Facing up to the bully challenge

“Here,” he said, holding out his hand. “Let me help you up.” “I don’t need any help,” I replied, climbing to my feet. “I’m fine, really.” Jim stepped back and crossed his arms. Though a year younger, Jim was a head taller and twice as broad across the shoulders. Blond, blue-eyed and brawny, Jim was a natural athlete. I had met him when he joined our local 4-H Club. Though I hadn’t requested it, Jim had become my protector — vanquishing the bullies and sending them running at every opportunity.

“Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.”

— Benjamin Disraeli, British Conservative politician, writer and aristocrat

“Here,” he said, holding out his hand. “Let me help you up.”

“I don’t need any help,” I replied, climbing to my feet. “I’m fine, really.”

Jim stepped back and crossed his arms. Though a year younger, Jim was a head taller and twice as broad across the shoulders. Blond, blue-eyed and brawny, Jim was a natural athlete. I had met him when he joined our local 4-H Club. Though I hadn’t requested it, Jim had become my protector — vanquishing the bullies and sending them running at every opportunity.

On this particular day, I’d been cornered in the bathroom by three older boys. I was being dragged kicking and screaming to the toilet stall for the rose bowl treatment when Jim entered the room. One by one he grabbed the boys and flung them aside. The three retreated but not before firing off obscenities and threats about beatings yet to come for the both of us.

Bullying was out of control at my school and no one — teachers nor parents — seemed to know how to stop it. Sage advice such as “just walk away” or “ignore them” hadn’t worked well. How do you walk away or ignore bullies when they’re incessantly calling you names and threatening you, when they’re shoving your head in a toilet bowl or jamming you into a locker? Besides, those strategies seem to require a healthy level of self-esteem, which victims of bullying don’t usually have.

In a study authored by Dr. Sandra Graham, associate editor of Developmental Psychology and former fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study in Behavioural Sciences in Stanford, California, the author claims “children and youth who are victims are more likely than other children to have low self-esteem.” (While victims are likely to have low self-esteem, it’s not clear if the reverse is also true, that children with low self-esteem are likely to be bullied, or how much bullying worsens the child’s fragile self-esteem.)

Dr. Graham defines bullying as “any form of intimidation, either physical, verbal or mental, of a weaker person. The victim’s weakness could be psychological or physical.”

The effects of childhood bullying can carry over into adulthood. This view is supported by Dr. Graham who writes, “Children who are bullied suffer both psychological and physical problems from the abuse and may retain their self-perception as a victim when they grow up into adults.”

Bullying, unfortunately, is also not restricted to the schoolyard. “Incidents of childhood bullying get a great deal of attention from mental health professionals and educators,” says Dr. Graham. “But adult bullies exist too. Adult bullies also have an impact on self-esteem.”

Children who are bullies can become adults who bully. This is often prevalent in the workplace. Some bullies rise to high ranks in business. Says Graham, “Coercion, or using power to gain acquiescence, can be a common corporate tactic, making it hard to draw the line between bullying and management style. Low company morale can be an indicator of this.”

As adults, we may be less inclined to talk about bullying and in fact, may not even recognize it when it occurs. Short of having someone like Jim step in and toss the bullies aside, there are some workable strategies. They may not involve some of the standard wisdom, however. For years I believed that bullies must have low self-esteem or at least a lack of awareness to perpetrate such emotional and physical pain on others. It seemed to make sense. The bully — feeling poorly about himself — would lash out at others in an attempt to exercise control and feel a sense of superiority.

Recent studies now suggests the long-standing theory may be completely inaccurate. In fact, bullies see themselves in a positive light and often possess inflated self-views. Further, a high (though distorted) level of self-esteem may encourage bullies to rationalize their anti-social behaviour. So successful strategies will focus less on helping the bully raise his self-esteem and more on the bully developing a grounded and more realistic sense of self.

Here are a few suggestions.

Educate yourself. Learn to recognize bullying in whatever form it should take. If it’s happening at work, study your company’s policies regarding inappropriate behaviour and hostile work environments. The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with the situation.

Ask for help. Seek out a mentor, an advocate or even legal counsel. You may be tempted to speak to the HR department, but remember, the HR department works for the company. Confidentiality is not assured and they will likely have the best interests of the company in mind.

Know what you can change. Forget about changing a bully.

You have no real control over the bully, only over your reaction to the situation.

Be aware, in a workplace setting you may need to leave your job or be prepared for a long and hard fight with the bully and company.

Build your self-esteem. Read, study and strive for change. Remember, bullying adversely affects your physical and mental health. Put an end to it. Consider working with a qualified counsellor — someone who will help you let go of the past and deal effectively with the present.

“Bullies want to abuse you,” writes Nick Vujicic, Australian evangelist and motivational speaker born with tetra-amelia syndrome (the absence of all four limbs). “Instead of allowing that, you can use them as your personal motivators. Power up and let the bully eat your dust.”

Choose to be the victor and not the victim. Reflect back on past experiences and look for the aspects — the beliefs, values and perceptions — you can own and thus change. Remember, you’re not bound by the past. You’re not destined to be fodder for bullies any longer.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.

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