Writing about this subject is very difficult for me. It goes to the core of my insecurities and fears and triggers painful memories and emotions. I am one of thousands who have been bullied both at home and outside. The American Academy of Pediatrics has finally identified the terror and harm that come from bullying by siblings.
Bullying, like all abuse, is in the eye and experience of the beholder. This is because those are bullies do not see themselves in that light. They may view their words and actions as harmless “fun”, as a way to “teach a lesson”, or as a means to venting anger or frustration. No matter what their motivation, a bully takes advantage of the sensitivity, fear, or ethics of those onto whom they can dump their emotional junk. What is truly sad is that many whose job is to supervise others may observe bullies in action and do nothing.
My first recollection of being bullied was as a three- or four-year old in East Cambridge, MA playing outside my house on Fifth Street. I vividly remember Nicky, the boy next door, who would come over to me and give me a gratuitous slap. I still recall the mean look on his face, his indifference to my dignity, and his apparent lack of boundaries.
My most consistent bullying experience though came from my older brother, who is three and half years my senior. Growing up it was apparent we had very different personalities. Early on he was naturally reluctant to allow me into his circle of friends. I felt rejected though, as I wanted to depend on him for companionship.
As we grew up he became increasingly impatient with me. He’d get angry trying to teach me to catch a baseball, flinging the object at me at top speed. I grew hardened in the perspective that he didn’t like me, and perhaps acted like a nudge. He regularly vented his hair-trigger temper and rage in the form of yelling, hitting, punching, vulgarity, and threats. After five decades of trying to figure him out, thinking I was gaining some ground in our relationship and then being bullied again, I now choose to have no contact with him. Sad.
Experiencing peer bullying was more subtle. Being picked last for teams, treated in a patronizing manner at sports, and name-calling were the norm. Peer bullying reached its zenith in the eighth grade. For some reason a couple of guys, whom I knew and liked, decided to call me “muskrat”. The name caught on in my class like wildfire. Mind you, I was in the top academic group in a class of almost 600. The smarter the kids, the more exquisite was their torture.
Every day the boys and girls spat out that hated name without mercy. It interfered with my concentration at school and created a barrier between me and others. I wondered what was wrong with me and why I had no friends. I ate lunch alone, almost ran from class to class without lingering in the hallways, constantly gauged potential threats, and kept my distance from nearly everyone, especially the jocks. This went on for six long months, till the end of the school year. I couldn’t wait to get back on the bus to go home each day. I never told my parents for fear they would blame or intervene and make my situation worse. Teachers knew of this bullying but did nothing. I lay in bed at night with thoughts of torturing and killing my perpetrators and hoping not to wake up in the morning.
The natural tendency for many boys of the time would be to retaliate physically. Instead I got caught in analysis loops, weighing the pros and cons and feeling defeated no matter what course of action I might take. I dealt the mess by shutting myself down emotionally. I lived in two distinct worlds, one at home where I felt marginally safe as long as my brother was occupied and the other at school, where I kept my depression, loneliness, and fear very, very private.
The following September I entered high school. I was immediately dismayed when my classes were filled with the same bullies from junior high. I feared another year of mental torture. Strangely they had stopped using the name as suddenly as they had started.
This secession presented me with a new dilemma. When might they start again? I simply didn’t trust any of them. I remained shut-down and consciously rejected anything that might identify me with them: music, dating, social activities, proms, clothing styles, etc. I limited my activities to situations I could handle and still preserve my distance and my dignity. I put my adolescence on hold.
The bullying from outside had ended, but it was just the beginning. Bullying from within me continued for many years. I felt inadequate and defective, constantly worrying about why I had been chosen to have such a sh-tty life. John Bradshaw’s books on family systems and toxic shame and wonderful spiritual directors and therapists were my breakthroughs. But I continued to be very hard on myself. I made myself miserable for not being perfect and I over-indulged in feeling victimized, hurt, neglected, unappreciated, and desperate for intimacy.
A couple of years ago at a spiritual workshop, Ian Ellington named what had happened to me. He said that I had internalized the “bully”, something I never thought of. I had become what I hated the most. Through his guidance I found a way to expel that internal bully and have since been giving birth to a new self. The bully no longer has as much power over me, though I still struggle with high expectations, judgment, and fear. I will likely spend the next third of life in recovery from being bullied, but in the process will be helping many others to address this issue. Tell us your story!
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