5 Life Lessons You Learn from Being Bullied
I was bullied pretty badly when I was a kid.
Few people believe it today, thanks to my Adonis-like visage and tendency to use dropkicks as exclamation marks during arguments, but it's true. Starting from junior high, my average school day was a nerve-racking experience, on par with Gilbert Gottfried reading the entire Twilight series to all of your senses at once.
There's an upside, though: During my years in the dog pound I had plenty of chances to learn the gentle art of coping with bully bullshit, a skill that has been extremely handy later in life.
Want to hear what I've got? Because here's what I've got:
There's No Way to Make Yourself Less Bullyable
Do not think for a second that I'm about to start singing the blues, here. I wasn't bullied because of my race, or girth, or because a woman done me wrong. I was bullied because, frankly, I was a fucking weird kid. In addition to the standard 1990s Victim Kit -- a deep fascination with books, comics, and D&D -- I had also invested in the expansion pack: late puberty, skinny build, a mouth that always says the exact wrong thing, and the tendency to treat haircuts and fashion with the same enthusiasm your landlord treats your complaints about the leaking radiator. If you take that mental image and feed it to a 3D printer, it'll churn out a pair of hands that will give you a wedgie.
Constantly wearing this shirt probably didn't improve matters.
So you'd think "Hey, stop being weird for a week and see what happens" would be useful advice, but that's because you think there's logic to a bully's targeting system. There isn't. Obvious targets such as myself were an exception rather than the norm. Sure, we were there, and we definitely got our heaping helping of schoolyard dickery -- but ultimately it was pretty impossible to predict who would end up on the receiving end of at least some form of bullying. The reason for singling out a victim could be literally anything: People I know have been targeted because they're too "ugly," too pretty, too "stupid," too smart, or just too damn incomprehensible in the eyes of whatever fuckwitted troll-person happens to appoint itself on bully duty.
Sure, there are scientific systems for predicting the whos and whys of bullying. But guess what: When you're wrestling a bunch of kids who are actively trying to shove your head in a bag of dog turds after class, you're not going to stop and consult a behavioral scientist for the reasons behind this particular phenomenon. There's no reason or rhyme to bullying when you're actually experiencing it, whether you're just a bewildered kid or an adult office drone that ends up in the crosshairs of some assface.
It's Not a Fight Between Good and Evil (But You Think It Is)
There's no accurate scale for measuring human behavior under emotional duress: Where one man folds under pressure, the other effortlessly juggles his problems while simultaneously teaching himself to fart show tunes. But when a bullied person marinates in the frustration of a seemingly hopeless situation, one constant emerges: It's easy to start thinking your bully is evil. After all, isn't evil all about causing harm to other people? It's right there in the dictionary, for fuck's sake.
By that definition, No. 1 on my personal list of evils would be a malfunctioning dick surgery robot.
In reality, the reasons behind bullying are almost always a big fat bunch of blurred lines. Bullies often have bullies of their own, maybe a parent, and if you're a victim of one there's a fair chance you'll eventually take it out on someone yourself. There are a lot fewer genuinely evil bastards out there than we think, and they're usually too busy doing creepy things with dolls and practicing their clown makeup to seriously take up bullying.
If I'm wrong and your bully is the embodiment of absolute evil, just keep calm and wait for
the rise of the inevitable mythical hero destined to defeat him.
So no, that snotty brat who kicked your ass in high school is probably not inherently evil; he's just a stupid kid who has somehow ended up doing stupid things. Still, good luck wrapping your head around that shit when you're the person whose backpack he keeps pissing in.
The Bystanders Are Worse Than the Bullies
Movies often show bullying as a form of abusive relationship between the victims and their scourge: George (and Marty) McFly has to deal with Biff Tannen, and Daniel LaRusso is oppressed by Evil Blond Cobra Kai Guy. What screenwriters consistently neglect to mention is that the actual bully may not be the worst part of the situation. Often, that prize goes to the bystanders -- the fuckers who just sit around and pretend not to stare at the great recess crotch-kneeing show.
Bullying is, unfortunately, a part of human nature. Evolutionary scientists suggest it's a remainder from our monkey days, used to establish social hierarchy. The same scientists go on to say that we can (and should) prevent it by stomping on the behavior the second some kid attempts bully antics. But what happens when no one in the community feels like doing so?
Anyone can tolerate an abrasive asshole or two. We have tons of practice every day -- they're not exactly an endangered species. What really puts our nuts under the mallet is when everyone around you just glances at the situation, shrugs, and goes about their day. That does way more damage than sending you home with gum in your hair, because it can make seeking help seem impossible: Who are you going to turn to when it looks like almost no one gives a rat's ass?
Of course, those bystanders are probably just another part of the great bullying dance -- they're often just afraid, and are likely to receive their share of emotional scars from not standing up to the bully. But try telling that to the kid who's getting his pants stolen the third time that week.
