Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
You know how jokes are often funny because they are based in an ugly truth? I had a new realization of that phenomena while watching Bill Maher's new stand-up comedy special "The Decider" on HBO the other night. Bill was talking about various recent sexual abuse scandals and was comparing the complaints made against Michael Jackson to complaints made against various Catholic priests with the aim of suggesting that what Michael allegedly did to his victims was gentle compared to the treatment received by victims of the priests. Seemingly out of nowhere, he started talking about a time when he was a child and was rather viciously beaten up during an incident of playground bullying. As part of his punchline, he commented that he would have gladly subjected himself to the worst abuse Michael has been accused of perpetrating rather than having to endure that single beating.
The comment resonated with me, probably because like Bill, I too was bullied as a kid, and also found the experience to be pretty ugly. I don't think I'd ever choose to subject myself to Michael's ministrations in order to have escaped my own bullying experiences (you gotta have standards in life), but I know I would have given a lot to have been able to stop them from happening.
The bullying I was subjected to did not occur on the playground, but rather on the school bus. I can vividly recall days when I would have to launch myself out of the school bus door and run as fast as I could up the hill to the shelter of my house. A group of older neighborhood boys would be after me for reasons that were never entirely clear. I was younger, more sensitive, certainly more vulnerable and not talented at fist fighting. Most days I'd make it home safely, but some days I'd end up belly up on the grass trying to fend off blows and kicks while a ring of kids jeered and cheered that day's aggressor. A blow to the head and you'd see stars like in the cartoons.
I'm 40 years old now; it's been something like 30 years since that sort of thing last happened. Still, the experience has not left me, it sucked so much. I don't think about it much these days, but I know that having lived through those experiences has shaped me as an adult, and not for the better.
The experience of getting your face smashed in by bullies (or taunted by them, or pushed, or shoved, or excluded, etc. ) has got to be an almost universal sort of thing; something that many others who have endured similar experiences can perhaps recognize and respond to. In this spirit, I offer my self-disclosure (and hijack Bill's) as seed for discussion.
There are lots of programs designed to help schools and other institutions prevent bullying. It's kind of a hot topic these days in a small sort of way. Hopefully the things that researchers have and will come up will help limit the scope of the problem in the future. However, I'm quite confident that it will never go away entirely. It seems to me that bullying is just one of those things that are just a part of human nature. Something that can be suppressed but not eliminated.
Where I want to go with this essay is not to talk about how to make bullying stop, but rather, to explore the sorts of damage bullies do to their victims, and to discuss a few paths through which some of that damage can be, at least in part, undone.
Bullying is Abuse
Here's a few statements to get us started: 1) Bullying is a form of abuse, and 2) Bullying is a narcissistic sort of act. In making the first statement here, I mean to say that both bullying and traditional forms of abuse are selfish and/or sadistic, destructive, and often violent acts perpetrated upon victims who do not in any way, shape or form deserve to be treated in that manner. In making the second statement I'm suggesting that ring-leader bullies (those who organize bullying) are behaving as though the emotional and physical health of their victims is not important or is at least less important than their own desire for the thrill of aggression and dominance. Narcissists treat other people as though they were objects either to be used, or discarded, and the bully both uses his victim (for purposes of self-gratification and aggrandizement) and then discards him.
Now, children are fairly narcissistic by their very nature. Children are not born appreciating that other people are actually just like they are with their own needs and independent rights. A long period of development must occur before children grasp that the other people around them have needs and interests just like they do and need to be accommodated and accorded respect. The golden rule of treating others as you would yourself like to be treated makes no sense to a young child who has not yet matured to the point where this basic appreciation of the individuality of every person has been grasped. Instead, children need to be held in line with what amount to incentives (and sometimes punishments) for acting as though other people matter. So by saying that bullying is a narcissistic action, I'm not at all saying that all bullies are narcissists. Adult bullies who have not outgrown their childhood narcissism probably do qualify, but little kids are just going to be that way. This is why I'm not terribly optimistic that we can solve the problem of bullying in our time.
Bullying Causes Long-Term Emotional Damage
The experience of being bullied can end up causing lasting damage to victims. This is both self-evident, and also supported by an increasing body of research. It is not necessary to be physically harmed in order to suffer lasting harm. Words and gestures are quite enough. In fact, the old saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me" is more or less exactly backwards. For the most part, physical damage sustained in a fist fight heals readily, especially damage that is sustained during the resilient childhood years. What is far more difficult to mend is the primary wound that bullying victims suffer which is damage to their self-concepts; to their identities. Bullying is an attempt to instill fear and self-loathing. Being the repetitive target of bullying damages your ability to view yourself as a desirable, capable and effective individual.
There are two ugly outcomes that stem from learning to view yourself as a less than desirable, incapable individual. The first ugly outcome is that it becomes more likely that you will become increasingly susceptible to becoming depressed and/or angry and/or bitter. Being bullied teaches you that you are undesirable, that you are not safe in the world, and (when it is dished out by forces that are physically superior to yourself) that you are relatively powerless to defend yourself. When you are forced, again and again, to contemplate your relative lack of control over the bullying process, you are being set up for Learned Helplessness (e.g., where you come to believe that you can't do anything to change your ugly situation even if that isn't true), which in turn sets you up for hopelessness and depression.
