Bullying is a horrible thing. It sticks to you and stays with you.
It will make you susceptible to being bullied again and it will even define your worth if you let it.
Some bullies you grow up with, others you meet in the school yard.
And yet more of them pepper your work life and it isn’t a question of if you’ll run into them, but when.
If you’re looking for a quick fix to bullying, this isn’t it. A quick search on your internet machine will turn up plenty of those articles.
This is my deep-dive into understanding and resolving the consequences of bullying; to understand what bullying looks like, how it can be difficult to see, the mechanisms that enable it and what I, as the victim, can do about it in order to affect tangible change.
When I left grade school, I thought I’d left being bullied for good. At the time, I didn’t realise that bullying isn’t an isolated behaviour, brought on only by the hormone-driven interactions of immature humans, but a dysfunctional way of dealing with yourself.
Neither did I realise that it carries through childhood and adolescence into adulthood, and the world at large — where I was headed!
Bullies, bullies everywhere
As we grow up we stop calling the people who bully ‘bullies’ and label them with misnomers like ‘high-achiever’, ‘nasty’ or ‘jerk’.
Doing this suggests that their bullying behaviour is simply how they express their personality and so exempts them from being held responsible for their actions.
We normalise being treated like crap by bullies and just accept it as fate that workplaces, hobbies and even homes, are going to have people whose large egos justify their cruel behaviour.
The tricky thing with recognising bullying in the first place is that it isn’t always obvious or easy to spot. In fact, it can be so subtle (and we so accepting of being treated badly) that we don’t even realise we’re being bullied.
Just being around a bully is nasty, actually being bullied can be indescribable.
There are always consequences
Being bullied often has traumatic consequences and can lead to things like anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and poor success in social interactions — whether you’re a child or an adult.
Kids who are bullied are more prone to psychological problems as teenagers and young adults, and have poorer success at school. I was bullied for several years, both in school and at hobbies, and the result of that was, well, all of the above.
In the worst-case scenario, you’ll carry the ill effects of bullying close to your heart for the rest of your life, integrating what you believe those derogatory interactions teach you about your worth as a person.
A study conducted at the University of Washington School of Medicine found that elementary-school children who are victims of bullying are 80% more likely to feel “sad” most days.
Bullies. Are. Not. Invincible.
Bullies usually start out with more power than their victims; they are physically bigger, stronger or hold a position of authority or seniority. They also absorb power from people around them and get stronger as their victims’ strength diminishes.
But bullies are not invincible, even though they may often seem that way — especially to their victims.
Bullies are only as powerful as we allow them to be. Taking the power away from a bully isn’t always simple, and may take practice before getting right, but the apparent strength of a bully can also be their undoing.
Bullies operate by making their victims feel alone and powerless. They isolate you, back you into a corner and convince you that there is no way out.
The longer a bully has power over you, the stronger that hold becomes. That’s why it’s crucial to end bullying as soon as possible and prevent the relationship from becoming entrenched.
Bullying is repeated, aggressive behaviour [ . . . ] that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Its purpose is to deliver physical or psychological harm to another person.– Frank L. Smoll Ph.D., What to teach young athletes about bullying
Bullying usually begins with the relatively milder forms of bullying, such as name-calling, teasing or moderate physical aggression.
The bully is testing the waters, and after asserting that you aren’t going to stand up for your own rights or get help, the aggression escalates.
Bullies are created by being bullied, and they are experts at determining who is going to push back and who is going to suffer in silence — because this is how they survive the bullies in their own lives.
Bullies select their targets with care and begin a toxic relationship with you that revolves around creating a power imbalance in their favour.
The three main types of bullying according to Dr Frank L. Smoll:
- The most common forms of verbal bullying can be name-calling, taunting, being rude and threatening with violence.
- In social bullying, the goal is to exclude a person on purpose by gossiping about them, trash-talking them and embarrassing them in front of others.
- Physical bullying includes things like slapping, hitting, pinching, head-butting, tripping, spitting, stealing and making rude gestures.
