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Healing From My Fear of Being Spanked

A Personal Perspective: I was terrified of school because I’d been terrorized at home.

Hans Holbein/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Hans Holbein/Wikimedia Commons

Last month, in my post Self-Confidence Vs. Self-Esteem, I wrote that I searched for the source of my introversion by mentally backtracking my childhood history. I noted that I was bullied in elementary school by older kids because I was attracting them by the low self-esteem they could read on my face, and how my self-esteem was low because my mother bullied me at home. I concluded by sharing that I was learning how to re-parent my inner child in order to overcome the limiting beliefs acquired back then that continue to control me today.

I have continued my inner child healing work by recalling as many details of my childhood as possible. And, over the past month, I had two related epiphanies. I remembered how my parents frequently yelled at me to hold my shoulders back. My sister reinforced that memory: “Yeah, they used to ride you about that all the time!” This made me wonder why my posture was so bad, and through my research, I believe that depression may have contributed to it.

Then I found in an Andrew Weil, MD, article this powerful quote by Bo Forbes, Psy.D., from her book Yoga for Emotional Balance:

When we’re depressed the body may have what I call ‘Closed Heart Syndrome,’ a postural pattern that illustrates the helplessness, hopelessness, and self-protective withdrawal of depression. In this syndrome, the chest sinks and the heart area collapses (making) the breath shallow and slow.

In addition, she says that “the upper spine and shoulders round, as though to protect the heart from further disappointment.”

Bullies spotted my defensive posture and attacked.

The bullies at my school may not have been reading low self-esteem in my face; they may have noticed my stooped and bent-over posture as I walked to school every day. As I approached in my defensive posture, it did just the opposite; it signaled the bullies that someone weak and powerless was coming their way. And, like hyenas finding a wounded gazelle on the Serengeti, they attacked often and viciously.

My second epiphany came when I wondered why I dreaded school so much that it made me depressed, but I didn’t just dread going to school; I was terrified of going to school. It was more than the was also my teachers and the principal.

My girlfriend pointed out to me that whenever I tell this story, I use the word “terrified,” which is a much stronger word than “scared” or “afraid.” Indeed, I was terrorized in school, but it was given fuel by my parents.

It all began in the weeks before I started elementary school when the older kids in the neighborhood told me that I should prepare for getting spanked a lot by my teachers and the principal (see my post: Bully Victims Are Created by Unstable Households). They explained how all the teachers had paddles, and how the principal had a spanking machine in his office that he loved to use. The neighborhood kids enjoyed teasing me with these tales because I believed them, and they could tell how easily I was frightened. But, it wasn’t all fiction.

My fear was real.

In 1963, my first-grade teacher controlled the behavior of 30 rambunctious 6-year-olds by wielding her paddle. She never actually spanked any of us, but she threatened it almost daily. If a child in the room was doing something she didn’t like, she would pound her paddle on the desk of the offending student while screaming at him or her to stop or else she would take them into the hallway and spank them. An alternative punishment was to send us out into the hall to stand with our nose against the wall by the door, where, if we were caught out there by the principal, he would paddle us.

Reinforcing this was the frequent sound of the principal spanking some defenseless child. “WHACK, WHACK, WHACK, WHACK” echoed down the hallways, through the open transoms over classroom doors, sending shudders into young minds...and focusing their behavior. The principal patrolled the hallways and lunchroom with his large wooden paddle sticking out of his back pocket; it had several holes drilled into it to reduce air resistance so he could swing faster and harder; the holes also removed the cushion of air made by solid paddles that could reduce the impact and pain.

Being sent out into the hallway was a more frightening punishment to me than being spanked by the teacher. There was many a day when I would stand in the hall with my nose again the wall shivering, shaking, and praying that the principal wouldn’t be making his rounds while I stood there.

I was terrified of school for my first three years. In fourth grade, I stopped being afraid, because, for the first time, I had a teacher who did not control behavior with harsh discipline, but with kindness, caring, and compassion instead.

Surprisingly, not everyone had the same experience.

As I thought back to those days, I also recalled former schoolmates writing in a Facebook forum for my elementary school about how much they loved my first-, second-, and third-grade teachers as well as the principal. This made me question my fear. What was it that made me so afraid? Clearly, I was afraid of being spanked, but why was I so afraid of being spanked? I believe it was because my parents spanked me often and severely.

My mother would spank me with a switch, and my father with a belt. I either had a hard time learning what I was not supposed to do, or my parents were abusive. Then I recalled when I was a teenager my father telling me that on the night he got home from having his kidney transplant, he couldn’t sleep because I wouldn’t stop crying, so he spanked me until I stopped crying.

I don’t recall that event, but that evening was the first time I’d seen my father in six months. My sister and I were sent to a faraway city to live with a stranger—a friend of my mother’s whom we’d never met before—while my mom and dad went to Boston with my father’s twin who was donating a kidney (see my post: Good Habit - Questionable Motive). I was four years old, and my sister only a few months old, when we were essentially abandoned for the duration of my father’s illness.

I was traumatized by my parents' abuse.

I was dumbfounded as my father revealed this story to me—mostly because he told it as if he still felt justified in what he did. That must’ve been a pattern with my parents because I then recalled many times when my mother would scold me into tears, and then tell me to stop crying or she would give me something to cry about—implying that she would spank me.

I was terrified of school because I was so afraid of spankings. I had been traumatized by my parents’ abuse. I wasn’t just depressed. I think I may have been suffering from posttraumatic stress.

It was no wonder that I had low self-esteem. My parents had taken my power away from me—my power to face life unafraid. Boy, do I have a lot of re-parenting work to do with my inner child.

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