another valuable asset of not being popular in school.

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