From the ages of 10 to 15 I was bullied almost every day.
I was an easy target: fat, wheezy, and a smart-ass. I would dread going to school. In order to skip class, I would fake asthma attacks, but the bullying itself became so bad that I actually did get asthma attacks, triggered by the stress of having to face the abuse at the schoolyard. Those years sucked.
Thankfully, that phase has passed, but I can still sniff out an uncomfortably familiar odor in the air today.
There’s a pervasive meanness, hate, and soul-crushing afoot. It’s in our in-person dynamics, but it has really blown up thanks to the online spaces where people can hide behind their avatar’s mask.
You don’t have to look far for a perfect example. Look at the reaction Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl ad received. It’s a nice (even beautiful) commercial that has an underlining message of unity and tolerance, but, of course, the bullies of the world didn’t see that. They let on an onslaught of bile against it. Like hyenas, they tried to rip it to shreds and take every ounce of value out of it. (If you are like me and are shocked by all of this, that makes me happy. That means you have not been desensitized to the horrendous roar, and that’s a good thing, because that means you still have what’s needed most today: empathy.)
Bullying, put simply, is when someone takes the value and power away from someone else by force. Bullying is when someone makes someone else feel less-than: less-than yesterday, less-than everybody else, less-than human. By crushing our sense of worth, the bullies rule over us.
And this culture is extremely contagious. Whenever a person sees someone else being bullied or being a bully, that sends a message. The message could as simple as “You’re next,” or it could be, “You’re next so might as well get ahead of it and become a bully yourself.” We don’t think; we act based on our survival instincts.
Whenever someone is bullied by their boss, that sends a message to everybody else that it’s okay (and creates a chain reaction throughout the organization). Whenever a kid gets bullied, the other kids will live in fear or join forces with the bully in hopes that they’ll be pardoned. Whenever adults bully each other, kids see that and file it under Model Behavior.
A culture is being created, and we are all a part of it.
Every time I am mean to someone, or witness bully behavior, I remember when I was bullied as a kid. I remember how they took my power away, how they made me feel less-than. How they pushed me around like cattle. How they made me skittish like an alley dog. How they pointed out my differences as if I were a freak of nature. They got their power by taking away mine.
I am no expert in how to neuter the bully culture. Thankfully, there are numerous organizations that have made that their mission, and bless them for doing that amazing work. I do know what worked for me, though, and it’s this: The day my bullies stopped messing with me was the day I stood up. I tried to fight back. I lost miserably, but they never messed with me after that.
Let me clarify: I am not condoning violence. Not at all. And violence is not what I displayed that day. I am condoning strength.
Strength comes from a conviction that is deeper and more powerful than any muscle you can build. Strength comes from standing firm and proud of who you are. To start, you are a badass human being. Never forget that that’s your starting point. Because it’s the unique things that the bullies will pick on, but those unique things are also what make you who you are: Black, short, lanky, freckled, introverted, nerdy, gay, have a lazy eye, whatever. Whoever you are, you ought to be proud of that. By owning and defining your value and not letting them do that for you, you show your strength.
When I stood up to my bullies, I showed strength in owning my chubby, asthmatic, horrible-at-sports self. Me standing up told them: I am done letting you tell me who I am and what I am worth. I decide that. They respected that, probably because it’s harder to make fun of someone who doesn’t give a damn about what you think.
You see, bullies can’t exist without the bullied. They need that other person to feel afraid and less-than in order to be anything themselves. Bullies use their victims own fear as their weapons, and their self-value comes from taking away yours. If you don’t let them in, if you define yourself completely with no interest in what they think of you, they have nothing. They are truly that weak.
I’ll admit that it’s easier to be a bully than ever. The internet provides enough virtual distance, and even some anonymity, to embolden those hoping to wreck some havoc. It’s much easier to be a bully online than it is to punch the kid down the street or the celebrity on stage in the dark, because you never see their pained face. And the fact that it is that much easier sucks.
But I feel like the tide is turning. Kids today are more tolerant and kinder. The future, once it is fully theirs, will have more empathy. There’s also a level of awareness around the issue that was never there. Organizations and social movements are keenly focused on how to stop this bullying culture once and for all. So there’s that, and that’s pretty great.
We just have to do our part and not contribute to the culture. Whenever we see it happen, we need to do something. Letting it happen is another way of giving the bully power.
If you are being bullied, I know how you feel. You probably dread waking up every morning, and wish it would all just go away. It will, but you can’t do this alone. Talk to someone. Share your burden with those who love you. If that’s not available, there are lots of other people and resources that can help you. Start here.
And I am sure that one day, whenever you are ready, you’ll find your strength and that’ll be the end of them. It will surprise you how quickly they will fade away, and how much everything will change. After that there will be no looking back. Trust me, it gets better.