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How to deal with bullying from your past | Psyche

Photo by Natalie Thomas/Reuters

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Guide

How to deal with bullying from your past

The effects of being bullied can linger for decades, but it’s never too late to heal and reclaim your place in the world

Photo by Natalie Thomas/Reuters

Need to know

The word ‘bullying’ might bring to mind a school playground where a bigger, meaner kid is picking on a smaller, seemingly weaker one. This is, of course, a bullying experience that many adults know firsthand from their own childhoods, and one that plenty of kids – as many as one in five in the United States – are encountering today. Yet bullying is not just limited to playgrounds or classrooms. Vicious bullying takes place online every day. It can happen among children and adults living in the same household. And many adults have experienced treatment in the workplace that they identify as bullying.

Bullying can take many forms. Physical bullying – including punching, kicking, shoving, tripping, spitting on, or other forms of contact – are perhaps those that come to mind most easily. Yet psychological bullying is pervasive and can include harassment, intentional humiliation, verbal aggression that demeans someone, epithets and slurs, and slander – all behaviours that can happen in person or online.

In short, bullying can be understood as a person or group singling out and mistreating an individual who is perceived as smaller, weaker, or in some way different and less able to defend themselves. Across our lifespans, many (if not all) of us have encountered some form of bullying behaviour. It can occur at any age. Its severity varies by degree, and each of us lives with these experiences in different ways.

What’s more, bullying isn’t necessarily forgotten and healed if and when a bully leaves one’s life. Let’s consider a couple of brief fictional examples to illustrate the impact that bullying can have:

  • As one of very few multiracial students in the town where her family relocated in the 1980s, Trinaa frequently found herself targeted for her physical features and called a ‘zebra’. When she started her first office job after college, Trinaa noticed that her boss, a white woman, was quick to rage at Trinaa and publicly demean the quality of her work. Even as she’s moved on in her career and family life, Trinaa still finds herself on alert in situations with people who seem to resemble those from the cultures in which she was bullied.
  • Isaac’s parents divorced when he was four, and his mother remarried into a family with two older boys. As a creative child who enjoyed doodling and dreaming, Isaac was bullied by his stepbrothers, who broke his crayons and tore up drawings that he made. His stepfather told Isaac’s mother that this was ‘the pecking order’ and was just a way of helping Isaac ‘man up’. In adulthood, Isaac sometimes finds himself experiencing agitation, even immobilising fear when he encounters what seems like aggressive behaviour, particularly by men he perceives as more powerful or threatening.

As a transgender woman, I have known the impact of bullying personally. I transitioned in my home state of Texas, where, in my adolescence, my gender expression was what might today be called ‘gender nonconforming’. I didn’t have this language as an identity marker then, and said I was gay. That wasn’t the language I heard, of course. In high school, I was called the f-word, told I was an AIDS carrier, spat on, and even assaulted. The bullying didn’t stop after graduation, and I don’t suspect it stops completely for any transgender person. I’ve experienced it on the streets, in bars and restaurants, and even in my workplace.

I also have to acknowledge that I, at times, have been a bully. I have inflicted on others frustration and anger that seem to have resulted from being bullied in my past. But the deeper effects of being bullied – the diminished worth, the self-doubt, the shame – were also present each time I bullied someone else.

Do any of these experiences and feelings resonate with your own? In this Guide, my goal is to help you recognise any past experience of bullying, whatever form it has taken in your life – and to give you practical tools for addressing the ways its impact might be showing up for you today. I’ve been a licensed professional counsellor for more than 16 years, specialising in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, expressive arts therapies, and a set of trauma treatment protocols called eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). I’ve worked with many forms of trauma, with bullying as a special focus due to its pervasiveness in the LGBTQ+ community where I’ve specialised.

