This is Bullying Prevention Week in the U.S. A few days ago, I googled “What is bullying?” because I wanted to see if Trump’s behaviors would qualify as bullying. Based on the criteria listed in What Is Bullying, on stopbullying.gov, a federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, designed to educate, motivate, and empower, the answer is, yes. Trump’s actions fit the criteria for bullying. With good fortune, we may soon have a White House that is not inhabited by a bully. Let’s work to make that so and to change the culture of our nation which makes it possible for nearly half of voting citizens to (still) support a bully.
But that’s not what this post is about.
This post is about how, when reading through the listed criteria, I came to recognize that I experienced bullying, at home and at school, throughout my childhood, and how recognizing that is allowing me to bring to light some painful and entrenched responses and reactions so that I can respond and react to my current life situations in a way that is healthier and more balanced, with strength and empowerment, to help achieve the world based on kindness that is so important to me.
First, the criteria from stopbullying.gov:
- Verbal bullying is saying or writing mean things. Verbal bullying includes:
- Inappropriate sexual comments
- Threatening to cause harm
- Social bullying, sometimes referred to as relational bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. Social bullying includes:
- Leaving someone out on purpose
- Telling other children not to be friends with someone
- Spreading rumors about someone
- Embarrassing someone in public
- Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions. Physical bullying includes:
- Taking or breaking someone’s things
- Making mean or rude hand gestures
As I read through the list, the shocking realization came that I had experienced, throughout childhood, each of these forms of bullying, repeatedly, both at home from my brother, and at preschool, Sunday school, and elementary school from classmates, from the age of two through thirteen.
I suppose to many it would be expected that bullying would be part of my childhood. After all, a widely quoted study reports that 61% of autistic students have been bullied. Another study found that among students with Asperger’s, the percentage is 65% (Carter as qtd. in Anderson).
I was familiar with those statistics, but I always thought that I was one of the lucky ones who had not been bullied. Sure, kids teased me, called me names, made inappropriate sexual comments, taunted, and threatened me, but, like my mom said, they were “just being kids.” Sure, my classmates left me out on purpose, told other children not be my friends, spread rumors, and delighted in embarrassing me on a regular basis, but, like the principal said, “kids are just mean sometimes.” Sure, I was regularly punched, kicked, pinched, tickled against my will, and sometimes spit at, and often tripped or pushed, and my things were taken and broken, and kids regularly made mean or rude hand gestures, but that’s “just what kids do, right?”
No, I see now. That was bullying. All of those acts that made my life as a schoolkid and a little sister hard were acts of bullying.
I was supposed to “be stronger, rise above, ignore them.” Ignore them. “Just ignore it.” I was probably told that more, at home and at school, than anything else.
I majored in ignoring it.
Ignoring it brought some strength and solace. Much of my deep love and trust of nature, of trees and birds, especially, comes from my efforts to ignore bullies. When the kids at school would not let me sit with them at lunch, the live oak trees at the back of the schoolyard opened wide arms and took me in for a happy lunch hour. I turned to God, too, who always whispered about the strength of my spirit and the deep connections that can be found amongst all of us, the bullies, included.
So behind the unhappiness and hurt lay a depth of solace, comfort, joy, resilience, and strength. Relying on this, from an early age, allowed me to grow into a strong individual.
As an adult, I often felt, if I’m a strong individual, I can’t have been bullied. Kids were just kids.
But I see now that these kids were bullies, and I was bullied.
At the time I came to this realization, I was feeling upset from a meeting that I’d attended a few days earlier. I’d been puzzled about how this meeting upset me. The meeting had been with my supervisor for my teaching job and another professor, with whom I’d had some happy collaborations. I was so upset and confused, even a few days after the meeting. Maybe, I reasoned, it was because my routine had been disrupted. Maybe it was because I’d taken two hours personal leave from my full-time job to attend the meeting to receive instructions that could just have easily been emailed to me. Maybe it was because the social communication exceeded my processing capacity, and I was left with that discomfort of not getting all the information to fit together. Maybe it was all of those things.
And maybe it was also because my supervisor invited the other professor to a barbecue at his house on Sunday but didn’t extend the invitation to me, while I sat there in my chair, looking down, trying to become invisible, feeling like chopped liver. I recalled that every other time I have been with these two other people, the supervisor has invited the other professor, his friend, to do something: go to drinks, go hiking, catch a movie, come over for a barbecue, get together to share reading notes. And I have not once been included. I’ve sat there, and tried to become invisible.
Now, I realize that my supervisor and this other professor are friends. I know they’re both male, both the same ages, and that they share political and cultural beliefs and values (which I share, too). I also realize that they’re both full-time, tenured professors, while I am a part-time adjunct. They belong. I don’t. I get that.
I don’t say that his behavior is bullying. It’s ungracious, unwelcoming, and excluding. But it’s not exactly bullying, I don’t think.
It does trigger all of my past with social bullying, and so, when I sit there feeling awkward, what rises in me is panic, fear, shame, awkwardness, and all sorts of discomfort.
When this happened at the recent meeting, I had not yet realized that I had experienced social bullying as a child, so I did not realize that my response and reaction were also in response to my childhood experiences. I recognized my response and reaction as being out of proportion to the situation, but I did not know what caused me to feel so deeply upset about something so seemingly trivial.
In other situations, at work and in the MMORPG I play, I notice that I become upset when I’m not included or left out. My responses often seem odd to me, too extreme for something that isn’t really very significant. What keeps me from “just ignoring it?”
I think I know now. It’s the childhood bullying.
When I didn’t believe that I had been bullied, then events could come along and trigger the old feelings, the shame, the embarrassment, the stress and trauma of exclusion, and I would be left feeling confusion on top of the discomfort. What is making this such a big deal?
But now that I realize that I was bullied as a child, I can address those deeper issues.
It’s a big deal because it reawakens all of those feelings, reactions, and responses I felt when bullied as a child, when I was told to stuff the feelings, get over it, be stronger, and just ignore it.
I’ve begun to put energy and love towards healing from the childhood bullying. It will be a process, since I’m only now allowing myself to explore and resolve from many hurtful incidents.
But I already notice a shift. And I feel prepared to step in with love for myself when next I am excluded, shunned, or shut out. I’m prepared to recognize and heal from the deep hurt I experienced so that when new events come up, I can take them in stride.
I won’t ignore them. I’ll pause and love myself and go steep in nature for a while to regain balance. And I’ll realize that childhood bullying leaves an impact. We can heal from it, and we’ve got to look at it to do so.
Anderson, Connie. “IAN Research Report: Bullying and Children with ASD.” First published: 26 Mar. 2012. Revised: 7 Oct. 2014. Accessed 15 Oct. 2019
“What is Bullying?” stopbullying.gov. Accessed 15 Oct. 2019.