Does Feeling Bullied Mean You Have Been Bullied?

Here's the answer to a question raised by Melania Trump.

Posted Nov 14, 2018

Last month Melania Trump raised eyebrows when, in her exclusive interview with World News Tonight, the First Lady claimed to be "the most bullied person in the world."

Anett Grant was quick to point out that Melania’s body language was curious: She smiled as she made this claim, sending inconsistent, mixed signals. 

Christopher Rim highlighted a different problem: “Saying you are one of the most bullied people in the world sends a message to the young people you are trying to reach that you think it’s unlikely that their pain is as significant as yours."

And of course, there is the elephant in the room: Bullying requires an imbalance of power (among other things). Although the First Lady has surely had her fair share of negative feedback (Rim readily concedes that no one is too famous or powerful to be bullied), she has vast resources and access to power—options most others do not.

But herein lies the rub: Melania feels she has been bullied.
Are we to simply sideline her claim—is she too famous (and too powerful) to be taken seriously?
If we collectively roll our eyes and carry on, aren’t we, too, guilty of looking the other way—bystanders implicitly condoning a victim’s outcry, because the victim does not fit our stereotypes?

Melania’s claim prompts an important question: Is there a meaningful difference between feeling bullied and being bullied? And if so, what does it imply for campaigns against bullying?

Although experts have carved out a handful of elements they identify as central to any characterization / claim of bullying, including:

  • imbalance of power.
  • repeated offense.
  • intent to harm.

these markers are not comprehensive, nor are they objective. The most problematic, of course, is "intent."
“I was only joking,” “I didn’t mean it," or my favorite, “What?  I didn’t do anything" are of the same ilk as “Don’t be such a crybaby” or “Why do you let what they say bother you?”

Clearly, ‘intent to harm’ starts us down the slippery slope—perhaps more slippery than imagined, for it not only involves the purported aim(s) of the bully, but the equally subjective determinations of that intent by bystanders and authority figures. Their perceptions --the corresponding, discretionary counterpart of intent--undeniably guide any adjudication of claims to have been bullied.

Experts tell us perception can be understood as  the attention given over to and expectations surrounding ‘a noxious stimuli.' For example, when we focus attention on something (the cruel remarks of a particular peer), and expect to be hurt (rejected and ostracized by others), the degree of pain we perceive/experience will be greater than the pain over the exact same remarks if either:

  1. We don’t focus on them/don’t care about what is said, and/or
  2. Don’t anticipate that they will affect us / our social status in any way. (Athletes routinely play through their pain, illustrating how the distracting of attention from injury—or the modification of expectations surrounding its severity—significantly influence perception and response).

This hardly tells us anything new. Rather, it seemingly puts us back to square one: “Melania, why do you let X, Y, or Z bother you?” (Translation: Melania, if you would only change the way you perceive what is happening—change the attention you give over to it, and the expectations you have—there would not be a problem. Or, as an unsympathetic ‘bystander’ put it, perhaps if Melania “focused on the gilding of her cage, rather than the bars, she might not feel as though she is the most bullied person in the world”).

Seriously, though, what about claims like Melania’s? 
If we imagine, for a moment, the FBI in the role of "bully police," conducting a “thorough investigation” into them, it is certain that objectively verifiable “repeated offenses” and “imbalances of power” would turn up.  Melania has gotten hate mail, has been skewered in the press, and has probably been “handled” by all manner of White House wranglers lacking kid gloves.

She has been bullied.
But because these actions don't lessen her status/power, we are inclined to sideline them, or rather, to perceive her claims in terms of feelings that have been hurt.

We will likely not come to her aid, but instead leave her to her own devices, relying on what neurologists call "embodiment theory," or the use of her own "bodily experience and processes to understand [her] own emotional experience, and the experiences of others."  Translation: her--and our--experience will dictate where she/we focus attention, and inform her/our expectations of the situation (have we been bullied?  Has someone else been abused?)

Perhaps, then, the takeaway is that subjective elements cannot be eliminated, and thus our responses cannot be scripted along bi-modal variables (bully vs victim;  actions vs feelings.)  Rather than squaring off around whether or not particular actions constitute bullying, or whether the response of the target/victim qualifies the actions as bullying, we might do better to focus on moving beyond the pain. Which is NOT to say disenfranchise the pain; ignore it and try to repress it (‘why do you let it bother you?’).  Rather, it is to suggest that in shifting our attention to, and expectations surrounding the feelings called up by repeated offenses (in situations of unequal power), we might reposition our own emotional responses to our sense of well-being.

That’s a mouthful.

Simply put, we might re-narrate the perception of oneself as a victim: I have been victimized but that doesn’t mean I need to slip into a victim identity/role—I can instead see myself as a survivor. 
That there is pain to ‘survive’ affirms bullying in ways that do not then require an assessment and adjudication of the behaviors of others.  A refusal to deny pain, on the one hand, or to let it define us, on the other, is an important skill for us all to learn (face it, how many of us will go through life never feeling as though they have been bullied?). 

And it is a productive direction in which to take anti-bullying initiatives.

Consider the sea-change in feeling pain, then deliberately focusing attention on anything other than the bullying—perhaps holding the expectation that bystanders are feeling badly for you, even if they do not have the courage to stick their neck out/show it. What would it be like if we taught our children skill sets that allowed them to emphasize their ability to continue on through their day, taking tests, doing chores, surviving the onslaught. Which is not to say it doesn’t bother them, or that they shouldn’t let it bother them, but rather, to say that in many ways they are already not letting the pain from bullying define them--and how they perceive the world--no matter how wretched they might be feeling at the moment.

It is to say, perhaps, let’s let the social norms and expectations surrounding the process of grieving begin to inform our responses and orientations to bullying.

We are all able to be more than the pain, and that capacity must be strengthened and reinforced (while even the slightest of gestures linked to sympathetic bystander response modeled along these lines).

Refusing to understand bullying in terms of actions and feelings puts Melania’s smile in a different perspective. It suggests that focusing her attention on helping others, using her position of power to DO Something pro-active about expectations--to encourage us all to “Be Best”—has allowed her to be more than her pain. 
Although her program may not be the Best program out there, we would do well to take the best of that program, it’s intent to help, and use it to reinforce the change we want to see in our schools, offices and our world. Let’s give Melania points for launching this campaign in the face of her own experiences of bullying, not to mention her husband’s tweets. She is not hanging her head in shame, associating her narrative with his behavior (or other incidents of bullying), but instead being Her Best.

Short of such change in our thinking, we may find our war on bullying to be an uphill battle that, like Sisyphus’ challenge, we will never realize we cannot win.