When I was a kid, I was told I was shy and conformed to expectations. I was shy darn it, that was who I was and always would be. Who had infused my brain with this notion? My family, the loving, dysfunctional, alcoholic bunch, who laughed a lot (at other people’s expense, often mine) and never seemed to have anything go right for them. Yup, they were the authority I relied on to define me.
I took on my given role with commitment. In school, I was considered one of the cootie kids: a person you would never touch because you didn’t want to catch their “cooties”. I found myself on the lowest rungs of the social ladder; the only ones slightly lower in this communal hierarchy were my cousins. I was elevated because at least I showered.
My low self-esteem and shyness affected everything I did, except for one fateful day in seventh grade… a day I did something seemingly out of character. I stood up to a bully!
We are talking many moons ago, when in junior high kids smoked in the bathrooms. Not me of course, I was a “goody two shoes,” but I do remember my lungs smoldering every time I went in. Cough, cough.
In school, having few friends, I mostly kept to myself. My buds were quiet, like me and never wanted to draw attention to themselves. The morning in question, I went into the stall to, “do my business, “ and when I emerged, she was there.
Heather, the tallest, meanest seventh grader to ever walk the halls of Nipmuc Junior High, was standing in front of me. She grabbed my collar and threw me against the cement wall. Her two henchman friends, Michelle and Natalie, surrounded me, leaving no escape route.
Honestly, I had never been in a situation like that before. My past had only included being teased from afar, laughed at and the humiliation of never being picked for either side at a gym class sport. But a physical confrontation? No my friends, it had not been part of my world.
Heather picked me up by my collar, as if to bring my face up to her level, and announced loud and clear for her posse to hear, “I don’t like you and I’m going to beat the @#$% out of you.”
Now, perhaps it would have been predictable for a person such as me to cry, shake and beg to be let me go. Maybe a bribe would be in order, “If you spare my life, I’ll do your homework for the entire seventh grade.”
Words came out of my mouth in a tone I had never heard. It was calm and strong, filled with the confidence I had never encountered before. “Well Heather,” I began. “I am sure, you could do that. I mean, look at you …you are obviously stronger than I and definitely taller. You have probably been in lots of fights, and I will admit to you, I have not. I have never thrown a punch. Ever. And, look at your friends here… I know that should I somehow hurt you, they in return will finish me off. I really have no chance of winning. But Heather, I just want you to know one thing. Even though I probably will not win, I am going to put up one hell of a fight! I am not going down easily. Now, let’s get on with it!”
It was quiet for a few seconds. She let go of my collar and I found myself standing, unencumbered on the floor. Heather backed away and announced, “You’re not worth it,” summoned her troop to follow and walked out the bathroom never to bother me again.
I stood there, mystified at what had happened. Had I discovered way to deal with a bully? By honoring the bully (“I’m sure you could do this,” as opposed to “yeah, go ahead and try!”), standing my ground (“I’m going to stand and fight,” using words in clear and focused tones), I defused a bully situation. With this idea planted firmly in my subconscious, I never had to face this situation again.
Physical bullies were gone, however, emotional bullies replaced them, and they came into my life with a vengeance.
Wikipedia defines a bully as a person who uses force, threats, coercion, abuse, and intimidation to aggressively dominate others.
It is often habitual and is classified by the bullies perception they are better than everyone, deserve special treatment and involves subtle, and sometimes not so subtle methods to achieve their goal.
Bullying is generally divided into four basic types of abuse: verbal, physical, emotional and cyber. The behavior is often repeated. Bullies rationalize their bad behavior and find their victims’ vulnerabilities to use in their taunts. Many use ridicule of differences, such as of social class, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, appearance, behavior, body language, personality, reputation, strength, size or ability. With Heather, she used my social standing (ain’t no one coming to this “cootie” girl’s rescue) along with my shyness and short stature. With my shyness always showing, she presumed I was timid and with my size, she thought she found someone she could control.
Bullying, when done in a group is called mobbing and Heather created her mob with Michelle and Natalie. A mob needs one person in control, but also must have a few “Lieutenants” to keep the crowd (or in this case, me) on its toes. Would it have been a different situation if Heather had approached me alone? Yes, because in actuality, she would have never done anything to me. She needed her friends to be there to infuse her sense of strength. Without them, she was just a tall seventh grader. In many mob situations, leaders instruct what to do, and then “wash their hands” of the abuse, as they stand by and watch the intimidation happen. Sounds kind of biblical, huh? In my case, she wanted witnesses to be present to prove her power, her witnesses being her friends.
I suffered emotional abuse at the hands of my family, often telling me I was stupid, responsible for all that went wrong in our family life and experienced a lot of neglect. Oh, there were good times, don’t get the wrong picture, but my family consisted of many practicing alcoholics whose belligerence was steadfastly aimed at me. I never knew if it was okay to be a child, or if I had to take on the adult role of taking care of everyone.
