This is Jessica Zeyl, owner and therapist at Toronto Counselling Centre for Teens, writing this blog entry.
We’ve seen a lot in the news about the tragic consequences of bullying. Bullying has also gotten so much more complex and devastating with the presence of the internet and social media. While I wish the tragic circumstances of the bullying cases that hit the news had not happened in the first place, I am grateful for the raised awareness that has come with the media response to these cases.
In the various capacities I have worked as a therapist, I have helped both teens and adults that have been bullied. Many of them don’t even know that what happened to them was bullying. It has broken my heart to work with people in their 50s and 60s who are still trying to sort out the effect bullying has had on their lives. One of the reasons I love working with teens who have experienced bullying (both the bullies as well as those bullied) is that they can sort some of this out sooner and be spared the years and years of pain that the adults I have worked with have had.
We as people tend to believe the things we are told. I heard someone explain once that self esteem is the esteem of others. That is a bit simplistic, but it holds a lot of truth.
People who are bullied tend believe what the bullies tell them. In fact, many of them start to beat up on themselves with the same criticisms as the bullies. They continue to beat up on themselves (often without realizing it) long past their time with the bullies, sometimes even after they forget the names of those who bullied them. Why do people beat up on themselves like this? Here’s my theory: it is somehow less overwhelming to be criticized by yourself than it is to be criticized by someone else. If you can anticipate someone’s criticism (by criticizing yourself first) and adjust yourself around it before they notice, then you could avoid the criticism and protect yourself. It is a creative way to cope with the situation while the situation is happening.
The problem is that we form ourselves and our identities in a way that’s interconnected with our ways of coping. So our ways of coping tend to last. And criticizing yourself as a way of coping, perhaps even more ruthlessly than the bullies did in the first place, is helpful in the moment and devastatingly harmful in the long run.
The good news is that it can change. People who are critical with themselves, who even hate themselves, can learn to love themselves and be gentle with themselves.
So this blog entry ended up being more about those who are bullied than about those who bully. I’ll say this briefly about those who bully. There are often sad circumstances involved that have taught those who bully that the only two options/roles/ways of being are to be an oppressor or a victim. Usually they learn this by being the victim or being close to a victim and the only way not to be a victim (when your relationships are organized as theirs are) is to be the oppressor.
One last comment… I have a friend who is a grade six teacher in one of the Greater Toronto Area boards/regions. She has been involved with anti-bullying initiatives and training. The teachers who have taken up this cause are teaching kids that the power to change the situation lies with the bystanders. (Who often don’t step in for fear of the consequences to themselves). Kids are now being taught that there is no such thing as a neutral witness and are being encouraged to step in. I cried when she told me this because I know and care about many clients that would have been saved decades of pain had someone stepped in. I’m also aware that if a good number of kids really, really get this concept and run with it, it could be a game changer in our culture for generations to come.