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Sociability • Confidence

How to Cope With Bullying

The idea that we might be letting ourselves be ‘bullied’ sounds both strange and embarrassing; we’re meant to be adults; we have responsibilities, we might have families of our own, we succeed in making our way in the world rather competently for the most part. We could not — therefore — be playground weaklings as well.

Yet if we look at the matter soberly, there may well be too many times and areas where we do let ourselves be pushed around to an extent that is awkward for us to see — and that would surprise people who know only our more confident moments.

When someone circulates an unfair story about us at work, we may feel stunned and helpless (or tearful) before the allegations and obsequiously try to appease those who spread them. When a partner who tells us they ‘love’ us repeatedly doesn’t pay us back our money or regularly breaks our arrangements in order to go out with friends, we may forgive them too readily and passively hope that they might magically change into the people we want them to be. Or perhaps on an evening course we’re doing, a joke at our expense has got a little out of hand in the group and it now looks — to all intents — like we’re being ganged up on by a set of our fellow participants in the way we might last have been when we were seven and a half.

We should — at such moments — lose our pride and accept that we may very well have a problem with being bullied. Those who know how to resist bullying understand that daily life is filled with people who will be half looking out for opportunities to cause a bit of harm — and are calm and steadfast in defence of their own interests. They know without too much anger or surprise that lovers, colleagues or friends may well see fit to discharge selfishness, aggression and even at points sadism in their direction, and that they need to be half ready to respond (gently but firmly) to the possibility at any time.

The bullied are — comparatively — naive. They operate with an extremely trusting thesis about their fellow creatures. They keep hoping that if they are nice, others will be nice back. They forget that many people harbour undigested hurts which they are looking out for opportunities to pass on to others; they forget that some people are triggered by a goodness that they didn’t have enough of in their childhoods and have had to exile in themselves — and want to punish and spoil any purity they see in others. Human nature is dark — wars tell us as much — and we should accept with equanimity that we aren’t going to get through life without every now and then being targets of all kinds of very regrettable and wholly undeserved meanness and mockery. Unless, of course, we learn to do something about it. Which doesn’t mean shouting or random attack — just a patient, serene defence of our perspectives on important questions and points of principle. Those who don’t get bullied leave the house with armour on. They trust of course, but never too quickly and never entirely. They are under no illusions about what a human being can be.

There tends to be a history to people who are bullied: the bullied have grown up unable easily or quickly to distinguish a good person from a bad one. And that is probably because, when they were very small, someone who wore the hat of a goodie, and maybe had the prestigious title of ‘daddy’ or ‘mummy’ didn’t honour what those names should mean. The child was unable to conceive that wrong was being done to them — and therefore could not muster the energy for a counter-attack or self-protective move. Instead, they either simply hoped their authority figure would change of their own accord or assumed that they were being harmed with justice — because of something they had done wrong. 

Such a confused child grows up a perfect target for the more sophisticated bullying of adult life. They are slow to realise that someone may be telling them they love them and at the same time be mocking their hopes. Or that a group of otherwise civilised colleagues really could be out to trample on their dignity.

The answer can be to trust our instincts and the available evidence a little more. We are probably not — as the bullied often think — merely ‘imagining’ things. Something untoward probably is happening. And, crucially, we are in a position to do something about it. We do not have to hope meekly for rescue. We may have been physically weak in childhood or prone to lose our tempers or cry; now we have a whole panoply of adult responses at our disposal. We can write a polite letter, we can clear our throat and calmly delineate a contrasting point of view. We can tell our lover that love doesn’t mean this for us; or our colleagues that they are being unfair to values they signed up to or an educational institution that they are not living up to stated responsibilities. We can respond to bullying without bullying back. We can learn to love — and look after ourselves — in a way we should have known from the very start.

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