What I Learned From Being Bullied

I was bullied as a kid. It was hardly the worst case of bullying I’ve heard of, but from ten to twelve I was consistently made fun of, poked, punched, ridiculed, and so forth. One boy was the driving force behind this ongoing effort, but many joined in; some consistently, others from time to time. As I write about in my memoir, this experience put me onto the wrong path in life, requiring many course-corrections down the road. However, instead of diving into the details of my story in this short article, I want to share some of the lessons I learned from the ordeal.

Bullying Clouds the Soul

Because of its ceaseless nature, bullying generates a near-constant feeling of dread. What will happen today? How will I be greeted? Who will join in? Will I have any friends left by the end of the day? What if I say something dumb? Will the attack be physical or mental? Even if nothing happens, these questions and feelings fog up the lenses of life every day. That is how bullying is different from the occasional put-down. It aims to aggressively and relentlessly undermine and denigrate.

Bullying Doesn’t Stop Unless Someone Steps In

For context, I grew up in the eighties. Bullying was called teasing back then. It was frowned upon by adults, yes, but there were no active measures taken to stop it from happening, not like today. Unfortunately, bullying does not stop until someone steps in, be it a supervisor, friend, or society at large. Nobody ever did in my case.

Responding In-Kind Gives the Bully a Win

They say that the best way to respond to a bully is not to respond. That is easier said than done. For me, restraint for a day or a week often ended with an explosion. Sometimes the shrapnel was anger, other times it was tears (oh, I hated those days, they were the worst). I learned early on that the bully won when I responded… and he won a lot because I could not control my responses.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them?

Paradoxically, and to my eternal shame, I ended up joining my bully and his friends when I was thirteen. In my defense, being part of that group was the safest space I could find… but the price I paid was too high. To fit in, I found myself subjecting others to the same kind of ridicule I had been subjected to. Nobody stopped me either :(

I belonged to that group until I left the geographical area when I was sixteen and never looked back. After that, I did not associate with them again, nor did I take part in any kind of bullying with others, but the perspective of having been both victim and doer stayed with me.

Bullying Is Based On Fragility

My birth country of Iceland has produced a plethora of strong men over the years, many of whom have competed for and won the title of The World’s Strongest Man. All the strongest guys had one thing in common. They never used their strength on others. They knew how much harm they could do and therefore always chose restraint. Only lesser men were trying to show off their lesser strength by using it on others.

In a similar vein, the tough guys in my group were only tough (hard) because they were hiding something soft and fragile underneath. We were all broken in some way and our brokenness drove us to act out. As the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people.”

My current perspective is that bullying is never a sign of real strength, but rather an attempt to bring other people down, preferably below the level of the bully.

Bullying Today

Based on my experiences, I understand some of those who join in with bullies in today’s atmosphere. Whether it is online or in-person, belonging to a belligerent and aggressive group can make those who are unhappy with their own weaknesses feel strong, invincible even. And when they keep up their attacks for long enough to make others respond in kind, they may feel vindicated and emboldened (“see,” they say to themselves, “the others are just as bad as I am,” even though, deep down, they know they are not).

All too often, those who participate in bullying on the coattails of others are not inherently bad people… but they are making bad choices. As in my case, those choices can haunt them down the line. Once the lead bullies are exposed for what they really are — and they always are at some point — participants will have to live with the shame of what they have done.

No Easy Answers

A brief look at my story shows that there are no easy answers. I lost the battle with my bullies and had to leave the geographical area to get away from them. In my subsequent search for solutions, it seems that any effective rejection of bullying takes collective will and the strength to say, “enough!” I see it work better in schools today than it did during my time in those institutions, but I fear we are losing the online battle as a society. On top of that, the burden of fighting back is harder to carry because it calls on those who reject bullying to be better than what they are fighting against, which is definitely not easy.

I continue to look for ways in which we can improve human relations, but I have yet to find a silver bullet for bullying. If you know of effective methods, please share them in the comment section below.

Icelandic-American author, bridge-builder, interfaith minister, and amateur musician. Learn more at www.gudjonbergmann.com

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