“All cruelty springs from weakness” (Seneca, 4BC-AD65)
There are those who say that bullying is behind all forms of violence, conflict, persecution, abuse, harassment, discrimination and prejudice.
The recent death of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old Massachusetts girl who hanged herself after being harassed by a group of students in her school, puts a spotlight on bullying among teenagers. And there have been other notable child, teen and young adult cases, on and off the Internet (i.e. cyber-taunting on Face book), that come to mind when we think of bullies. However, it isn’t just children and teenagers who bully. Although it may not be as obvious or as easily identifiable, adult bullying may be more widespread. “Independent research suggests that bullying is happening to around 1 in 4 people” – regardless of age (“Life After Adult Bullying” – Internet)
Bullying is defined as “an act of repeated aggressive behavior in order to intentionally hurt another person, physically or mentally.” (Wikipedia) It is characterized as behaving in a manner to gain power over another person. And it is a form of abuse. I would suggest that if you rephrase the descriptive action from “repeated aggressive behavior” to “taking frustrations out” on those who are weaker or different, bullying becomes a much more commonplace and identifiable act. In fact, it is pervasive.
There are different types of bullies and different environments in which they proliferate. There are verbal bullies, physical bullies, serial bullies, Gang bullies, Cyber bullies, subordinate bullies, unwitting bullies, work bullies, sadistic bullies, and psychotic and sociopathic bullies. There are bullies at work, at home, in schools, in governments, in religious organizations, on the Internet, and in social cliques.
What all bullies have in common is the use of power to satisfy one’s own psychological shortcomings. Each time a bully moves against someone weaker, he/she feels better about himself for an instant. But because that feeling doesn’t last, they do it again and again. Sometimes the bully appears to lack insight into their own behavior (unwitting bully), but more often the bully does know but elects to ignore the moral and ethical considerations by which the majority of people are bound. The rules don’t apply to them. Or they have projected so much self-hatred on the other that they truly believe that those they are bullying deserve exactly what they are getting.
Why are there so many bullies in society? Because bullying in and of itself is not against the law. And most bullies commit non-arrestable offences. So it becomes unconsciously acceptable. It’s an outlet - a way to express frustration and/or rage and stay within the confines of the law.
There are adult bullies we can easily identify – Hitler was a bully, Racists are bullies and your boss may be one as well. Parents and older siblings have been known to bully. Certainly, gang members bully. But what about those who threaten, shame or intimidate you into doing things you don’t really want to do? It happens to most of us, and when it does, we are being bullied - even when it comes from a person or institution that you love, respect, admire – your government, your church, your girlfriend/boyfriend, a family member, a professional colleague. Sometimes there is a fine line between harmless coercion and bullying. But you can feel the difference. You know when you are truly ambivalent and therefore open to being talked into something vs. when you are being forced to act against your better instincts, wishes or values. And if you are being bullied by more than one person (i.e. an organization or group), it is even more difficult to stand up for yourself.
More insidious and pernicious is the type of bullying that has less to do with forcing you to do something you don’t want to and more to do with “putting you in your place”, minimizing or even destroying you in order to feel better about themselves. People do this consciously or unconsciously because of a hole inside of themselves that they try and fill by being better than someone else. It gives them a sense of power and authority in the world that they may not otherwise experience. It is a way to externalize their own feelings of insecurity, inferiority and rage by putting those feelings on someone else and then attacking them. Some bullying is so subtle that you can begin to believe the bully – they make you feel unsure of yourself - bad about yourself. They can even do it in the guise of friendship or love. It becomes more of a mind game than an outright violation. But it is bullying just the same. We will not be able to rid the world of bullies, but we can learn how to stand up to them.
The kind of people who bully usually have low self-esteem and a certain amount of resentment (envy, jealously) that pushes them to project their own feelings of inadequacy onto you while denying that anything is wrong with them. Not all bullies are serial bullies - sometimes the average person loses it under pressure and takes out their feelings in a bullying manner. But regardless of how or why it is happening to you, it is not acceptable.
How do you stand up for yourself against bullying? Recognize what is happening and remember that it is the bully who has the problem – not you – and that it can be dealt with. Unless they are physically threatening you, bullies are “paper tigers”. If you stand up to them calmly and confront their behavior rationally while asserting your rights, they will back down. If you call them out on their actions, they usually have no place to go – especially if others are witness to those actions. You don’t have to attack a bully; you don’t want to give them a reason to escalate by engaging in a heated or emotional manner. You simply have to resolutely stand up for yourself. You may be thinking that this sounds easier than it would actually be. So start slowly. If you can’t immediately stand up to a bully, at least don’t play into their behavior by trying to appease them. Let them know by your reaction that you are not cowed, and then quietly walk away. Think about what you want to say and either approach them later or wait until the next time they behave in that manner and then call them out on it. Bullies don’t have any real power. Once they realize that you won’t engage in their game and have exposed them, they will fade away.
Roni Weisberg-Ross L.M.F.T.
West Los Angeles based psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of sexual abuse, emotional abuse, clinical depression and social anxiety. Roni works with individuals, couples and families and leads a weekly AMAC (Adults Abused as Children) support group at the Family Resource Counseling Center