Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Bullying: The problem that never seems to go away, part 2

Next week I have a book coming out that deals with the aftermath of, and healing from, bullying. This week I'll be running a three-parter on the topic of bullying. This is Part 2 of 3. You can read Part 1 here.

It took a long time for me to see the toll that peer abuse and bullying took on me. On her blog, Between Fact and Fiction (Feb. 8, 2012), Natalie Whipple wrote that after being bullied, her default assumption is that people won’t like her, “[o]r worse, they’ll be openly mean ...” It amazed her when a friend of hers said, “I generally assume people like me until proven otherwise.”

I shared Natalie’s default assumption. But I only become aware gradually, over a period of years, that not being liked was my default assumption, and that it did not necessarily reflect reality. Before I began to question that assumption, I would think that any whispers or giggles in my vicinity were about me, and that in any new social situation, people would not want to get to know me. I finally learned to question that assumption and act against it, but my natural first impulse was, and sometimes still is, to expect rejection. It’s that ingrained.

This assumption formed partly because my abuse in two states by three groups of kids seemed to prove my unworthiness, to prove that I deserved mistreatment. But now I have a different interpretation.

Now I think that after I had been through the mill once, in middle school, my default role of victim and outcast was in place. Bullies sensed that and acted upon it; I did not fight it because I had learned to expect it; and the cycle became self-perpetuating. In saying that, I’m not saying that I brought it on myself. The fact that a person is an easy target does not make targeting that person acceptable. This is one reason it drives me bananas when people describe bullying in these terms: “She was bullied because she was short/tall/fat/skinny/wore glasses/had scars/had a funny name/had a different religion ...” People are not bullied because of who they are, but because their bullies will not leave them alone. Bullies act out of their own intolerance, insecurity, fear, ignorance, cruelty, or whatever.

That’s so important that I want to say it again:

People are responsible for their own actions.

So I now think of my second and third situations as a continuation of a pattern, the playing out of roles that had been set earlier. The first situation, the one that began the cycle, was a sort of serial-bullying scenario. The class ganged up against one person, then another. I was the first victim, and I believe I was the target for the longest, and I had more than one turn. But eventually there followed a series of victims—even, very briefly, the original ringleader herself. Her turn under fire gave me no satisfaction. Mostly I just felt that I could never relax, that there was no such thing as “safe.” It was a poisonous environment for all of us.

Where were the adults in all this? you may ask. This was the era when bullying was seen as a natural part of childhood, even a rite of passage. “Just ignore them” was the standard advice I got. That did no good, although I did learn to keep a stony face no matter what people said to me, and I learned not to cry in public. A couple of teachers joined the bullying, making snide or cutting remarks. Some adults tried to intervene, although they didn’t see most of what went on, and they were fighting an unofficial code of silence. My father drove me to school one year when bullying on the bus became unbearable. He should not have had to do that. But it gave me some relief; it was a concrete step that interrupted the abuse.

I know now that there must have been kids who participated only reluctantly, those who were understandably afraid to buck peer pressure. There were many who were silent witnesses rather than active participants. There was even a girl in junior high who stood up and fought back. I now think that a lot of kids who witnessed bullying, or participated in it, were actually troubled and scared by it. Scared not the least because they knew it could happen to them, too.


  1. I just finished reading WONDER by R.J. Placio. Excellent book that deals with bullying a deformed ten year old boy. The way he overcame it is tremendous, indeed. Bullying seems like an age-old problem, and when the bullied decides to be just as mean and fight back, you get things like gangs and unneeded violence. It seems to be in human nature to lash out at what you don't understand because it makes you feel insecure yourself. Why? No idea, but I fear that my own daughter will deal with bullying because she is such a different personality than her classmates. She's so wild and eccentric and doesn't seem to even notice that other kids laugh at her. I'm afraid that one day she WILL notice, and she will care.

    1. My next entry will quote the work of Rachel Simmons, and she found a VERY interesting dynamic: often it was not the stereotypical outcast who got bullied, but someone that the other kids thought needed to be taken down a peg:

      "When I first started interviewing girls, I'd planned to organize their stories according to the qualities I assumed girls got punished for: the differently abled, the overweight, the poor, the haplessly uncool. I had not expected to find that girls became angry with each other for quite the opposite reason.

      "As most any girl knows, one of the worst insults is to be called a girl who 'thinks she's all that.'"

      This surprised me too at first, but then I realized it confirms what I have come to realize: Nobody is destined to be a target, and anyone can become a target.