"Man, I feel so sorry for you guys."
Luckily, the onlooker issue might eventually wind up doing more good than harm: Psychologists have recognized the problem and are working on an anti-bullying approach that focuses on bystander awareness, instead of the bullies themselves. But as long as the situation remains, the combination of bullies and passive onlookers is going to feel a lot like you were Frodo and the world was all Mordor, all the time, baby.
And that's your cue to make things really difficult for yourself, because ...
The Desire to Lash Back Can Become Unbearable
If your personal trek in the dark lands goes on for long enough, you're eventually going to want to strike back at them orcs, yo. There's a fair chance you'll develop a desire to have some sort of payback on your bully: punch them, key their car if they have one, publicly humiliate them by swapping their underwear into spontaneously combusting gag ones, shave their cat while they're away from home ... something. Anything.
And that mindset is the real pitfall of many a bullying victim.
The "just fight back" mentality has its share of problems. Traditional bullying tends to hinge on a power imbalance -- either lots of kids versus one, or a big kid terrorizing smaller ones -- and failure to fight back can fuck up your self-esteem pretty horribly. Even if you succeed in your payback, the months and years of frustration and elaborate revenge fantasies you've probably had by then can make knowing when to stop revenging a tad difficult. When you've unleashed the giant murder robot on your tormentors, at which point should you cut the power?
A: After they've pissed their pants, but just before it starts using them for accordion practice.
Lots of bullying victims experience feelings of rage and frustration. According to this article, a third of bullied gifted students alone harbor violent thoughts, and over time some of them are bound to give in to their impulses. Very occasionally, this leads to wonderful things like Casey Heynes finally having enough and body-slamming his bully. (I'm assuming Casey is gifted, because holy shit, that slam, you guys.)
Most of the time, however, it's a recipe for disaster.
Let's move away from gifted kids and back to teenage me. My kettle finally boiled over one day when I got into a confrontation with a group of kids who attempted to steal a stupid-ass hat I was wearing for whatever reason. I left the scene in tears, and the next thing I knew, I was carrying a baseball bat I had retrieved from home. It was one of those weird objects that sometimes seem to turn up in the corners of unused rooms: a splintered, old wooden thing that no one could remember buying and that had only ever been used by our dog, who occasionally lugged it around when he felt his tail wasn't wrecking enough flower pots. Yet there I was, carrying that alien hunk of wood on the streets until I found that gang again. I'll never forget their faces -- I'd seen that expression in the mirror often enough.
Looking back, the nails were probably overkill.
Aaaand that was that. The inverted power dynamic freaked me right the hell out, so I hauled ass back home and buried that fucking bat in the deepest corner of a storage room. But to this day, I remember the sensation of power that came from holding that thing, and I know for a fact that there are kids out there who would have swung it. I also remember that 12 out of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s were perpetrated by bullying victims who had been sucking it in for too long, and finally snapped.
Was I close to being one of those poor, horrible bastards? Hell no. I always had people to talk to, family to back me up. I was never in that dark hole truly alone, and I think avoiding that situation is absolutely vital to every bullying victim. So, if you've ever been bullied, I guess that's my advice to you: Don't withdraw from the world. Reach out to someone. Don't give in to that bullshit rage. And don't you damn well dare let it turn you into yet another bully. You're much, much better than that, which is why ...
You Will Survive That Shit and Walk Away a Better Person
The way my bullying ended is almost as anticlimactic as, well, everything else about it. Eventually, I just stopped caring about the big, bad bullies and even started pushing back a little verbally (tiny skeleton arms, remember). Somehow, this started a rumor that I had taken up martial arts. I never bothered to correct the misconception and, as a happy result, was essentially left to my own devices. It didn't take any grandstanding on my part, or any conscious effort -- I just more or less grew out of it.
(However, I did later take up martial arts for real, but that's a story for another column.)
One I'll write after the statute of limitations expires.
These days, I know many people that are former bullying victims, and they're some of the most intelligent, interesting, and generally awesome individuals I have ever met. I'm willing to bet that even my own level of dickheaditude, while astronomic, probably isn't half as high as it would be without the experience. I know some former bullies, too, and they ... well, obviously they're fine, too, but they lack some of that fire behind the eyes.
See, that's the thing about bullying everyone forgets. It is definitely hellish, and there are tons of potential psychological consequences for every involved party. But unless you let those fuckers get under your skin (which, by reading this, you just promised me you won't), your bullying will end one day, just like mine did. At the end of the day, it's just a phase -- a tunnel of shit from which you will emerge a stronger, better person than you were at the entrance. Just ask Jessica Alba. Or the hordes of other successful people who took the worst their bullies had to offer and shrugged it right off. Hell, if you're being bullied, ask yourself in a few years' time. Chances are, they'll all tell you the same thing: You can't wrestle demons without becoming stronger in the process.
The only trick is to not grow horns yourself.
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