Bullying can have a range of lingering effects

The effects of being bullied can sometimes be felt for a considerable time after the bullying has taken place, as long as decades later. One study in 2013, of hundreds of people with a childhood history of bullying, identified agoraphobia, panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder and depression as elevated risks in adulthood. Other research has found that survivors tend to report a heightened sense of rejection, lower self-esteem, and a higher frequency of past suicidal thoughts than others. If you experienced bullying in your youth or previously in adulthood, you may not have had many tools available for dealing with it at the time – but you can nonetheless engage in deep healing work now.

Perhaps you feel an instinctive fear or unease toward people whose behaviour in some way resembles past experiences of bullying. Those of us who were bullied don’t necessarily have the insight – particularly if we were bullied as children – to recognise why we’re reacting with distress in present-day situations. Examining a situation and pausing to ask yourself: When have I felt this reaction to a person in my past? can illuminate how a history of bullying might be affecting you.

It’s also possible that you hold yourself back in social situations, diminishing your own voice around groups of people in which the dynamics are uncertain but bullying feels likely. For example, if, like me, you were bullied as an LGBTQ+ adolescent by loud and aggressive boys, you may find that spaces with loud and aggressive men are especially uncomfortable. Perhaps you try not to be noticed in what you perceive as your difference, even if their aggression isn’t being directed at you. Alternatively, you might find yourself experiencing a great deal of anger when situations seem to resemble bullying as you’ve known it.

Often, the impact of bullying can be recognised in a diminished sense of self-worth that leads to isolation. Thoughts may swirl in your head telling you that you’re unwanted, or that people choose to spend time with you only out of pity. You might find yourself compensating in other ways for what you feel you have lost to bullying: working twice as hard at something to try to regain a sense of worth; pretending that a relationship isn’t deeply problematic even as you suffer greatly; or denying your pain even as you continue feeling triggered by certain people and circumstances. You might try to transform your hurt by engaging in certain behaviours – some of which can be helpful (eg, advocating, mentoring, gardening, yoga), and some of which are not (addiction, compulsive shopping or gambling, aggressive or even abusive behaviour toward others).

Any association you’re making between memories of bullying and the experience of diminished worth, isolation and/or loss of voice may indicate that this history is still having an impact in your life. But those of us who have suffered from bullying have the capacity to regain our voice and our sense of self, to reclaim our right to take up space in the world. I see this in my work with clients who have histories of bullying in the many contexts where it’s occurred. It’s an ongoing process for many of us, myself included. For a transgender Jew such as me, the world is still a dangerous place. Yet I don’t have to allow old fears to rule my life anymore. You don’t either. Let’s see how we can transform them.

What to do

Take inventory of past bullying

Instances of bullying that you might have experienced could range from distant childhood incidents to recent events in the workplace, at home or elsewhere. Make a list of the experiences that come to mind for you, without asking too many questions (such as ‘Was this really bullying?’) or excusing the bullying person’s behaviour (‘Well, they were under a lot of stress at the time’). If an experience floats into your awareness, simply list it: ‘That weird time with my mathematics teacher in 9th grade.’ ‘That mean kid from down the street who called me X.’ ‘Our VP of Marketing berating me about the sales.’ ‘Cousin X cornering me at Thanksgiving.’ There may be one, a few, or many that come to mind.

Once you are finished, review your inventory to identify the experiences that are the most distressing to recall. They might bring up a cluster of emotions: a re-experiencing of the fear or humiliation that you felt at the time; anger or sadness that the situation was allowed to happen; resentment for the bully and perhaps even for bystanders who did nothing to stop the bullying. You might re-experience any negative beliefs you have held about yourself and perhaps a feeling of poor self-worth if you mistakenly believe that you caused the bullying or deserved to be bullied. Whatever you observe is the central part of the experience that you now seek to heal.

