“Hurt people hurt people,” a youngster shared in a recent conversation about bullying at a local elementary school.
In an instant, I too was back in elementary school, present to 38 years of feelings about the kid who bullied me in fifth grade; remembering my mother’s boyfriend – a retired marine colonel she’d fallen in love with after his return from Vietnam – urging, insisting, almost requiring that I stand up to the bully. My adult gut still twisted in knots as I recalled the fear I felt as I realized at the age of ten that I had no choice.
I searched my mind for evidence that the boy who so hurt me with his taunts, threats, shoves and constant belittlement may have been hurting too. After nearly four decades, I couldn’t find his face, name or any other memory to identify the boy, just the feelings of shame, fear, anger, and sadness I felt and the horror that overcame me during those days as I arrived at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School on the bus from our home in nearby Lake Barcroft.
Hurt people hurt people?
I thought of my older brother – seven years my senior — and his bullying that became my daily life from the time our oldest brother graduated high school and left for college. Had he been hurt, I wondered? What was he so angry or sad about that led to the physical and emotional violence he subjected me to when he thought he could get away with it?
With few exceptions, I felt very much alone during those years, withdrawing into myself or hidden behind my camera from threatening people and events.
Today I realize how much I wasn’t alone; that my experiences are repeated daily in classrooms, playgrounds, neighborhoods and increasingly in homes, retailers, offices, and courtrooms too. Story after story in newspapers, magazines, journals, television, and blogs reveal children and adults leaking bottled up feelings of anger, fear, sadness, guilt, jealousy, and frustration by bullying others.
Some seventy years ago, Albert Einstein, one of the world’s greatest scientists, said:
“The world is a dangerous place; not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing …”
Einstein was referring to a different kind of bully; bullies who capture the reins of political, economic, and military power and turn their sites on innocents. In either case, witnesses to intolerance, abuse, and the fanaticism that can be borne from both are not innocent bystanders – the very essence and meaning of their lives emerges from the decisions they make to act, speak or, tragically, look away.
Having survived my childhood, raised two sons through their own elementary, middle and high school years, and spent hundreds of hours in their classrooms and many others teaching skills for healthy relationships, here are some suggestions for people living, learning, playing, or working with a bully.
- Know that a bully’s actions are about the bully, not the target. When people bottle up emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, frustration, and guilt, those feelings have energy that doesn’t just disappear. For some, feelings leak out through bullying, threatening, sarcasm, taunting and other dirty fighting tactics until eventually either imploding, which looks like sadness, depression and at the extreme suicide, or exploding, which comes out as anger, rage, and at another extreme, physical violence. Either way, the actions reflect what’s happening inside the person bottling up their feelings. Those who are closest to them – at home, work, schools, and neighborhoods – are rarely the cause of the intense emotions, although they are often the targets.
- Share your feelings about being bullied with a trusted friend, family member, or counselor. Feelings have energy. Negative energy can be toxic, like poison. Holding in negative emotions, especially for long periods of time, is like keeping poison inside. Before long, it spreads and infects others. Finding positive ways to release negative emotional energy is vitally important to both emotional and physical health. Some enjoy nurturing conversations, meditation and physical activities; others have found benefit from PAIRS Emptying the Emotional Jug, Heart Math, Steven Stosny’s H.E.A.L.S., and similar exercises.
- Create boundaries that define unacceptable behavior. Differences are a natural part of any close relationship; in fact, every single human being is unique. What are the boundaries – some call them belt lines – appropriate for you in your closest relationships? It’s important to know your boundaries and clearly communicate them to others, whether at home, school, or work. Some may not be bothered by a raised voice or certain language while others might take great offense and consider those actions “below the belt.” In some cultures, people naturally touch each other; other people might consider any physical contact inappropriate. Know your boundaries and speak up to let others know what is, and isn’t, okay for you.
- Encourage compassionate support both for victims and bullies. When someone you know has been bullied, reach out with compassion and respect. Ask how you can help. Listen with empathy and understanding to their experience. Support the person in seeking and getting assistance needed to get through the situation. Actively help create an environment in which future threats of bullying are eliminated. At the same time, recognize that people who bully may be crying out for attention. At school, support zero tolerance for bullying by insisting that people who bully be counseled, including involving a parent, and separated from others who have been the target of their actions until they recognize their behaviors are unacceptable, accept the consequences, and apologize to those they’ve wronged.
- Never keep it a secret; call attention to bullying. While some think they will boost their popularity and low self-esteem by taunting, threatening and abusing others publicly, many bully only when they think they won’t be seen, caught, or prevented from lying about their abusive behaviors. Don’t let them succeed! Whether you’re the target or witness, call attention to bullying and help create a world in which others don’t have to fear emotional or physical abuse at home, school, work or anyplace else. People who are abusive to others need attention so their actions don’t escalate. People who are victims need active, compassionate support within a culture that collectively protects every human being’s right to live, learn, play and work without being bullied.
Impact of PAIRS in Reducing Bullying Behaviors
“The skills have helped me better control my anger.”
~ Kevin, 18
“The information has taught me how to show and control my emotions.”
~ Robin, 17
“PAIRS has give me so many new and positive ways to express my anger.”
~ Jessica, 16
“My experience in PAIRS allowed me to relieve so much stress and pain.”
~ Danyell, 17
“PAIRS has made me aware and of ways in which I have been dirty fighting, I now have the tools to positively release my negative feelings.”
~ Melodie, 33
“The emotional jug allowed me to release so many negative emotions.”
~ Jennifer, 31
- Parent Teacher Association
- National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- The Nemours Foundation
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
- American Association of School Administrators
- State of Washington Department of Labor
- Workplace Bullying Institute
Seth Eisenberg is President and CEO of PAIRS Foundation. This post originally appeared in his personal blog, Redefining Relationships.