Bullying can also be silent
Generally, when we think of bullying, we summon up images of yelling and screaming. We imagine that the confrontation is loud and that tempers run hot; that the person shouting is out of control, even shaking with rage.
While this is true in many cases, some of the worst and most damaging kinds of verbal abuse are quiet.
[ . . . ] silence in answer to a question asked or a comment made too quickly can pack a mightier wallop than a loud rant. Silence effectively ridicules and shames.– Peg Streep, The Brutal Truth About 6 Types of “Quiet” Verbal Abuse
Being subjected to quiet verbal abuse, especially as a child, is more confusing than being yelled at.
The absence of rage sends mixed signals and the motivation behind willful silence is impossible to read (because they won’t tell you why they’re angry at you).
There is a special kind of hurt in being treated like you’re invisible, or that you’re so unimportant that you aren’t even worthy of an answer.
Seeing someone act calm and as if they can’t see you is chilling and leaves you with the pain of being ignored, excluded and loveless.
Being ignored hits us right in the evolutionary feels because we’re biologically wired to connect with other people — especially those that our survival depends on.
6 types of silent verbal abuse:
As children, we learn our self-worth from parents that are attuned to us and who respond to our cues. Caring parents teach us that we are worthy of attention and that we matter: that we are fine as we are.
This is how we gain the courage and confidence we need to explore the world. If we are ignored, we learn that our position in our relationship, our family and the world is uncertain and insecure — without knowing why.
What experts call Demand/Withdraw (ask/stonewall) is considered the most toxic pattern in a relationship.
Adults find it frustrating and infuriating to deal with someone who refuses to answer, but this dynamic is devastating to children who do not have the mental defence mechanisms to protect themselves.
3. Contempt and derision
Shaming can be accomplished in a soft voice too; making you the butt of jokes, or via physical gestures, such as eye-rolling or laughing at you to convey contempt.
Controlling people who need to be the centre of attention often use these techniques to maintain relationship dynamics exactly as they want them. Bullies can turn this into an acceptable team sport (like parents getting siblings to join in) where you are repeatedly made into a scapegoat. Afterwards, you might even be told how you were ridiculed while you weren’t in the room.
Gaslighting doesn’t require shouting or even raising your voice; all it takes is a simple statement saying that something that happened actually didn’t.
The aim of this manipulation tool is to get the victim to doubt their perceptions and it’s relatively easy to do in a relationship with a power imbalance. It makes the victim question their own sanity and erodes the confidence they have in their own thoughts and feelings in a profound and lasting way.
That nitpicking and magnifying every mistake and misstep is “for their own good” is an excuse for cruel behaviour. Hypercriticality is often explained by the bully as “justified” since they’re doing the victim a “favour” by correcting perceived flaws in their character and making sure that they “aren’t too full of themselves”, “don’t let success get to their head”, “learn humility” and “know who’s boss”.
These self-serving statements are often delivered in a quiet tone, but the barrage of criticism will make the victim believe they’re unworthy of attention and support — that they are entirely worthless.
6. Utter silence
The power of what is not said cannot be overstated. The void that the absence of praise, support and love leaves in a child’s heart and psyche is enormous.
To develop normally and to thrive, children are hardwired to need all the things that abusive parents never voice or demonstrate. Words that articulate why we are worthy of love and attention are as essential as food, water, clothing and shelter.
Understanding dominance can give us insight into bullying behaviour
To understand how our emotional response system works, we need to first understand the brain and the survival mechanisms that govern us.
When the paleo-limbic brain is active we become very territorial and retreat to our respective corners of dominant, submissive, marginal and axial behaviour.
Dominant behaviour is usually the most troublesome: from showing off and machismo, to bullying and downright harassment. A dominant person feels that any success is due to their involvement and that all failure is always the fault of others.
A very dominant person is incapable of admitting to mistakes and taking responsibility because they feel that they are superior to everyone else.
