At some point in our lives, we all get bullied.
Often times, bullies target individuals whom are threatening to their own self-concept. When we fear someone might get more attention than we do, we try to suppress them. When we fear someone might be more intelligent than we are, we try to suppress that (this happens in classrooms all the time). When we fear someone might be more athletic than we are, we try to suppress that. Sometimes, this might happen by spreading rumors about them, to shift the attention about their accomplishments to attention about their bad traits. Sometimes, this might happen by saying their idea is not valid, sniping at them when they speak, giving them dirty looks. I was always known as the jumper, and I remember I had a team mate one time who came up to me during practice and said, “My goal is to get my jumps higher than yours” (which, of course, is a tactic to demean my jumps to make hers better).
But, what these attempts really signify is an insecurity on the bully’s part. I’ve never met anyone who is content in their lives, and content in themselves, that felt the need to demean other people. I believe that 99% of our interactions with other people are projections of our own needs. Scut Farkus, in A Christmas Story, was probably insecure about his red hair, and instead, projected those insecurities in the form of violence and beat up Randy. As humans, we are always overcompensating to try to fill voids. If I, myself, do not feel stable in my job, then I might try to suppress others, ruminate on all the things they do wrong (such as, “I can’t believe she would ever send that e-mail), so I can “prove to myself” that I am at least better than she. If I, myself, do not feel smart, then I might try to pick at someone else’s ignorance (such as, “Wow that was a really dumb move to make), so I can “prove to myself” that I am at least smarter than she. If I, myself, do not feel confident in my attractiveness, then I might judge another person’s appearance (such as, “Um, that’s a terrible haircut and those pants DO NOT match”), so I can “prove to myself” that I am at least more attractive than she. By stomping on other people, I can, if only superficially, make myself feel more powerful, more in control, more important to the world (Right, because at the end of the day, all we want to know is that we matter to others, and that our existence is validated).
So, because the bully feels their own internal foundation shaking–their job, their intelligence, their self-perceptions–they use other people to stamp out their own territory. You might see the bully stamping out their physical territory. They might snag a lunch table, claim a specific place in the hallway, a practice space, parking spot. This might look like the bully desperately trying to grab as many allies as possible (either friends or boyfriends). It’s a conquering philosophy: the more physical area and the more people I conquer, the more people I have on my side, the more valid my existence.
And, you as the victim, begin questioning everything about your own existence. You once thought of yourself as a valuable worker, but now that someone else is questioning your abilities, you, too, question yourself. You once thought of yourself as a pretty smart person, but now that someone else is questioning your intelligence, you, too, question yourself. You once thought of yourself as a pretty attractive person, but now that someone else is questioning your appearance, you, too, question yourself. Just like the bully, your own foundation becomes shaky; it’s a way to suppress you, to bring you down to their insecure level.
Most of what you experience is fear. You are afraid to go places, because you fear they will show up. You are afraid to speak up and share your ideas, because you fear they will demean that one too. You are afraid to look on your social media, because you are afraid they have posted something about you.
But, more than your physical well-being, its your reputation you most fear. You fear they are spreading untrue information about you. You have no idea whose minds they have tainted, which personal territory they have infiltrated. You have no idea what kind of rumors they have spread, which of your ex-boyfriends they have contacted, what co-workers they whispered with at the water fountain. However, these are not conversations YOU can control. Often times, people surround the bully, because they, too, fear their own reputations being decimated, and they irrationally believe if they are close to the bully, the bully will not share information about them (but we all know, if they gossip WITH you, they probably also gossip ABOUT you).
What you have to remember is all of this bullying and suppressing and demeaning is more about THEM, and less about YOU. We are all self-conscious, so we always take things personally, but in these situations, we cannot. I have heard of the understudy putting glass shards in the lead’s pointe shoes, but that was only one instance, and I am inclined to believe that most people are not that malicious. In fact, the fact they are mean to you means they are selfish, insecure, jealous, and I really don’t think they are going to go out of their way to show up at your house or follow you to the gas station. I mean, maybe they will show up, but if you live your life afraid of running into them, you are severely limiting your experiences of the world. Plus, most places are public, so you just have to have faith that, if they attack you, some Good Samaritan will call the police, and then all of your problems are solved. Bullies utilize words and mean faces as fighting tactics, but words and mean faces are really just arbitrary things; at the end of the day, the only damage they can really do is the damage YOU allow them to.
The first thing you have to do is remind yourself of their human nature, and forgive them for that brokenness. This summer, as I babysat, I watched all these Disney Channel T.V. shows, where the main character is sassy, materialistic, talks back to even her “best friends”, and I couldn’t help but think, if T.V. is where we get our schemas of the world when we are young, OF COURSE we would think these behaviors are acceptable in our adult lives. Even shows like ‘Glee’ that are founded on ‘breaking stereotypes’ still perpetuate stereotypes: we still have the bitchy cheerleader who gets knocked up, the gay, insecure guy, the big black belting singer. My personal favorite is “Barbie Life in the Dreamhouse: Gone Glitter“; you would probably show this to a 4 year old, and the episode perpetuates the idea that all women should be concerned only about their beauty, they require a strapping young Ken character to “save” them, and at the end, the three Barbie’s turn into witches, fighting over the glitter. If these are the shows we are watching, OF COURSE we would carry those same ideals, even unconsciously, into our expectations of our own everyday lives.
We learn these behaviors from our parents. Last summer, I waited on a table of a mother, her daughter, and her daughter’s friend. The whole conversation revolved around this neighbor they knew–how slutty she was, how they couldn’t believe she would be dating that boy, how her parents MUST not keep track of her–and I couldn’t help but wonder how many other mother-daughter conversations revolve around gossiping about the daughter’s peers as well. Because, as a parent, by engaging in these conversations with your daughter, you are then teaching your daughter speaking about others in gossip-y fashion is acceptable, you generate ideas about the girl together, and she then takes that conversation into her own peer group. It’s an infection and these social institutions are learned; if we are not taught to be aware of their corrupt, divisive nature, of course we would perpetuate those behaviors.
Sometimes, we get ourselves in situations that we really are just unaware of, until we take a step back and say, “Oh that was actually very wrong”. Its classic mob mentality: we conform to those around us because, as humans, we want so desperately to be accepted. I for sure have found myself in these situations. I had a few friends in college who, we would sit around and talk about other people. When I graduated from teaching school, I sent my fellow teachers an e-mail, thanking them for their influence, and one classmate told me, “I had no idea you were like that. You always hung out with those other girls and I just assumed you were like them”. It wasn’t until that moment I realized, I, too, was influenced by group think, wanting to be accepting, and I, too, unknowingly participated in those malicious, divisive, cruel behaviors.
I think, no matter what age you are, or what venue you are in, there will always be bullies and victims. But, I also think we owe it to our fellow humans to curve some of these tendencies: to not allow ourselves to engage in gossip conversations, to be aware of territory-stamping, to support one another. It is hard enough to live; I don’t know why we make it harder for each other.