As you reflect on these experiences now, think about whether they seem to have steered you down a particular path over the months or years that followed. Did you develop low self-worth, learn to silence your voice, or otherwise diminish some aspect of yourself (such as your creativity)? Did you perhaps move toward addictive or compulsive behaviours, find yourself in a depressive spiral, or start to experience panic attacks in certain situations? Once you have considered the path where bullying might have led you, it may be helpful to give it a name, such as ‘Depression Alley’, ‘Don’t Get Noticed Boulevard’, or whatever feels genuine to you. Doing so can help you frame it in your understanding as being time- and situation-bound.

Re-evaluate the meaning of what happened

Reflecting on memories of bullying can often lead to feelings of shame and an irrational sense of ownership for events over which you had little or no control. So, whereas you might feel ashamed that you didn’t fight back against a bully in the school playground, a bullying sibling, or even someone in your present life, it is important to recognise that hindsight often neglects the instincts that were at work during a past experience.

For instance, if as a child you ran away from someone whom you perceived to be larger or more powerful than you, that was likely your survival instinct kicking in. This may have felt at the time like a matter of actual survival, or may have simply been an effort to move away from a very stressful situation where you feared bodily or emotional harm. You probably didn’t have time to think rationally about it. And if you have had encounters with subsequent bullying in your adult life, chances are that the same instinct kicked in again, and you might have responded – or not responded – in a way that you now regret. The brain has an uncanny way of returning us to old survival strategies.

With that in mind, honour any survival strategies that you used, even if you now wish that you hadn’t done this or that. Perhaps that meant you shut down, fled the situation, or became agitated and snapped back at someone. Recognise that you were trying your best to keep functioning in a challenging moment. In this way, your reactions to difficult circumstances have worked much like anyone else’s. We’re all trying to survive. The past itself is unchangeable; we can, however, change our relationship with it.

Let your emotions point you in positive directions

If you find that you experience a profound sadness while reflecting on your bullying history, that may suggest that you need to grieve for what you experienced and for the time that was lost to isolation and hurt as a result. This is a part of healing for many of us. As you uncover your bullying story, I invite you to allow yourself to experience these feelings, without shame. Then, consider these questions: what is my sadness suggesting to me that I might really need right now? Is there anything I can do to restore a sense of justice, such as helping someone else who’s experiencing a similar level of hurt from bullying?

Alternatively, or additionally, you may feel anger swell up as you recall being bullied. Anger, like all emotions, can illuminate a path forward. If you consider anger as a natural response to your experience of injustice, what might be done now to help to bring about greater justice in the world (in a way that does not endanger yourself or others)? Is there a bullying or mentoring programme that you could give time or money to? Or do you perhaps need to tune in to the experiences of children or coworkers in your life who might face bullying? Think critically about what your emotional energy is trying to tell you.

Something that’s become important to me, in addition to writing and speaking about bullying, is direct action for people who are homeless in my city, Chicago. I’ve dedicated a few volunteer hours per month to meal preparation and food table service to these neighbours through my synagogue. I don’t know whether they see the experience of ‘bullying’ as a factor in the extreme crush of poverty that they experience. But I find that helping to give them space and respect is a source of healing for me and perhaps a brief respite from the inhospitality they typically experience.

Talk about your story

Share your story of bullying, to the extent that you feel safe to do so, with the people you feel closest to and who’ve earned your trust. Bringing a part of the past into current relationships can be a powerful antidote to shame, for it normalises your history. It can help you, as the storyteller, to reframe events that have happened to you, and gives you a means to talk through how you responded. And, if you are still experiencing bullying in the present, you can gather support by telling people you trust about it.

It’s important to consider that listening to stories of abuse and bullying can be challenging for the person who’s being asked to listen. So, get consent from a person you’d like to speak with, and provide them with enough time to prepare. You might say: ‘There are things from my past experience with being bullied that I would like to be able to name with you. I know, though, that this can be difficult to hear. If you feel able to do so, I’d like us to have a time and space for this conversation.’