Since dominant people never question their own behaviour, they will never learn that what they’re doing is hurtful to others.
The good news is that the paleo-limbic brain abides by the same laws of dominance as animals in the wild, and prefers rituals and displays of power over actual fighting.
Just light posturing from this kangaroo gets a dramatic response from the emu:
When males, competing over territory or females, do end up fighting it will usually only last until one party has been proven stronger: the other will retreat.
Fighting to the death is uncommon, and injuries that prevent an individual from finding food — such as infected wounds and broken bones — are far more common causes of death than fighting.
So, like rivalling males, the paleo-limbic brain will posture and intimidate, give it a few tries, but disengage once it feels firm resistance.
Understanding how the paleo-limbic brain works around this axis of dominance and submissiveness will make it easier to understand why people behave the way they do and help us to better defuse a volatile situation.
Narcissists and psychological warfare
As a person grows more dominant, they will usually begin to display stronger behaviour. In its mild form, dominance is manipulation and seduction, and a dominant person can be very charming.
I grew up with a hugely narcissistic parent, and reconciling what I saw (narcissistic warfare) and what others saw (harmless, charming hippie), was confusing and had me questioning my own sanity.
Someone with an inflated sense of importance, a deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others, and who is also vulnerable to criticism, can, in the right circumstances, become a bully who attempts to get her or his own way through aggressive, threatening, and hurtful behaviour toward those who have less power.– F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W., 6 Smarter Ways to Deal With a Bully
Narcissists often lack a conscience, and climbing into the ring with one is like bringing a feather duster to a gunfight.
Narcissists wield cruelty and abuse like it’s their right, and as a person of conscience, you will be left feeling guilty for even wanting to fight back. You end up surrendering because you start to question yourself and start believing that it’s all your fault.
It’s awe-inspiring how unfair, underhanded and malicious narcissists can be, and incredibly unjust that they rarely feel true remorse for their deeds.
They distort the perception of reality, sometimes seemingly bending the fabric of the universe around you, to free themselves from accountability, while simultaneously projecting the blame onto you.
Deflection, distortion and projection are key tactics for a narcissist.
Erin Leonard, PhD, writes in her article How Narcissists Conduct Psychological Warfare, “Their [a narcissist’s] line of unconscious defence mechanisms operates like a force field around their ego, excusing them from deep and sincere feelings of remorse, insight, introspection, and accountability. Thus, they feel like they are never wrong.
“Occasionally, when their back is against the wall, the narcissist may act as though they feel sincere remorse. However, this may be a trick to regain the trust of the person whom they are manipulating. Also, operating from a victim stance assists him or her [the narcissist] in controlling others through guilt.”
So, how do we even the playing field?
The key is to understand projective identification and how it is the most lethal weapon in the narcissistic arsenal.
According to Dr Erin Leondard, Ph.D., projective identification is what creates the toxic chemistry that psychologically chains an empath to a narcissist, and she says it is critical to learn how to disarm it.
Projective identification is like a dance that the narcissist pulls the empath into. It does take two to tango, though, and without the empath participating, it becomes impossible to perform.
The narcissist will lead with projection and the empath will follow with identification.
Projection is a psychoanalytic term used to describe the unconscious process of expelling one’s own intolerable qualities and attributing them to someone else.
Not wanting to see a negative quality in themselves, the narcissist projects them onto other people as an unconscious defence mechanism.
Narcissists will often accuse other people of being narcissists and behaving selfishly when that is precisely what they themselves are doing.
They do not want to see negative behaviours or qualities in themselves because they find them shameful and incompatible with their image of themselves as infallible.
Identification is when you unknowingly absorb the projections from the narcissist and unconsciously identify them as your own, and instantly feel shame, insignificance and incompetence.
An empath has access to deeper emotions like empathy, accountability, introspection, deep remorse and insight, and this automatically means they’re psychologically less rigidly defended.
Empaths can endure feeling uncomfortable
Being able to experience these deeper emotions, means being able to withstand a tinge of pain to the ego. A person with access to deeper emotions has a stronger ego than someone who has shut themself off.