At the same time, you may be learning that you are helpless and hopeless, you are also learning how you are seen by bullies, which is to say, you are learning that you are seen by others as weak, pathetic, and a loser. And, by virtue of the way that identity tends to work, you are being set up to believe that these things the bullies are saying about you are true.
It would be great if the average person was possessed of unshakable self-confidence, but this just isn't how identity works. Identity is a social process. Other people contribute to it. Particularly when people are young and have not yet survived a few of life's trials, it is difficult for people to know who they are and what they are made of. Much of what passes for identity in the young (and in the older too) is actually a kind of other-confidence, which is to say that many people's self-confidence is continually shored up by those around them telling them in both overt and subtle ways that they are good, worthy people. This is one of the reasons people like to belong to groups – it helps them to feel good about themselves. Bullying teaches people that they are explicitly not part of groups; that they are outcasts and outsiders. It is hard to doubt the reality of being an outcast and an outsider when you have been beaten or otherwise publicly humiliated. It takes an exceptionally confident (or otherwise well-supported) person to not internalize bullies' negative messages and begin bullying yourself by holding yourself to the same standards that bullies are applying to you and finding yourself a failure. In other words, it is rather easy for bullying victims to note that they have been beaten up and then to start thinking of themselves as weak, no-good, worthless, pathetic, and incompetent. These are the sorts of thoughts that lead to depression, or, if they are combined with revenge fantasies, to anger and rage feelings.
Where the first ugly outcome of bullying unfolds rather immediately in the form of a wounded self-concept, the second ugly outcome unfolds more slowly over time. Having a wounded self-concept makes it harder for you to believe in yourself, and when you have difficulty believing in yourself, you will tend to have a harder time persevering through difficult situations and challenging circumstances. Deficits in academic performance can easily occur when bullying victims succumb to depression or otherwise become demoralized. They certainly also occur when victims ditch school to avoid bullies. The deficits themselves are not the real issue. The real issue is that if deficits occur for too long or become too pronounced, the affected children can lose out on opportunities for advancement and further study, and ultimately, employment. I've read retrospective studies where people report having left school early so as to avoid continued bullying, and this of course will have altered and limited the job prospects they have available to them as adults. Leaving school may be a dramatic (if occasionally realistic) example of how early bullying can affect one's life, but there are surely other ways that anger or depression caused by bullying harms and developmentally delays people's progress.
Inevitably, it is the sensitive kids who get singled out for teasing; the kids who cry easily; the easy targets. Targeted as they are, many sensitive kids learn to think of their sensitivity as a bad thing and to avoid it, and/or channel it into revenge fantasy and anger. This doesn't much work when you are a kid (it is difficult to reinvent yourself without actually moving to a new place), and it can have negative consequences in adulthood when the same children, now emotionally avoidant or angry or cynical adults, find themselves having difficulty entering into or maintaining loving and warm intimate relationships.
A similar form of damage comes when bullied kids internalize negative attitudes concerning aspects of themselves that set them apart from others, such as their sexual orientation, minority group membership, or religious affiliation. In such cases, bullying sets up a peer pressure to reject aspects of one's self which are fundamentally not rejectable, and thus a potentially lifelong tension gets set up inside that person. If anyone out there has a better idea for how someone can end up become a homosexual-hating homosexual, or a jew-hating jewish person or other seemingly self-contradictory person I'd like to know about it.
The following list, culled from my reading on this subject, summarizes some of the effects bullying victims may experience:
In the short term:
• Anxious avoidance of settings in which bullying may occur.
• Greater incidence of illness
• Lower grades than non-bullied peers
• Suicidal thoughts and feelings (In one British retrospective bullying experiences survey I came across (of unknown scientific value), 20% of the sample attempted suicide secondary to having been bullied, whereas only 3% of participants who were not bullied attempted suicide).
In the long term:
• Reduced occupational opportunities
• Lingering feelings of anger and bitterness, desire for revenge.
• Difficulty trusting people
• Interpersonal difficulties, including fear and avoidance of new social situations
• Increased tendency to be a loner
• Perception of self as easy to victimize, overly sensitive, and thin-skinned
• Self-esteem problems (don't think well of self)
• Increased incidence of continued bullying and victimization
A few interesting observations of factors that seem to lessen the negative impact that bullying has on people have come to my attention during the process of cataloging the ways that bullying can mess you up. For instance:
Perception of Control
A 2004 Spanish college student sample study suggests that there is a direct relationship between victim's perception of control over their bullying experience and the extent of long term difficulties they experience as a result of bullying. This is to say, that bullied students who believed they were able to influence and/or escape their bullies reported fewer negative long term effects from having been bullied than did students who felt helpless to influence their situation while it was happening. Perception of control (and not reality of control) was key in this study, as no relationship was found between the various ways that students coped with being bullied and how they turned out.
