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Recovery From Bullying Is a Lifelong Process

Bullying has long-term effects, impacting victims and witnesses at all ages.

Bullying is a subject dear to my heart. Maybe it’s because I was a military brat and experienced some rather cruel episodes of bullying at some places. Luckily, I was able to move and found acceptance at other schools. Moving also allowed me to notice consistent trends among social groups at school, so I survived by becoming more of an observer of socio-cultural and group dynamics.

That was my blessing. Not everyone gets to leave and reflect on their experience from a 10,000-foot view. Most are stuck living near their bully on a daily basis. That takes a serious toll. As bullying becomes more pervasive and complex, learning how to address bullying and finding tools to alleviate it and heal from it are critical for all people.

First, it might be important to emphasize that having a sense of belonging is an essential need for human beings. We are social creatures and need each other for survival. Moreover, to combat the ancient neural wiring within us that warns us that “isolation means death,” people are compelled to find and belong to groups in order to survive.

Being singled out and targeted by a bully not only hurts a person, it predominantly leads to ostracization from the group—triggering the body’s natural death threat defenses to run, fight, or freeze. If someone is younger and in school and unable to receive real understanding, help, and remains stuck in the situation without a bonafide working solution, then they suffer enormous internal stressors that result in serious threats to both their body and mind. Many of these threats are delayed and the consequences can show up years later.

Examples of Some Long-Term Effects

How people respond to bullying can be as various and complex as the bullying itself.

When defense triggers are initiated, some people will run and hide and the long-term effects of this can show up as:

  • Perpetual isolation
  • Shutting down in conflict
  • Having a general mistrust of people
  • Overall avoidance of conflict, people, places, things, and one’s own feelings

Some people respond to bullying by fighting back and if they are unsuccessful they may cross into fighting others weaker than themselves and/or safe loved ones. Long-term effects show up as:

  • Chronic defensiveness
  • Needing to be right
  • Problems with authority
  • Self-attack
  • Self-destructiveness (including substance abuse and addiction)

Those who freeze can dissociate and have long-term effects of:

  • Eating disorders
  • Generally bowing to what others say and having no sense of self
  • Exhibiting difficulty in decision-making

Many people display a combination of these traits—and they are generally unaware that the cause may stem from early episodes of bullying.

Bullying Happens Everywhere and at Any Time in Life

When people think of bullying, they may think of the elementary school playground bully; yet bullying can happen anywhere and at any time in life. Sometimes a person may also experience repeated episodes of bullying in life.

Examples include being bullied by siblings, parents, step-families, and extended families. Neighbors may be bullies. Kids in school at any age can be bullies, including college. There are bullies in the workplace, at schools, in churches, in professional organizations, and volunteer organizations. Bullies are everywhere and where there are bullies, there are victims and bystanders.

Myths About Bullies

Let’s look at some of the myths about bullies.

  • As depicted in the old movie, “My Bodyguard,” bullies are generally not solo people without friends and instead tend to have high status with lots of friends (which is why they can influence others to help “cast out” a victim or perceived threat from a group).
  • It is believed that bullies have low self-esteem, yet *research shows they actually tend to have an inflated self-view and generally see themselves in a positive light. (*Juvonen et al., 2003; Zariski & Coie, 1996)
  • Bullying does not happen in isolation and instead happens in front of people and the onlookers do not do anything to stop it and their silence and or encouragement tends to reinforce the bullying.
  • Most victims do not retaliate, instead they become silent and do not report it or talk about it.

What to Do About Bullying

If you are the victim of bullying, please find someone to talk to about it. If you are in school, try to find a trusted teacher or school counselor. There are a variety of online support groups as well. Journal about it. Make art projects and try to connect to your feelings. The biggest thing is not to abandon yourself in the process. You also get to speak up and say “No!” to the bully and do what you can to remain at a safe distance. Please get support and know that you matter and that you’re not alone. Additional resources can be found here.

If you are a survivor of bullying, the same advice applies. Speak out about it. Revisit what happened and really acknowledge how you felt and also how you may have internalized what happened and beat yourself up for it. Be kind and gentle with yourself and notice any residual consequences. How do you handle groups of people now? What happens when you begin to feel left out of a group? Notice the immediate self-talk and/or reaction to run, argue with someone else, and/or dissociate.

If you are or were an onlooker, take note of your feelings. Are or were you scared to confront the bully? Were you worried you’d be next? What can you do to repair with the victim? Can you be brave and tell the bully that the behavior is not kind or can you make a stand by saying out loud that you don’t find it acceptable and physically walk-away? Are there other things you can do to support anti-bullying initiatives (at school or in your community)? Can you write about it and begin talking to safe people about how you feel when witnessing bullying?

If you are (or were) the bully, what can you do to empathize with the person you are bullying (or have bullied)? What are you getting from bullying someone? Can you journal about it and try to really feel what the other person feels? Can you talk to someone safe about the thrill you may get when harming someone? Is it possible you can do things to stop bullying and help support anti-bullying activities? Is there a way you can repair with the person you have bullied? Can you speak out the next time you witness a person bullying another person?

If you are a school administrator or teacher, there are numerous bullying programs available at this time with tangible things you can do. Also, try to pay attention to your own internal reactions to bullying. Do you find yourself inadvertently engaging in microaggressions and unconscious prejudices that reinforce bully and victim statuses? Do you also have a support group and a place where everyone can talk about it with each other? Does your school engage in a culture of openness and flexibility or is it succumbing to old entrenched bullying patterns? What can you do to speak out in little ways each day to support inclusion, empathy, and equality for all?

We are social creatures and we need each other for survival. That means we need the victims, the onlookers, and even the bullies. We don’t need an enemy to keep us together. Instead, we can focus on growth and ask ourselves what our own individual experiences are teaching us about ourselves. We can also find peace by trusting the greater ethereal forces that unite all of life. We are part of a greater whole.

As Chief Seattle is quoted as saying in the 1800s, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

Or to put it in simpler and more measurable terms—Mother of Family Therapy Virginia Satir stated, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”

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