• Michelle Sterling

Middle School to Middle Aged: Why making friends with your past still matters.



I recently decided the books on my shelf aren’t doing me any good just sitting there looking at me, which means I’m trying to carve out time to actually read them.


I love books and like to fancy myself an avid reader. Truth be told, I’m probably more accurately described as an avid book collector. Looking at all those stacks and rows of brightly colored spines inspires me, much like others might find inspiration in their own collections of cherished porcelain figures or autographed baseballs. Some items are just meant to be appreciated from a safe distance, and certainly not meant to be touched!


I’ve also fancied myself a writer. And yes, the irony of my collecting books to stare at and not read is not lost on me. I’m quite certain that the authors of the works in my collection did not intend their words to be used as staged props on a shelf. (Have I mentioned these aren’t picture books?) I know I personally find writing a more intimate type of connecting; I am after all, sharing my personal thoughts and ideals. Which means the cycle is incomplete if the words are never consumed.


And so lately, these titles have been beckoning me, pulling me closer and enticing me to not merely touch them or open them and carelessly leaf through their pages, but to explore them more deeply – to immerse myself in the visions of another’s mind for a bit. And yes, I do romanticize all of life’s simple pleasures this way. Thanks for noticing.


The first book I opted to sink into was a self-help book gifted to me by my sister. Now before you get defensive about that idea on my behalf, let me explain that her pure intention was for it to be enjoyed by a small group of us while on Spring Break. Kind of like a mini-retreat Spring Break book club where we gather poolside after yoga and compare notes before ordering our umbrella drinks. (See? I’m not the only one with romanticized notions of how to live your best life! Must be genetic.)


Here's how that went. Spring Break was about 5 or 6 months ago and as you may notice, I'm still writing about the books I haven't read. I may have missed the deadline, but the book hasn’t gone anywhere. As is their nature, they stay put where you leave them.


To get myself back on the avid reader track, I adjusted my routine to allow time to read one chapter of said self-help book with my morning cup of coffee. I’m happy to report this has been a much needed and delightful shift from my usual mindless screen scrolling.


One morning, I was rewarded for my efforts with a thought-provoking statement that stopped me in my tracks. And one that, in its truth, is still working its way into my bones for a more complete understanding. Here it is:

“You see the same world you saw in middle school, because you haven’t changed your opinion of yourself since then.” Mel Robbins, The High Five Habit

When I initially read this, I pictured myself back in the seventh grade…. then the eighth…then ninth, allowing myself to reenter junior high school (which is how we did it back then) through the lens of my life at that point in time.


To say it was eye-opening feels trite. As with all truths when exposed, what I am experiencing is a shocking awareness of the many ways I’m still operating from the wins and wounds that were born in that “coming of age” timeframe. It impacts how I approach clients, deal with rejection, set boundaries, ask for what I want, and it most definitely colors my self-worth. Did I mention it was eye-opening?


To move through my micro-evolution more productively, as I have a want to do, I thought it might be a good idea to list out what my opinion of myself was at that time.


My thinking was that whatever stood out in my memory must still be part of my inner script. And by writing it down in one place, I might better wrap my head around it.


So far, I have not been able to bring myself to do that.


I am, however, currently holding compassion for my twelve-year-old self. Productivity be damned for a bit. Here is a sampling of some of the more compelling thought burps that have come out of this effort so far:

  • I am not a problem to be fixed, but a woman ready to live her life in full authenticity

  • I can take up space and have a voice – unapologetically – and not be destroyed

I also wonder how many of us are operating from the wounds and wins of our twelve-year-old selves. I don’t know many functioning adults who have reached enlightenment. Do you? And have you looked around at what’s happening in our world these days? If I see individual players as operating from their wounded twelve-year-old selves, it explains a lot.


This truth might also shine light on why we:

  • Approach our work like a chore that someone is making us do before we can go out and play

  • Are constantly searching for and trying to align with the “in crowd”

  • Spending millions of dollars on things that distract and entertain us

  • Still tolerate mean streaks, blowhards, and those who make fun of others

  • Need so many books for leaders to understand human dynamics in the workplace

Maybe your community is more evolved. If you ever want to validate this, I suggest you log on to your local NextDoor app. Although, that exercise may make you never want to leave the house, so consider yourself warned.


At the end of this, I’m left with the question of what to do with this newfound knowing. How does this change things for me?


I might not have that answer yet, but I do know that we all need to feel like we belong somewhere. Like we matter. I’ve been teaching this for years. Now how do I layer in compassion and forgiveness to help not just my healing, but more healing for us all?


For now, I’ll hold space for that question and wait for what answers appear in my life. For now, I’ll move onward. One book down, a multitude more to go. I do wonder: What other treasures does my book collection hold?