I was bullied mercilessly at my all boys high school. Turning up to Year 8 English class was a routine nightmare: Often one boy in the class would stake out the door waiting for the teacher while another group would hoist me up on top of a high cupboard against my will. As the teacher arrived, the scout at the door would give the signal for everyone to return to their desks so that at the precise moment that the teacher walked into the room everything looked normal in the class; except that Graham was up on top of the cupboard. The teacher was too stupid to work out what was going on, and I'd end up getting sent to the principal for more even punishment.
Childhood bullying is insidious because it can leave long-lasting scars on your mental psyche. This is a critical time of development of our brains, and if your experience of childhood or adolescence is one of powerlessness and victimization, it can program deep unconscious patterns into our minds that set us up for debilitating anxiety and depression later in life.
Fortunately though we can recover. There's enough neural plasticity in our brains to undo the damage that bullying does, provided we're willing to face the emotions that we were forced to suppress when the bullying occurred. Here's how to recover from childhood bullying:
Allow Yourself To Get Angry
Anger is a normal human emotion, and is our appropriate response when our needs are not getting met. Bullying fundamentally violates our basic need for safety and self-esteem, as the bullies use physical or psychological threats to force us to trade our healthy self-esteem for their unhealthy dominance over us. This should rightly make us feel angry when being bullied, which would ideally motivate us to stand up for ourselves and assertively restore our sense of safety and self-esteem.
But anger isn't generally dealt with well in our society or in much of the education system. I wasn't educated on how to be assertive in the face of an aggressive bully, and often standing up for ourselves as a child can even lead us to be punished by adult authority figures. In some cases the adults are even the bullies. So if it didn't feel safe to get angry or to rage about being bullied as a child, there's a good chance that the anger is still in our nervous system waiting to be released.
Feel And Express The Emotional Pain
Underneath anger is usually other emotions such as fear, sadness and grief. Chances are it didn't feel safe to express these emotions in the face of a bully, because that would just make them feel good by making us feel bad. Hence the saying “Sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
That may work in the face of the bully, but the truth is that names do hurt. Emotional pain connects to the same brain circuits as physical pain. If your memories of your experience around childhood bullies are still emotionally charged with feelings of fear and sadness, it's important to seek professional help to do some grief work to release these emotions in a safe, supporting environment.
When we learn to feel and express the pain of bullying that we've kept suppressed in an emotionally supportive therapeutic relationship, it rewires our brain and undoes the neurological damage caused by bullying. Our innate sense of self-confidence then arises naturally. This is one of the things I specialize in as a confidence coach and therapist.
Learn To Stand Up For Yourself
Bullying can leave us with a deeply ingrained feeling of powerlessness that leaves us feeling like a victim; and that doesn't get rewarded well in the adult world. Because of the way that our unconscious minds work, we are likely to continue attracting circumstances like those of our childhood, until we learn to break the pattern of submissive behavior. We are unconsciously drawn to what is familiar, even if it doesn't actually feel all that good. So if we have been bullied as a child we are likely to continue to attract aggressive, dominant people into our adult lives until we learn how to deal with them effectively.
Once you learn to stand up for yourself emotionally and start refusing to participate in the self-esteem trade that underlies bullying behavior, the bullies lose the satisfaction they gain from putting you down and will move on to an easier target. Adult bullies can exert their influence in many domains, including business and government organizations. Standing up for yourself in the face of bureaucratic bullying can be a challenge and will sometimes require you to play nice in order to get what you want without submitting your power to the bully's.
Learn To Deal With Conflict
My early life experience of conflict in my family of origin was very frightening to me, leading me to develop a fear of conflict as a child. Schoolyard bullies played on this fear, and it's one of the reasons I didn't stand up for myself at a time. When conflict isn't resolved in a constructive manner, we can end up carrying this fear into all our adult relationships.
Bullying involves the deliberate creation of unhealthy conflict at the victim's expense. If you were regularly on the receiving end of bullying when you were younger, it's likely to have left you feeling anxious around conflict. This in turn leaves you susceptible to adult bullies, who can use your fear to dominate you. Learning to stand up for myself in conflict situations has been a vital part of my recovery from childhood bullying. I've found Nonviolent Communication workshops, practice groups and therapy sessions where I could practice assertiveness when I wasn't emotionally triggered essential for standing up for myself even when I get triggered in the face of conflict.
Refuse To Play Victim
Playing victim is endemic in our culture, and is an easy cop-out response to the damage caused by childhood bullying. There are plenty of welfare organizations out there that will assist us in playing victim if we try hard enough, but all that does is perpetuate the sense of powerlessness wired into our brain by the bullying experience. If we want to heal our brain and move on in life, it's important to let go of any secondary gain that we might get from playing victim as an adult, and learn to grow up and live your life in our own terms. The fact that we were bullied as a child isn't an excuse for bad behavior in the adult world.
There is a big difference between continually complaining about our experience of childhood while playing poor-me, and using our story to access the emotional pain associated with it so that we can heal our brains and move on. Telling our story over and over in therapy is only helpful when we allow ourselves to feel and express the unpleasant emotions involved; otherwise, therapy can become just another outlet for playing victim. A good therapist or coach will call us on this behavior and insist that we drop the old story of what happened and focus on the emotions involved.
Build an awesome life as a responsible adult by learning how to get your needs met and how to get what you want in life, and you won't care so much what happened to you as a child.
Join A Men's Group
Being bullied as a boy by other boys left me with a deep-seated unconscious distrust of other males. This extended to my own masculinity, meaning that I was uncomfortable both around other men and even in my own skin. To overcome this I found it vital to connect with other men and rebuild a sense of trust in masculine energy.
Having a male coach or therapist such as myself is an excellent first step, and joining a men's group where you are surrounded by platonic brotherly loving support of other men sharing the same journey with you is extremely healing. I've recently joined a men's group for the third time, and every group I join I find goes deeper towards healing the damage I experienced through bullying.
Help Other People Deal With Bullying
Many people find that their sense of meaning and purpose in life lies in helping other people overcome the same challenges that they faced, or helping deal with those challenges so that other people don't need to suffer like they did. Once we've healed most of the impact of childhood bullying on our lives, a great final step is to work with one of the organizations that run anti-bullying or bullying-recovery programs. Our experience as a bullying survivor can be invaluable to helping other people deal with their own experiences; and in turn cements the work that we've done to recover yourself. In my life, do this by teaching assertiveness skills to my clients.
Get Professional Help
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get professional help in recovering from childhood bullying. Since bullying is a social phenomenon involving damaging relationships, the cure is also a social one involving healthy relationships. Relationships are therapeutic. It's virtually impossible to carry out most of the steps in this article on your own. You don't have to live your adult life carrying the emotional wounding created by childhood bullying.
Breaking out of the victim position that bullying leaves you in requires taking action, and the first step when you recognize that bullying has been a problem for you is to reach out and get help in dealing with it. Releasing the emotional pain around bullying and learning to act assertively in the face of aggression are my specialties as a coach. If you've experienced bullying and are ready to step up and deal with it, get in touch with me so we can talk about how I can help you recover from your experience of childhood bullying.