Why Me? Why am I a Target for Bullying?

In childhood and adolescence bullying is common. For most, it is a nasty experience they soon forget. Some, however, are bullied throughout their lives, both within the family and at work. Why is this? What makes one person more vulnerable than another?

The Nature of Bullying

There is no such thing as a typical bully, though a sense of powerlessness and low self-esteem often play a part. A bully seeks power over his victim, and the humiliation is part of this process. By constantly belittling someone you break their pride and self-respect. Do it long enough and, like a medieval torturer, you break their very identity. Once you have done that, you can control them. An abusive man who beats and humiliates his wife, for example, is trying to break her. Once she has lost her autonomy and identity, she is in his hands. Now he feels safe. Now she will never leave!

When someone has low self-esteem, they can improve it by degrading others. Self-esteem depends on how we compare to other people. It shouldn’t, but it does. If you can humiliate and belittle them, therefore, turning them into the fool or butt of the joke, your own self-esteem will rise. Think of High School. Here you have a group of insecure people with raging hormones, each trying to work out who they are. The quickest escape from their discomfort and insecurity is to ridicule and humiliate another child.

Those With a Weak Sense of Self

Many bullies want to turn you into something you are not. In other words, to define or label you in a way that suits them. For example, a shy young man moves to London to work in a sales office. He is unsure of himself and eager to be liked. One of his colleagues senses this and begins to ask personal questions. Soon, he becomes the butt of his colleague’s jokes. Each Monday the man asks sarcastic, rhetorical questions about his weekend (“I suppose you had a crazy, drug-filled orgy on Saturday night” etc). The bully is using the contrast to boost his own self-image. When he mocks his colleague, he feels better about himself – you are dull and boring, unlike me.

Of course, no one wants to be disliked. It is natural and normal to care what others think of you. Some, however, care too much. And they care because they are looking for affirmation. They want other people to tell them who they are, to reassure them that they are funny, cool, interesting, likeable, valuable, and so on. Bullies sense this, and they recognize it as a weakness.

So be clear who you are, what you like and what you stand for. Never compromise on these, and do not allow others to define you. If you do, it will soon become a habit. The bully in the example above only gets away with it because his victim cares. And why does he care? Partly because he is full of self-doubt, partly because he fails to define himself. If the victim truly didn’t care, the bully would soon grow tired and look for a different victim. Or he could turn on the bully and ask “why are you so interested in my life? I’m not interested in yours at all.”

Imagine you go to a bar with a new group of work colleagues. You don’t know them very well and feel nervous. After 20 minutes you visit the toilet. While washing your hands, the faucet sprays water all over your pants. You now look as though you have urinated on yourself. You have two options. First, you could blush and try to pull your shirt down. Second, you could laugh and say out loud “oh god, look what I’ve done!” Which would result in nasty comments? You can choose whether to own and control the situation or not, just as you can choose whether or not to ‘own’ yourself. By announcing what you’ve done you take power away from any potential bully.

The Passive and Eager to Please

There are essentially three ways of dealing with people. You can either be passive, assertive or aggressive. Of the three, the passive are most likely to be victimized. Self-esteem determines which of the three paths someone takes. The less self-esteem someone has, the more likely they are to be passive or aggressive. (Indeed, aggression is rarely a sign of confidence. Aggressive people may seem confident, but aggression is usually a mask, and many alternate between passivity and aggression).

To make things worse, the passive also seek to please. They dislike confrontation or argument, and so they head this off by being sweet and kind (laughing at everyone’s jokes, agreeing with their opinions, making too much effort with rude or arrogant people, etc). They also need affirmation, and so compliment and praise others in the hope that it will be reciprocated. The bully senses this and takes it as a sign of weakness.

The Happy and Successful

Some bullies behave as they do from a sense of injustice. This sounds odd, since nothing could be more unjust than bullying someone, but bullies often feel cheated. Their life has not worked out as they hoped. They never got that promotion, or met someone with whom they could start a family, etc. Inevitably, they resent those who do have these things. Some are mature enough to be happy for them. The naturally jealous and spiteful, on the other hand, grow bitter.

Bullies frequently hate those who enjoy the things they lack. Perversely, they often feel justified in their actions, as though they are setting things straight. The nasty, vindictive way in which the old sometimes speak about, and treat, the young is a good example. The hatred of students, and view that they are lazy or wasting their time, is another. In both cases, people resent them for enjoying what they cannot. And this kind of spiteful revenge goes on all the time: the fat woman who is nasty to the pretty, slim girl; the short boss who humiliates a tall employee, and so on.

Of course, successful people can be irritating or smug. Often, they are oblivious as to how hated they really are. Not only is your work colleague happily married to a rich, handsome doctor, she cannot seem to grasp that others do not share her good fortune. So she breezes into work on Monday and announces that he has booked a surprise vacation to Paris, or that their son is now top of his class. Her colleagues, whose love lives are miserable, who live in dingy apartments, whose kids are constantly in trouble, etc., do not want to hear this. Every day she makes them feel worse about their own lives. Indeed, some people, especially those who were spoilt as children, assume that everyone is as happy about their success as they are.

It simply doesn’t occur to them that others interpret this as showing off, or even as trying to humiliate and undermine them. When people feel that someone does not deserve their success, they are even more likely to bully them. When her work colleagues turn on the doctor’s young wife, they may feel they are redressing the balance. The Universe has blessed her with too much good fortune, and they are putting things right. Why should she be so happy?

How to Avoid Being Bullied

The first step is simple: draw attention to what is happening. Adults are not supposed to bully one another. Obviously they do, but it is generally agreed that they should not. Bullying is considered both cruel and childish, and no adult wants to be accused of it. Whereas children make little effort to hide what they are doing, adults will. Bullying is thus often subtle. Indeed, the cruelest and most vicious insults are often disguised as compliments.

You can draw attention in various ways. Even a simple glance may let them know that you understand what they are up to. Also, try not to give any positive feedback. Some people live under the delusion that everyone is essentially kind and good, but occasionally lapse into cruelty or spite. Treat them nicely, they think, and they will soon repent. In fact, bullies often find niceness irritating, as do onlookers (people despise bullies, but they frequently despise the victim as well). Remember, bullies want to break their victim. If you respond with smiles and pleasantries, they will simply try harder. Others will take your niceness as a green light. After all, they have launched an attack and met no resistance.

It would also be wise not to provoke people. Bullying is never acceptable and never justified, but some people do encourage it. If you know someone is bitter, jealous and hate-filled, keep your distance. Never underestimate the power of jealousy. Some are utterly consumed by it and will go to extraordinary lengths in search of revenge.

Even the politest conversation often masks a power struggle. That is true even within loving relationships. Children and puppies, for example, will test your boundaries and push you until they meet resistance. But bullies are masters at it. They are also masters at sensing weakness. And, like wolves separating a reindeer from the herd, they will try to isolate you. They have probably been doing this since childhood, so they’ve had plenty of practise!

How do you make it clear that you are not to be messed with? How do you give off the sort of vibes that will drive them away? The answer is by knowing who you are and learning to like that person. When people lack a strong sense of self, a vacuum opens at their core. And bullies sense that. They recognise you as someone they can define and mould in a way that suits them.

Unfortunately, bullying is fact of life. And it can happen at any stage – even in a retirement home! All you can do is resist, and keep on resisting until they give up.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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