Years ago, I led a workshop series for our counselling students with a group of colleagues at Walden University in Minneapolis. We called it ‘The First Time I Knew I Was Other’, and used it as an opportunity to share our stories of being bullied as a springboard for the students to share with each other. People shared diverse and unexpected stories of being singled out, targeted, humiliated, brutalised, and described the legacy of bullying in their present lives. In hearing each other’s stories, they learned that, as isolated as they had felt in their bullying experiences, they were not alone.

One thing I’ve had to learn and get past is that most people in the world aren’t going to be able to easily relate to my story as a queer kid growing up in South Texas, nor my experiences trying to navigate a corporate job as a young transgender woman. But I have found that it doesn’t take a history of bullying for a person to care about me, my story, and how I’ve come to be. In fact, using a skill gained from a self-help group that I participated in decades ago, I can learn to trust people who are trustworthy. People demonstrate that they’re trustworthy by active listening, by showing up for me. In turn, I do the same for them.

Describing past bullying can also benefit those with whom you choose to share. Not only can the act of sharing deepen a sense of trust and kinship, it might help to clarify behaviours you’ve demonstrated (eg, defensiveness or withdrawal) that the other person might have found concerning, baffling or even hurtful.

In time, you might decide to connect with others who are hurting and listen to their bullying stories. Doing so encourages the person who shares their story, and it can give you greater clarity and awareness about the many ways that bullying may have touched your own life. Therapy groups can be an excellent resource for reducing isolation. Groups that focus either on bullying itself or that are specific to a central aspect of your life experience (eg, groups for queer men, high-functioning autistic adults, Jewish women, etc) can be especially helpful. If in-person groups are not available or something you don’t choose for yourself, online groups or even support communities on social media can help break isolation.

I also highly recommend that you consider working with a therapist who’s trained in counselling people with bullying trauma. It may be that you currently experience a level of acute trauma in the form of flashbacks, disturbing images or nightmares; or your memories of bullying lead you to a state of depression that is characterised by things like a feeling of hopelessness, loss of interest, and isolation. If this is you, you could benefit by connecting directly with a specialist. Psychology Today’s therapist directory is an excellent resource for finding a local therapist in many countries. I suggest looking at a therapist’s website to see whether their style of therapy seems comforting and safe to you.

When fears of bullying or rejection arise, check for evidence

As a result of past bullying, you may still be spending much of your time in a place of diminished self-worth. Perhaps you feel as if all eyes are upon you when you enter new social situations. In instances such as these, people who have been bullied are often re-experiencing a profound fear of rejection as our brains make associations between the present situation and experiences in the past. It’s helpful to take stock of the racing thoughts that you might begin to experience, such as: They are all judging me; I look so stupid right now; I’m the only ___ in the room and it is so obvious to all of them.

When I’ve found myself in these situations, I have learned to make an intentional effort to take notice of my breath, slowing it down and deepening it. I then apply a rational model to test the validity of my thoughts, asking myself: What is the evidence of this? This allows me to rethink my self-talk, and statements such as They are all judging me start to lose power. Are they truly judging me, or are they just doing what people in social situations try to do, such as find a person with things in common, or deal with their own racing thoughts, or hunger, or physical discomfort? It’s not so hard to spot the holes in the logic that says I’m being actively singled out or shamed in a situation where that is likely not the case.

It’s possible that there are certain ‘personality types’ or characteristics that you associate with bullies based on your past experience. Even if a particular person has never bullied you, you might connect things such as a loud laugh, a tendency to dominate conversations, or even a type of car or style of dress with a bully from your past. It can be valuable to stop and ask yourself what’s really bothering you about someone you don’t know well and who has not actually exhibited any behaviours that are harmful to you or others.

Of course, sometimes you might enter a situation in which you are being bullied by someone who is intentional in their mistreatment. The exercise of asking What is the evidence of this? offers a method for determining whether a particular situation truly is a hostile one – which might be evidenced by cruel glances, barbs, jeers or even physical threats – or is instead one in which you might be anticipating and projecting hostility based on your own history with bullying.

