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New Situation, Same Old Bullying, Same Old Reactions

Despite our awareness of bullying dynamics, we seem stuck in the same patterns.

Key points

  • Old, familiar physical and emotional responses to bullying are waiting in the wings, despite our awareness and efforts.
  • A lingering sense of trauma is not always a fully satisfying way to explain our responses to situations that recall old dynamics.
  • Modern culture dichotomizes, often employing reductionist emotional short-hand to explain and position us to our feelings.
  • Dichotomous cultural narratives may make it difficult to put personal triumphs (which belong to subjective narratives) in the "win" column.

I was bullied.

So begins the preface to books and workbooks I have written on bullying. Researching and writing them helped me explore my own experience, and was both my process and its resolution. It was also, I believed, my emotional vaccination.

Not so. Recently, I was blindsided by bullying from a different angle. Rather than being the target of malicious abuse, I was collateral damage. It didn't matter that I was uninvolved in the conflict, or that I barely knew the aggressor.

The circumstances were hardly unique: cruel web representations of someone dear to me, followed by a smear campaign. My sympathies went out to her, as did I. Having been grazed by "abuse-through-association," I readily agreed to help when she asked for assistance with a task. I had no forewarning of how fully that put me in the crossfire, or that the first aggressive salvo would knock the wind out of me. (As has happened to innumerable others who have shared their second-time-around bullying stories with me.)

Predictably, follow-up cyber-aggressions were posted to multiple social media outlets, and I was sent texts with the links. The heightening of aggression was not unexpected, although still-noticeable physical reverberations (especially the momentary quickening in my breast each time a ping on my phone signaled an in-coming rant) were. While not debilitating, they were uncomfortable—perhaps more so because I could not simply chalk them up to PTSD.

For reasons that were unclear, this potentially legitimate explanation (PTSD) was not fully satisfying. Some other dynamic seemed in play, for even though I soon recognized that the assault was a social sucker-punch, that shift in perspective did not assuage my dis-ease. Instead, I found my thoughts (and reappraisals) being pulled into the meta-pattern of 21st-century thinking: dichotomizing. Our drive for faster, streamlined, more effective movement in the world has resulted in an increasingly parsed "emotional shorthand." We oversimplify our grasp of situations by ordering and processing them in terms of yes/no; good/bad; winner/loser; us/them; facts/theories; stay/go; and 0/1: the binary language of code used by computers.

Once I factored this cultural undertow into my process, my dis-ease seemed clear: My shift in perspective could not readily put me in the “win” column. In fact, it was in danger of being reduced, reformatted, and condensed into a less than accurate binary narrative.

How to avoid this urge, and safeguard space for the "in-between" positions that are, in themselves, victories? To cordon off and advocate for the gray area that integrates and enriches black and white alike? (If nothing else, our increasingly reductionist two-party political system clearly illustrates the problems that arise from binary thinking, as does cancel culture.)

On an individual level, the increasing difficulty in recognizing subtleties and blurred lines challenges our ability to both mediate and coherently narrate our experiences. The upshot: Finding oneself in a subordinate position (in relation to social power) and on the receiving end of aggression makes it increasingly difficult to move past self-blame, low self-esteem, depression, anger, and shame. (Are subjective triumphs worthy of pride? Is there genuine dignity to be had in overcoming? In simply surviving?)

Consider these "shorthand" narratives:

  1. "If I don't stand up for myself people won't respect me," vs. "People respect me. My friends and I roll our eyes over the situation as we order drinks."
  2. "Getting past self-doubt is not something I can do," vs. "Overcoming self-doubt is not hard, especially if you 'have a life.'"
  3. "It is mostly my fault, I should have..." vs. "It is his/her fault (no way you can put this on me)."
  4. "I am a hot mess," vs. "Very little phases me—I am a grown up, and can handle difficult situations."
  5. "I can't stop thinking about it," vs. "I haven't had time to give it a second thought."

The middle ground, the indeterminate, grey area that refuses any binary structuring of knowledge is all but precluded by an attenuation of the process of "processing" itself.

An ability to re-position ourselves to our experiences, and to re-define ourselves in terms of this re-positioning, is a critical emotional skill. But if that process is increasingly whittled down to a choice between one over-determined self-story or another, we are less and less able to see our behaviors—and ourselves—as anything other than shameful or deservedly proud.

What we are left with—an awareness of this dynamic—seems a tenuous base from which to challenge binaries, and begin rehabilitating the gray.