Thursday, December 13, 2012

Speak Softly and Carry Small Words: One Adult's Guide to Handling Bullies

Andy walked in front of me the whole way home, taunting me and dancing with my hat. I was mad and didn't know what to do. He had taken my hat right after school got out. My feeble request for him to "give it back" had fallen on deaf ears. I was new to school and it had taken Andy the whole fall to figure me out. Despite the fact that I was an extremely overgrown seven year old I wasn't going to overpower him to get my hat back. Feeling emboldened, he seized on my weakness on a daily basis. At the time, I didn't have a good word for it, but now I know- I was being bullied. When, embarrassed, I told my mother what had happened to my new hat, she sent older brother on the walk home with me. Andy didn't seem perturbed and went for my second hat right away. I still remembered his stunned face, and the quick trickle of blood coming out of his nose. As soon as he put his hands on my hat, my brother had punched him directly in the nose.
Andy never bothered me again. In fact, years later we would be partners on a High School English project as if nothing had ever happened. Today, it remains the first time in my life I can remember being bullied and the first solution I ever saw. Still, I didn't learn a solution from that day. Throughout the rest of my life, bullies seized on my reticence to punch them in the nose.

I always thought that, when I became an adult, that it would go away. I now know that is absolutely not true. Adult bullies will most likely not steal your hat, and the stakes for punching them in the nose are way higher than they were for my brother in elementary school. Adult bullies, for the most part, prefer psychological measures. They will intimidate you with threats that are real or completely made up- they will try to convince you that you have brought it on yourself, and they will take advantage of your unwillingness to fight fire with fire.

As the title of this blog suggests, I don't pretend to have the solution to bullies. But, as I stare down my 30th birthday, I have acquired some skills that I wish I had a long time ago. The first is a better working knowledge of what drives bullies to lash out. The predominate theory of my childhood on bullies was that they had really low self esteem, and schools worked to boost up the self-esteem of school children. Only, it did little to change bullying in schools. Today, more and more people are realizing that the relationship between bullies and self-esteem is more complicated. It's more likely that bullies actually have very high self-esteem. The problem is, there esteem is not based in reality. For instance, they may think they have the best plan in the boardroom when everyone else disagrees.

When bullies run into information that contradicts their unreal self-esteem, they have to act to defend their self-esteem. This causes them to lash out at what is contradicting their self-esteem, whether it be a person with a better idea or the people who disagree with them.

Knowing this has helped me develop a simple plan. When I encounter a bully in my day to day life, my first rule is to not let them upset me. This first part is the most important, and hardest. I'll confess that I don't always make it past step one. The easiest method I've found is to forgive the bully before I do anything else. It's important to distinguish between forgiving and excusing. When you forgive someone, it can allow you to let go of what is upsetting you and, quite frankly, will probably lower the tension of the situation. Excusing is telling them what they have done is "ok", and you don't want to do that. Then I take stock of the situation and draw an observer into the fold. Many bullies rely on getting you alone so that they can threaten or intimidate you, and their tone changes significantly with someone else watching. If you can accomplish this, take time to explain to the bully why you think their actions are wrong. Again, stay calm and don't make it personal, talk about actions and not the person. Chances are they will take it personally anyway. Don't feel any pressure to lay everything out, chances are you won't make it far reasoning with an unreasonable person. In the end, you can, as I say, "speak softly and carry small words". The "small words" I use at the moment are very simple:

"What you did was wrong"

I find it's far more effective than a punch in the nose. 

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