Ready yourself to respond thoughtfully in difficult situations

Bullying trauma from the past can complicate how people respond to challenging interpersonal situations in the present. It’s easy to fall into old patterns of thinking (eg, Nobody cares about me), feeling (sadness, resentment about the past, envy toward those who seem to have an easier life) and behaving (isolating, not saying what you need). You might also find yourself responding with extreme anger in encounters where you perceive bullying behaviour.

Try to follow this rule: if you feel a strong reaction to real or perceived bullying situations, take three long belly breaths before taking any action. The 15 to 30 seconds it takes to breathe can be immensely clarifying and prevent a counterproductive overreaction, such as snapping back at someone in an office setting or shouting at a relative across the dinner table.

After the difficult experience has passed, see if you can think back to earlier points in your history when you noticed a similar emotional response. Specify the people and circumstances surrounding the earlier incident. Identify the parts of that situation that seem to have shown up in the present one: is there a way in which you might have been projecting something from your past experience into the present? Consider how you would like to address such a situation differently if it happens again.

Establish a reminder protocol that you can use quickly in future situations. This should be practical and easily available in circumstances that typically trigger responses in you. For example, if you know that you get easily upset while driving if people cut you off or engage in other selfish behaviours, then having something on hand such as a smooth stone or a photo of your child or pet could help you regain your calm. If your memories of past bullying are sometimes activated on a particular kind of workday by a particular personality at the office, perhaps a desktop picture of a forest or lakeshore will remind you that there is vastness and grandeur in the world, and that your bullying history need not dictate your present-day mental health. The idea here is that you can use a cue to refocus your mind away from the immediate reaction you might have, allowing you to recentre yourself.

Don’t beat yourself up if you struggle to respond to such situations in the way you would like to. Like building new muscles for dancing or weightlifting, we develop mental health through exercising new pathways of thinking and behaviour – and that requires self-compassion and patience.

Redescribe your path

Earlier, I asked you to name the path down which bullying has led you. So, if you think about this path as a part of your life story, what do you want to experience in the next bend? In other words, what would you like your relationship with bullying to be from this point on?

You can think of this as a street that changes names at a certain milepost. With your arrival at the current milepost, what should the street be named now? ‘Not Going to Carry Other People’s Issues Street’? ‘Free of Wasting Time and Energy on Old Hurt Lane’? By claiming the right to rethink and rename your path forward, you take ownership of something that is essential to your freedom from the long-term effects of bullying. You begin reframing destructive and shame-based beliefs you might have held about yourself as someone who was bullied, and you provide yourself a pathway where new beliefs about yourself can be identified and explored. Consider, too, what needs to occupy this street. What are the foundational structures you find there? Is it the houses of Resilience, Grace and Patience – or something else?

Crafting a simple statement about what you wish to keep from your history and what you wish to leave behind as you continue along your path can help you situate yourself in the present with a greater amount of clarity and intention. Here’s an example of what this kind of statement could look like:

I take with me my skills for surviving in difficult and even dangerous scenarios. I take with me my ability to reserve myself around people who demonstrate aggressive or chaotic behaviour. I let go of being timid or meek in order to not take up space. I give up trying to ‘pass’ as someone I am not in order to be pleasing and acceptable to others. I give up rigidity, too, and will give people a chance to show me that they are worthy of my trust.

Key points – How to deal with bullying from your past

  1. Many people have been bullied at some point in their past. When someone perceived as less powerful is singled out and mistreated, that’s bullying – whether they are a child or an adult.
  2. Bullying can have a range of lingering effects. Being bullied can negatively colour how you view yourself and others. Its impact can sometimes be felt for years.
  3. Take inventory of past bullying. List any experiences that come to mind and observe the feelings they bring up. Reflect on whether the bullying steered you down a certain path and consider giving it a name.
  4. Re-evaluate the meaning of what happened. Recognise that your experience of bullying was not your fault, and that your reaction was likely informed by protective instincts.
  5. Let your emotions point you in positive directions. Sadness or anger stemming from memories of bullying can lead you to productive outlets, such as promoting justice.
  6. Talk about your story. Sharing your experience in a safe context, with people you trust and/or with a trained professional, can be a powerful antidote to shame and a way to find support.
  7. When fears of bullying or rejection arise, check for evidence. Past bullying can lead to apprehension in present situations, even when you are not being singled out.
  8. Ready yourself to respond thoughtfully in difficult situations. Plan to take a pause and breathe – and to tap into other refocusing cues – when faced with mistreatment.
  9. Redescribe your path. Reflect on what you want the road ahead to look like for you – including what you wish to keep from your history and what you’d like to leave behind.

