“There weren’t enough seats at the lunch table.”

Even now, years later, the young man’s eyes filled with tears as he recounted that pivotal day in middle school when he was ousted from his friend group because there weren’t enough seats at the lunch table. Someone’s new friend wanted to sit with the young man’s group of friends that day and there weren’t enough seats for everyone. So, through a vote or perhaps just bad luck of arriving at the table last, he was shut out of the table and shut out of the friend group.

Standing alone in the middle of the cafeteria with his tray in his hand he realized he had lost his spot in the group.

“I had to find a new place to sit.”

As he shared his story, I couldn’t help but be transported back to my own middle school days and, in a flash, I could picture myself in his shoes. After all, I’d been in similar situations myself — haven’t we all? 

Instantly, I could remember how it felt to experience the awkwardness around where I should sit, the worry over who was looking at me, and the fear that people around me were talking about me.

That familiar pit in my stomach sprang to life and the negative thoughts I would have about myself rushed to the front of my brain. In moments like the ones he described, time stands still and it feels like all eyes are on you. Yet, at the same time, it feels as if you are completely invisible. 

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I’ve even had those lunchroom experiences as an adult in places like workplace lunch tables, conference cafeterias, school events for my children, and even community fundraisers. If I’m being honest, I need to admit I’ve even been part of it myself — complicit in allowing other women to shut others out from their table. The settings may differ but the question of where will I fit in and the sting of rejection are the same as it was back in middle school.

On some levels, I suppose one could say having to find another seat for a 20-minute lunch period is not that big of a deal. But, can rejection, especially in a public setting, ever really be minimized?

No matter the circumstance, it almost always hurts to be rejected or told you are not good enough. No one wants to feel like they didn’t make the cut or are on the B-list now. Listening to his story made me wonder why so many adults haven’t really moved on from the middle school lunchroom versions of themselves.

Why are we, as adults, so quick to close off our circles and exclude others? Is it really that hard to bring an extra seat to the table, share a seat, or even find a bigger table?

Why has middle school behavior become acceptable and normalized in adults, especially adult women?

With a smile, the young man shared that some good came out of his heartbreaking moment, bringing three new wonderful friends into his life as they were kind enough to pull out a chair for him. Eventually, the other group expanded their circle again and began including him in their larger events. 

So, the story does have a happy ending. But, the wound is still there.

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The sting of rejection, the humiliation of being publicly turned away, and the feeling of being not good enough still rattles around inside his brain, and he wonders if there is a possibility he might once again be asked to leave a table because there aren’t enough seats.

Based on the number of adults I see needing to find new places to sit, I’m guessing that middle school experience won’t be his last.

Sometimes there really aren’t enough seats at a table and no one should feel forced to share their table with someone else. But maybe, just maybe, we could sometimes pull up an extra chair and see that expanding our circle doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Softening our boundaries sometimes might not be the end of the world and might go a long way to making someone else’s day a bit brighter. 

At the very least, maybe we could all benefit from lifting up our eyes sometimes to make sure no one is standing there alone, holding their tray in the middle of a room, looking for a new place to sit.

Sometimes we can pretty easily make room for one more. 

Jenni Brennan

Jenni Brennan, LICSW is an author, podcaster, college professor, therapist, and mother. Her work centers around the topics of grief, health and wellness, relationships, and parenting.