Bullying is repeated, aggressive acts in the context of a power imbalance. When we can name bullying, interrupt it, and hold perpetrators responsible for their behaviors, we can reduce pain and create a kinder environment for everyone.
If we can stop a source of pain without other losses, the problem stops. A single hurtful act may be assault or abuse, but it does not become bullying until it is repeated.
Bullying includes a wrenching double bind.
- Bullying causes pain.
- Resisting bullying also causes pain.
- Naming bullying is strongly discouraged.
- Leaving can be impossible or costly.
Acknowledge the trap
Feeling powerless and trapped intensifies the pain of bullying. Acknowledging the double bind can lessen the sense of personal failure, since the situation is stacked against you. When there is no way to succeed outright, you can choose actions that work best for you.
Just as most sexual assaults are more subtle than being attacked in a dark alley, most bullying is more subtle than being knocked down for your lunch money. Bullying continues outside the schoolyard anywhere it is condoned, which is almost everywhere. Aggressive acts include physical and emotional attacks, manipulation, casual cruelty, and shows of force.
Isolation, exclusion, and withholding resources are also aggressive acts. Omissions can be hard to describe, making them terribly amenable to gaslighting (“What did they actually do to hurt you?”) and self-blame (“Why don’t they like me?”).
When we name exclusion and other acts of omission as bullying, we hold the perpetrator and power structure responsible, rather than blaming the victim. Exclusion is still painful, but we can avoid agonizing obsessive attempts to fix ourselves in order to improve the perpetrator’s behavior. Change in a victim cannot fix a perpetrator’s problem.
Exploiting someone’s vulnerability is also bullying. Teasing often does this under the guise of playfulness. If it hurts, it is an aggressive act. Victims often resolve to be tougher and less reactive. We all have vulnerabilities, and we deserve to be treated with kindness around them.
Power imbalances allow bullying to continue. A victim who has as much power as a bully could effectively say, “Stop that!” Bullying behavior may have an immediate goal of preventing or forcing some action, and/or a more general goal of intimidation and reinforcement of power imbalances.
Examine power structures
If you are being bullied, examine the power structures of the situation. List the ways the bully has more power, including social privilege, patterns and habits in your relationship, willingness to be more violent, or resources that the bully controls.
List the power you have in the situation. Claim the power to name your experience to yourself. You can also seek support and name your experience to others. Is there any power you can claim in relation to the bully? Perhaps the bully is a white male, but you are 20 years older and can claim the privilege and power of age.
If you said, “Stop that!” what would happen? Some bullies are cowards who back down in the face of resistance. Some become more aggressive. You are the best authority on the possibilities in your situation.
Witnesses to bullying support power structures by doing nothing. As a bystander, if you say nothing, both the bully and victim think you support the bully.
As a bystander, examine the power you have. You can interrupt in the moment, confront the bully later, and/or support the victim later.
- Would you treat me that way?
- That’s not cool.
- That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s homophobic. That’s ableist.
- I saw that.
- (To the victim) It’s not your fault.
- (To the bully, assuming good intentions) Let’s find a better way to express yourself.
Bystanders can avoid drama triangles by seeing each participant as a whole person rather than a caricature of a role. Look for the victim’s power, the bully’s compassion, and the bystander’s needs. What goals does everyone have in common? These might include general goals of safety and happiness, or more specific goals such as enjoying a pleasant and successful work environment.
Like victims, bystanders can be shocked into silence by a bully’s verbal violence. Bystanders may feel supportive but not know how to express it. Victims can request specific assistance during or after an incident.
- Did you see that?
- Thank you for being a witness.
- Let’s talk about how to stop the bad behavior together.
Bullying is endemic. Power imbalances permeate our society, beginning with the power imbalance between adults and children. Many people use aggressive acts to meet their goals.
We absorb these patterns of behavior and bully ourselves in an attempt to avoid external bullying. Our Inner Critics yell in the mistaken belief that we “should” become invulnerable. Unhelpfully, Inner Critics say, “Ignore them. You must be imagining it. It’s something you did wrong. You should be able to fix it.”
When you notice internal bullying, you can interrupt by asking the Inner Critic, “What are you not wanting to happen?” Responses might include humiliation, rejection, standing out, or feeling powerless. As you listen, the Inner Critic can explore less painful strategies to reach these goals.
Aim for kindness
When you notice bullying and remember that bullies are responsible for their behavior, you are already disrupting abusive power imbalances. Expect kindness from yourself and others, and clearly recognize its lack. Delight in the company of people who aim for kindness with you.