It is my nature to see the good in everyone. But growing up in a dysfunctional family, I will admit I had difficulties setting personal boundaries. If you were nice to me when we first met, I figured you were good and truthful, similar to me.
Not true. I had met a lovely, seemingly spiritual couple in Arizona. I liked how they thought, invited them for a visit, visited them, introduced them to my friends, and created programs with them. They always told me how much they loved me and I loved them too. But something happened when I decided to leave a marriage that wasn’t healthy for me. They saw me as a patsy, having money coming my way. They began plotting to get their hands on it and started to weave the fabric of deception. Bullies often come into our lives with a smile, and prey upon our need for connection. Many times they become people we love and trust.
I was vulnerable going through the divorce and knew I needed time to heal. They inferred they would be there for me to help through the aftermath. I felt I could trust them and that they had my best interest at heart. At their invitation, I decided to join them in their new home state of North Carolina. I needed a new start, and was glad they had encouraged me to go south. They persuaded me to put a deposit on a lovely apartment in Durham, which I did. Now I realize, it was part of the trap to get me isolated.
The plot began to thicken and their emotional web began to weave into my vulnerabilities. They wanted to help me heal all right, to the tune of $5000! “It would be so much work for us, Debby. You are really in a bad way. We are the only ones who can help. $5000 is worth the investment for all our time. If you believe in us and love us, certainly you could spare the money which would be such a small portion of what you will be able to reap with our help.” Uhhh…no.
I may have been broken in spirit, but not broken in common sense. Friends don’t do that to friends. I walked away and never looked back. No drama, not “How could you do this to me?” Just dropped them and thanked the Universe for a valuable life lesson, glad I had figured them out before I moved there. The bait was placed, the trap was set…but I saw it for what it was, a bullying tactic… nope, don’t have to play in that playground anymore.
Emotional abuse can take a greater toll on you than physical abuse. With physical cruelty, you and everyone else can see the wounds. But, with emotional abuse, the scars are hidden from view, and run deep. It took many years to move through this process before I was ready to see my bullies as their true selves: self-centered, doing whatever it took to get their own way and having their own needs met first, despite the toll it took on others. But now, I’ve got it… can call it what it is and know how to extricate myself.
Recently I spoke at an assisted living organization and found, to my surprise, they, as well as most community living places, have widespread bullying going on.
Really? Haven’t these seniors learned that bullying is a terrible thing? I guess not.
Bullying is running rampant in the workplace as well. While I don’t work in a corporate setting, my latest incident involved a colleague I had asked to work on a project I created.
This venture was my brainchild, something I had produced many times. I invited her to be part of something fun and amazing. At first, she was so glad to be part of it. Then she began to ask for special privileges. “No, sorry, I can’t promise that,” which lead to her finding soft coercion ways, planting seeds of, “I really need this and I’m sure you will find a way to do it” (No…didn’t she hear me?)
Then the mini-assaults began, all while she smiled, “You know others feel the same way I do and they are very upset with you” to full-out threats, “Debby, I really don’t want to bad-mouth you, but unless you do what I want, you leave me no choice.” Hummm … bub-bye now!
The more I see bullies in action, the more I am convinced of this:
- They don’t see themselves as bullies. They see themselves as entitled, special people who want whatever they are pursuing: I deserve this, I worked hard, and I am entitled to have this. They want what they want, never to see how their wants impact others.
- They are emotionally wounded combatants. Something happened in their childhood which made them feel unloved and even worse, unsafe. This perception of unsafeness was so profound, they had to be sure they never felt that way again. Thus, they use force to get what they want. The force, probably similar to what was used on them, is now redirected for their protection.
- They are masters of figuring out your vulnerabilities. They know your buttons better than you, and will push them to get their way. Who cares if it hurts you? Those they claim to “love” are targets even more than strangers.
- No matter how powerful they become, they always want more. There is no “enough” with them. It is always more, more, more: more money, more property, more prestige, more cars, more jewelry, more control, and more limelight. Their “wanting of more” is tied to their wanting to feel safe. This actually has the opposite effect … they will never feel safe in the “wants more” cycle. If only they would adopt the “I am enough, I have everything I need” attitude, they would actually begin to feel the love and safety they are seeking. The knowing you have everything you need is where true power resides.
- Unless they are willing to explore their own behaviors, see the harm they are causing and make a commitment to change – they will continue this spiral for the rest of their lives. So is the way of the 90-year-old woman I saw trying to manipulate people at the associated living facility where I spoke. During my kindness program, she kept interrupting me with bullying behavior. After a while I had to publicly announce that negative behavior will not be tolerated for the next 45 minutes, and she finally stopped. Later she explained to me how much she and I were alike. Yikes!
