Bullying is a cause that’s dear to my heart. As the victim of a whole lot of it in school (and even in the working world), it’s something that I like to speak out on in the hope that I can ease someone else’s suffering, or help eliminate/reduce the problem.
Like many kids, I was bullied in high school. I went to a small private school all through elementary school and junior high. We had a tough headmaster and he didn’t put up with bullying or any other sort of misbehavior. Punishment was swift and severe, so no one ever got too far out of line. It was bliss. Then I got the brilliant idea to go to a public high school. Bliss, destroyed.
I was bullied because I was different. After wearing uniforms for so many years, I had no idea which clothes were cool. I didn’t know all the slang that the kids used. Most of the other kids had gone to school together for years and already had their cliques. I didn’t know how to behave or how to fit in. I wasn’t prepared to deal with a school full of 1,600 kids, all from very different backgrounds. It didn’t help that I was smart and into geeky pursuits like Star Wars, science, role playing games, and reading. I was also fat and acne-covered, a victim of out of control hormones. Yeah, switching schools was a brilliant idea. Not.
I spent four years battling depression and hating life. (Pride kept me from going back to the private school. I felt like I had to prove that I could make it out in the “real world.”) I distanced myself from everything I loved and wanted to do in an effort to fit in, which only made me more miserable. Looking back on those years, I now know what I would tell myself about bullying, bullies, and life that I wish I could have told myself back then. If I’d been able to change my thoughts and actions, even a little bit, those four years might not have been so horrible. I can’t go back and change my approach to the bullying, but I can offer up what I would have done differently in the hope that someone else may find it helpful.
- Engaging only makes it worse. I was naive enough to believe that trying to defend myself, to point out that I wasn’t the things that the bullies claimed, would somehow make it better. I thought, “They just don’t understand me. Once they do, they’ll stop.” When that didn’t work, I changed my approach and tried lashing out in anger. Of course, any sort of defense or protest only made things worse. Ignoring them would have been better. Bullies thrive on attention. They need it. If you don’t give it to them, they’ll eventually get bored and find someone who will. Don’t respond to their attacks, either in person or on social media. Just ignore them and starve them of the attention they crave.
- It’s temporary. Yeah, it sucks when you’re going through it. It seems like it will last forever because every day is an agony. But the bullying does not last forever. Repeat that over and over again. Eventually, you will finish school and the bullies will fade into the distance.
- Trying to be someone else only makes it worse. I tried as hard as I could to become someone that the bullies would leave alone. New clothes, new hair, new makeup, and new interests. I think I reinvented myself every other week. But nothing ever worked and, in fact, it only gave them more ammunition. “Ooh. Look at her. She’s trying to cover that zit with a new haircut,” or “Ooh. Look at those clothes. What are those? Thrift shop finds?” Just be yourself because trying to be someone else won’t stop it and you’ll waste a lot of time, money and energy. Plus, you can really screw up your sense of self and forget who you really are in the process.
- Derailing your life and plans to avoid bullying is only punishing yourself. As part of trying to be someone else, I even went so far as to stop doing certain activities that I loved (but which were considered “geeky”) and take up things that I didn’t really enjoy but which I hoped were “acceptable” to the bullies. Who did this punish? Me. I lost a lot of time with activities I loved, I passed up a lot of opportunities, and jeopardized my college plans. I’m still finding my way back to some of my passions and interests, but the time that I lost can never be recovered. When you’re tempted to drop your interests because they aren’t cool or popular, remember that you may be changing the course of your whole life. It’s not worth it just to appease a bunch of jerks. (And it won’t help, anyway, so you might as well do what you love to do.)
- You can’t change the bullies. There is nothing you can do to change them. I used to think that if I showed them kindness, they might see a better path. Or if I told them that what they were doing was wrong, they’d see sense. Wrong. You cannot change anyone, let alone a bully. If they want to change, that’s a realization they have to come to on their own. Nothing you can say or do will change them, and trying to do so will only make them turn on you more. Just leave them alone.
- Sometimes, life just isn’t fair and people are mean. Does it make bad behavior okay? Absolutely not. But mean people are out there, in every facet of your life. You’ll run into them at school, at work, and even in Wal-Mart. This doesn’t mean that you have to put up with it, but it does mean that you need to learn how to deal with it. It happens to everyone. Sooner or later, even your bullies are going to have a mean boss, horrible mother-in-law, or nasty neighbor. Bullying and other aggressive behavior is wrong, but it’s a part of life for everyone.
- It’s not about you. Oh, it feels like it is. It feels like bullying is a direct attack on everything you are. But it isn’t. The truth is that the bullies don’t care about you at all. They don’t care about your hair, your weight, your clothes, or your sexual orientation. They only care about making themselves look and feel superior. You are merely the conduit that they use to achieve that goal. It’s all about them, not you. Yes, it makes you miserable, but their attacks don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you. There’s something wrong with them that they have to make people feel bad in order to make themselves feel good.
- It’s not about you, part 2. One of the things you learn as you go through life is that people spend most of their time thinking about themselves. No one really cares about you because they are far too busy caring about themselves. (This becomes very freeing later in life when you realize that you can dress how you want and do what you want and you are no more than a passing blip on anyone’s radar.) Even bullies spend most of their time thinking about themselves and how great they are (or want to be). They only really think about you when prodded to do so by their peers, or when you’re right in front of them. It truly is, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Use this quirk of human nature to your advantage. Ignore the bullies and stay away from them as much as possible.
- It’s okay to tell someone else. It feels like you can’t tell anyone what’s going on, but you need to tell someone. Tell a parent, a teacher, or the principal. In many ways, you’re more fortunate than I was because bullying is taken seriously today. In my day, it was, “That’s just how kids are,” and telling someone didn’t help much. Today, many schools have zero tolerance policies. Tell someone what’s happening. Don’t carry the burden yourself. Will you get blowback from telling? Possibly. But remember that the bullies brought their punishment on themselves.
- Anyone who bullies you isn’t a friend. Some of the people who bullied me the most did so under the guise of being my “friend.” They talked behind my back. They set me up for situations where I would be made fun of. They pitted me against my other friends, forcing me to choose. I put up with it because I really believed that these people were my friends. What I know now is that anyone who treats you badly isn’t a friend and needs to be cut out of your life. Find the people who are your real friends and cling to them.
I know that no teenager wants to take advice from someone older. I get it. But trust me, there are many of us that have been there before you. We know what you’re feeling because we felt it, too. We’ve dealt with it and come out on the other side. Just the fact that we’re offering advice is proof that you can survive the bullies and come out okay. Take my advice or not, but realize that the very fact that I’m alive to give it to you means that you can survive.