Some facts about bullying

Bullying is described in many books as ‘primitive’ behavior. What is meant by this is that it is often motivated by an almost instinctive desire to mask one’s own vulnerability by controlling other people. If you are top dog, then you will be able to get your own way, and other people are less likely to attack you. This will be even more likely to work if you gather around you a group of followers (or henchmen).

Bullying can be found in all walks of life. It happens to adults as well as to children, at home, at school and at work, and it happens throughout the world. What is more, it is probably true to say that everyone has done it sometimes – to a degree. But mature people, supposedly, hardly ever do it; they do not need to, partly because they have learned how to negotiate, or to collaborate, or to live and to let live, and have no need to support themselves by gaining a hold over others.

Being fair – to yourself as well as to others – is the opposite of bullying. The skills of assertiveness are some of the skills used by people for whom bullying is unnecessary and being bullied is irrelevant. But these skills alone may not be enough, especially when powerful social forces operate so as either to ignore or to condone bullying types of behavior. When it is hard, or even impossible, for one person to stand up against the group, then pressure to change has to be exerted on the culture or social context within which the bullying occurs.

Bullying can be both obvious and subtle, and it can range from relatively harmless and more or less affectionate kinds of teasing through to intimidation or victimization. Using threats and taunts are some of the most obvious bullying behaviors, and the more subtle ones may be harder to recognize at first.

They include picking on people, or in some way singling them out for ‘special’ treatment; seeking out personal information and then disclosing it to others, or betraying a trust; excluding people, especially from positions of leadership, or isolating them; making general rather than specific criticisms and accusations that appear to apply to the whole person rather than to something that they did or said; sabotaging their plans or activities; making unreasonable demands; using gossip, innuendo or manipulation; and so on.

Clearly, bullying is not just one thing: it involves many different kinds of language and behavior. What makes any of these bullying behavior is the intention to control or exclude people, so that they feel they no longer belong to the group to which the bully does belong. It works by making use of intimidation and humiliation.

Some effects of being bullied

Bullying exists in all degrees, from the relatively trivial to the horrendous. Being seriously bullied can be enormously stressful and affects every aspect of life: feelings or emotions, the body, all the levels of thinking and behavior as well.

For example, being bullied is frightening, but it can also make people feel angry, resentful, frustrated and, when it seems that there is nothing to be done about it and no way out, hopeless and depressed as well. It makes people physically tense, on edge, unable to relax or to sleep, and susceptible to visible symptoms of distress such as trembling or sweating. Their waking life may be dominated by a sense of dread, constantly keeping on the look out for ‘dangerous’ situations, by thoughts about what might happen next, and by memories or images of recent distressing experiences. Disturbing dreams may prevent them sleeping at night. Their daily behavior will be a product of all these experiences, which seriously interfere with their ability to do the things they wish to do, in the ways that they otherwise would.

However, the end result of being bullied varies greatly. For some people it appears to have no lasting effects, but for others it does more damage, and leaves an apparently permanent scar. Of course, the worse the bullying the worse the effects are likely to be, and the longer they are likely to last.


Effects on beliefs:

I’m not acceptable as I am.

I don’t belong.

People will reject me.

Nobody can be trusted.

Effects on assumptions:

I’ve got to get people’s approval, or they will exclude me.

The only way not to be bullied is to hit before you get hit.

If you let people get to know you they will take advantage of you.

Effects on attention:

Noticing people’s frowns, or signs of criticism, or judgments.

Checking out how you are coming over.

Effects on behaviors, including safety behaviors and avoidance:

Self-protective moves to hide your ‘weaknesses’; secretiveness.

Trying to please people, and to gain their approval; trying to do things ‘right’.

Keeping yourself to yourself; not joining in, or getting socially involved.

Accommodating what you think others expect, for instance by hiding your anger.

Effects on self-consciousness and self-awareness:

Thinking about how you look, or speak, or behave.

Making sure that you never say or do anything that might offend people.

Embarrassment comes easily, for example when talking about personal feelings or needs.

The personal meaning to you of what happened helps to determine the precise form of the beliefs and assumptions that continue to influence you later on.

Reactions to being bullied

Many people blame themselves for being bullied, as if they have internalized the criticisms, accusations or taunts that they received and come to believe that they were true. Of course, there may have been an element of truth in them, as when children get picked on for their size or shape or coloring; or for some other characteristic for which they cannot be held responsible, but the truth does not justify the behavior. It is the bully and not the victim who is to blame, together with the system surrounding the bully that fails to prevent it happening. So, if you were bullied, that was not your fault.

Nor is it your fault if you could not find a way of stopping it. Many ways of responding to a bully have been found to make the problem worse, not better, at least on some occasions. If you tried them and failed, this does not mean that you were weak, or stupid, or not courageous enough. Once again, the person who ‘got it wrong’ was the bully – not the target.

Understanding the bully

At this point, a word of understanding for children who bully does not come amiss. Bullies often feel extremely vulnerable themselves, and may not be well supported by the people around them. Their primitive need for acceptance and approval is often – though not necessarily – based on a potent sense of their own inadequacy or isolation. They may feel inferior and vulnerable too, and only have recourse to the more primitive ways of dealing with these feelings. They often pick on people who threaten them in some way, for example by being cleverer, or more competent, or more acceptable. This is why it is so important that schools develop clear policies for dealing with the problem, making it possible for both bullies and bullied to develop more mature ways of reacting to the challenges that confront them, and ensuring that they both receive more of the help and support that they need.

G. B.


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