- Bullies can change, but most do not. It involves taking responsibility for one’s actions. It’s hard work and most bullies are so used to manipulating others to get their way… well, the incentive to change is not there. If you stop taking their abuse, they will just replace you, as many ex-wives will tell you.
How does a positive woman handle herself in these situations? Is there anything we sensitive souls can do when we come under attack with bullies? I think so. Here are some tips I have found along the way.
- Recognize the behavior. Many of us, including me, are adaptable. We go with the flow and love the people in our lives. Yes, we are familiar with people’s idiosyncrasies. We put up with minor flaws, as we know we have flaws too. However, if you find yourself doing things for people you really don’t want to do, are uncomfortable with or it just plain does not feel right, it’s time to analyze their behavior for what it is. With my colleague, I knew she was a little “out there”, but I liked her. We had many things in common and I thought she would bring a good mixture into the project. I thought she was quirky, and didn’t see the bully-ness coming. But when I did, I took swift and immediate action.
- Ask yourself, “What part did I play” in the situation. With my colleague, I did make a few mistakes on something else we were working on. Something, having nothing to do with this event didn’t go perfectly. I had fixed the problem, but the message never got to her. It got hung up in her junk filter. My oversight was, I never followed up. I apologized, but her frustration (even though it was her e-mail server that was at fault) set me up for what was to come. “You should have…” wording was said over and over. I bet many of you have been bullied at work, perhaps by a supervisor adding and adding to your caseload, making it impossible for you to ever catch up and then blaming you or maybe even firing you because you could not meet the un-meetable standards. Take responsibility, yes, but see the whole picture.
- Be pleasant. OK, that might be the goody-two-shoes in me …but actually; it is the best tactic to deal with a bully. Bullies love drama and they love it when you yell, scream; swear …whatever can bring them the attention they desire. They feed on it, so let them go hungry. Simply state facts and inform them their behavior is (ready for my favorite words) “Please do not speak to me in that tone as it feels like verbal abuse, and is inappropriate. Please stop belittling me, your behavior is inappropriate. Please stop threatening me, your threats are inappropriate.” Be aware of your own behavior, never give ultimatums. False ultimatums are a bully tactic. Do not play their game. Do not add to the drama.
- State what you think has happened. “I feel undervalued or disrespected when you…” are excellent words to start with. We do need to take control of situations that involve us and our self-worth. State it calmly, with little emotion. If your perpetrator wants to discuss things peacefully, great. That is a grownup thing to do. But, if screaming, complaining, coercion or threats are involved, you know you are dealing with a bully… there is no way to win. Just walk away.
- Stop interacting with them if you can. Let them go. In my early thirties, when I began to figure out what had happen to me, I said goodbye to many alcoholic family members. When they stopped their drinking, I welcomed them back, but with clear boundaries set in place. Friends who proved themselves untrustworthy, …bub-bye! Leopards do not change their spots. People can change but only if they really, really want to. Once they wear their leopard tights … they rarely take them off. If you have to continue the relationship, because of work or within some realm, my advice is to be vigilant around them, note when their behavior is “bully-ish”, keep a journal, stay away from them as much as possible, notify your employer, and keep true to your no-bully-allowed stance.
- I’m not one to hold a grudge or to hold on to negative feelings for very long…but sometimes, when I’ve reached the boiling point, I need to let off steam. That’s when I use my secret weapon: Venting Buddies. These are friends that I already have prearrangement with, who will listen to me when I need someone to “hear” me. I can tell them whatever I need to tell them and they know, their only thing they need to do is listen. I just need to get the bully poison out. I’m there when they need to be heard as well, no judgment, no advice needed unless asked for. Works like a charm. Then I can let it go. WARNING … be sure you already have a prearranged agreement with your friends, don’t just dump your negativity in their laps. Not fair to them. Be sure you reciprocate when they need an ear.
- Forgive the bullies “for they know what they have done.” Bullies are damaged human beings. They need all the positivity they can get sent their way. You don’t have keep them in your life, but send them on their way with loving energy will help keep you the positivity loop. In your mind, absolve them of their sins. Allow positive energy to flow your way every time you think of them. They can have no power over a loving mind
Only when we can understand and forgive can we change the world. Let it go and let the Universe do its magic. Karma will prevail.
I think of Heather from time to time and wonder what become of her. I am grateful for our interaction as it gave me a chance to experience something I needed to learn.
That once shy girl I pretended to be, is now a confident (most of the time) woman who has experienced life head-on. I like who I am, and try hard to be a good person, caring and strong. I know I don’t have to tolerate bully behavior anymore and neither do you.
We can change this world, one person at a time. Stand up to the bullies and make a better place for us all to live.