I can see the outline of a mechanism working here (where students who believed they still had control over their situations avoided developing learned helplessness and therefore had less of a chance of experiencing depression). However the study doesn't really help us to know what to recommend that people do to lessen their chances of long term problems. Remember, it didn't matter what the students actually did; it only mattered what they believed.
If we go with the idea that believing you have control over events is important then the thing to do if you are being bullied is to keep persevering in your efforts to stop the bullying as though those efforts will result in your being able to get the bullying to stop. No single thing you do may actually stop the bullying from happening, but the effect of continually working under the assumption that you haven't tried all options and may still get the bullying to stop may do the trick. And, of course, you might actually get the bullying to stop because of something you do or don't do.
Rather than try to control the past (which is impossible), it might make more sense for hurting victims to get themselves to focus on what they can control in the present, for the benefit of their future happiness and fulfillment. As the poet George Herbert's classic phrase wisely advises us, "living well is the best revenge".
The age at which kids are first bullied seems to be important according to some research. Young children who are first bullied during their pre-teen years appear to be less negatively impacted in the long term than are children who are first bullied as teens. People first bullied as young children report experiencing higher long-term stress levels than do people who were never bullied. However, people who were first bullied as teens report more long term social withdrawal and more reactivity to violence than other groups. There is a greater tendency towards the use of self-destructive coping mechanisms in the first-bullied-as-teens group, and an interesting but hard to make sense of sex difference, where women tend to become more aggressive as a result of their bullying experience, and men to demonstrate a greater tendency to abuse substances. I can't help but wonder if the increased independence and emancipation that teens enjoy makes them more likely to experiment with and then get locked into maladaptive coping strategies like substance abuse than their younger peers.
Finally, multiple researchers point to the protective effect that a good social support network has with regard to bully victim's short and long term outcomes. Having supportive family members and peers around who can be confided in when one has been bullied and who can offer support and advice tends to lessen bullying's impact.
There are a number of reasons why it makes sense that a supportive social network should help, but one of them deserves to be made explicit. Namely, that when a bullying victim is surrounded by and bought into a supportive social network, they are receiving many positive messages about their worth from network members, and there are thus fewer opportunities for bullies' negative messages to find purchase and grow to take over self-esteem. If bullies can only succeed in harming people physically; if they do not succeed in harming them emotionally or harming their identities, then relatively little lasting damage can be done.
Undoing the Damage
If the primary damage that bullying causes is damage to identity and self-esteem, then taking steps to repair identity and self-esteem are in order for people looking to heal from past bullying experiences. What needs to heal, in most cases, is not the physical body, but rather, identity and self-concept. Bullied people need to learn how to feel safe again in the world (or safe enough). They need to learn that they are acceptable people who have something to offer other people. They need to feel in more control over their moods and urges. They need to feel again that if they set their mind to something that they can hope to accomplish it. These are not modest goals, by any chance, but they are the sorts of things that bullying victims need to think about working on.
I'll refer people to our topic centers on Depression and Anger Management for ideas about how these problems can be treated. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is likely to be of particular utility with regard to depression and anger that is secondary to having been bullied because mood problems that have originated in this way are very likely to have come into being as a result of victims having become convinced that they are worthless and incompetent. In the language of cognitive behavioral therapy, these would be thought of as dysfunctional core beliefs which could be addressed and repudiated using cognitive restructuring techniques that encourage people to closely examine such beliefs and dispute them when they are found to contain exaggerations and distortions (which these sorts of beliefs surely will).
Social withdrawal problems and social anxiety also can be very profitably addressed within the context of cognitive therapy. One of the really nice things about a therapy setting is that role playing can take place between therapist and patient so as to provide anxious patients with opportunity to practice and improve how they will interact in feared but desired social situations. When basic social fears and skill deficits have been addressed, it should become easier for socially withdrawn people to find the connections they need to finally feel fundamentally accepted by others.
I typically hate the overused word "empowered", but I'm going to use it here, because it really fits here. People who have been bullied have been fundamentally dis-empowered. Their feelings of personal safety have been violated and their belief in their own competency and adequacy has been brought into question. Such people may exist in a state of perpetual avoidance and paralysis. In order to feel good about themselves, they will need to break through that paralysis and engage in something that helps them feel like they are gaining in power. Not power over others, but power over themselves. No other people can do this for them. Each paralyzed person has to decide to empower themselves.
There are a million avenues one can go in to fulfill an empowerment goal, the one that is right for any given person being a function of that person's talents and opportunities. Anger can be productively funneled into a competitive endeavor (such as education, business, sports, gaming or some other means of becoming excellent) or a creative expression. Fears can be faced down and courage can be found. I, as author of this essay, cannot offer specifics on how this can be accomplished as the right path for each person will be individual, but I can say that it is more or less as simple as picking out a goal you desire to accomplish (which will assert yourself) and then deciding to make it happen. As with any self-improvement goal, it is good to start small, and to dissect larger goals into their smallest possible elements, so that each step you take on the way to a big goal is manageable. You can read more about this process in our Psychological Self-Tools self-help book.
Published by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress - 2020