When you are able to swim in the waters of deeper emotions, you require fewer defence mechanisms as you can endure feeling uncomfortable. Having an open heart means that your defences aren’t set off as easily as a narcissist’s, which are constantly on a hair-trigger.
Identifying with the projections of the narcissist, you are vulnerable and begin to feel a tremendous amount of self-doubt.
You begin to believe the distortions communicated by the narcissist and are eventually convinced that you are the root of the problem.
You, feeling guilty for being the problem, begin to cater to the demands of the narcissist in an effort to appease and to right the wrongs you now believe you’ve committed against them.
The narcissist takes advantage of this increased power imbalance and grabs more control by intensifying their tactics to isolate you and cause conflict with your family, friends and in your work relationships.
Ensnared in this lethal cycle of projective identification your sense of self slowly erodes and you begin to feel dependent on the narcissist.
Leonard further writes, “Breaking the chain of projective identification requires the empath to become consciously aware of this unconscious dynamic. Once the insidious psychological mechanism is illuminated, the empath’s knowledge protects them from believing the narcissist’s distortions about who they are.
“After recovering elements of their sense-of-self that were lost, an empath regains the strength to strive for space and independence from the narcissist. Once the empath has succeeded in creating distance in the relationship, he or she is safe from the narcissist’s projections.”
Remaining Zen as f*ck when facing a bully
The first rule of facing down a bully is to check your emotional responses at the door.
Whether a bully is testing how far they can push you, or outright bullying you, your response should be anchored in unemotional, simple language. When you don’t cower, the bully loses power.
An assertive and unemotional response lets the bully know that you have no intention of being victimised and that you’re neither apologetic about it nor posing a challenge.
A challenge — as well as an emotional response — would give the bully the attention and sense of power they are seeking.
Breathe in strength, breathe out bullshit
The last thing you want is for the bully to get under your skin because that’s exactly what they want.
When a bully is bombarding you, don’t respond in kind. Remain calm and polite, but firm, and set your limits clearly.
Keep your responses simple and consistent: “I don’t think your tone is appropriate” or “this isn’t acceptable behaviour”. Keep your voice assertive and speak slowly.
Deep down the bully doubts that they deserve your respect, but they will respect the boundaries you set with them when you speak with self-assurance and confidence in a strong and firm, but courteous, demeanour.
Practising your responses so that you’re prepared the next time something happens is a good way to be able to respond swiftly but without getting emotional.
We need self-love to withstand bullying
In her Netflix special, The Call to Courage, researcher Brené Brown aptly says, “Man, it is so much easier to cause pain than feel pain. And people are taking their pain and they’re working it out on other people. And when you don’t acknowledge your vulnerability, you work your shit out on other people. Stop working your shit out on other people.”
Bullying is a bully outsourcing their emotional process onto something external. Rather than taking the time to recognise and acknowledge how they really feel, they work their shit out on you.
It’s when you buy into it that the shit hits the fan because that’s when causing damage really begins.
To weather the storm of bullying, we need self-love. We need to be our own best friend. We need to love and care for ourselves. We need to stop treating ourselves badly in order to prevent others from doing it.
When you look in the mirror, say nice things to yourself. And if that’s difficult, get a picture of yourself around six or seven years old, and pop it in your bathroom and start to talk to her or him. Start to talk to her. Literally.
I want you to start to create a relationship with a part of yourself that might feel vulnerable, and who really needs you on side.– Mandy Saligari, Feelings: Handle them before they handle you, TEDxGuilford
We need to become practised at recognising and acknowledging our emotions as they happen, and we need to learn how to tell ourselves that it is not okay to let others be cruel to us or to anyone else.
For me, a part of this journey was to figure out how to guide our daughter in a world that is full of bullies.
I’ve gone into more detail on how to advise your kids on how to deal with bullying in this article: Bully-Proofing Your Kids Is Simpler Than You Think.
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