Learn more

If you have bullied others after being bullied yourself

Many people who have been bullied have learned to deal with the pain by lashing out. Sometimes that includes bullying others: people who are smaller or weaker, or whose conspicuous differences allow them to be easily isolated and targeted. We may still carry a tendency to bully others even in adulthood, mirroring pain and unhealed trauma from our pasts. With the recognition that we might have caused harm, shame (a default emotion for many) often shows up.

A level of remorse for any actions that have caused harm, even unintentionally, is a natural, empathic response. I assert that humans are instinctively much more loving and communal than many of us have been taught, and this loving and communal aspect of ourselves is particularly useful to lean into when examining ways that you might have bullied or otherwise harmed another person.

If you are reflecting on any bullying behaviour that you might have engaged in yourself, here is a question to ask: What tools did I have for dealing with my own hurt? If you find that you didn’t have a lot of tools, you can probably recognise that the outlet you used at the time wasn’t one you’d use now that you’re examining bullying in your life.

Let’s imagine a scenario: as a teenager, Todd was frequently made fun of because of a stammer that he experienced when he was nervous. When teachers called on him to answer questions in class, his stammering response was mocked by other students. Todd felt humiliated and isolated, which prompted him to work harder in seeking the approval of his classmates. Todd began to notice that the other students’ targets included a boy who was seen as ‘feminine’ and another whose stammer was far more significant than Todd’s. In an effort to redirect the attention of bullying students, Todd himself became a bully, taunting and attempting to publicly shame those two boys.

It’s easy to see in Todd’s example that he lacked resources to articulate his own hurt, to address the behaviour in the classroom, and to recognise, accept and articulate that a stammer is a normal response to unanticipated situations that create stress. We can imagine perhaps a different scenario if Todd’s teacher had intervened, or if he’d been able to bring the matter to a school counsellor, his parents, or any adult who was willing to listen and take action on Todd’s behalf. Without such resources, he sought to escape being tormented in a way he could conceive at the time.

A powerful antidote to shame related to past behaviour that caused harm, including bullying behaviour, is the courage to admit fault to yourself and, where safe, to others. Make amends as respectfully as you can to people whom, at your points of deepest pain, you may have bullied. In whatever way you choose to make amends – whether with an elaborate letter or a few simple words like ‘I know I was unkind to you in the past, and for that I deeply apologise’ – you offer yourself and the other person an opportunity for closure. Note that the right to accept your request for forgiveness is theirs and theirs alone; but seeking forgiveness from anyone you might have bullied is itself an act of liberating your own consciousness from shame and guilt.

Imagining what it would be like to forgive and even accept your own actions as easily as you would those of someone you love – you probably forgive other people all the time – is another helpful, compassionate way to respond to any shame you might be feeling.

Links & books

I wrote the book The Healing Otherness Handbook (2021) to guide people who’ve felt ‘othered’ for their differences and 1) to identify the ways in which that otherness has impacted them across the lifespan; and 2) to provide clear and workable steps for healing that are rooted in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

The spoken word poet and author Shane Koyczan’s ‘“To This Day” … For the Bullied and Beautiful’ (2013) is an inspiring TED talk that encourages people who were bullied to recognise their power and voice.

In the TEDx talk ‘Adult Bullying: The Epidemic No One Talks About’ (2018), the author Kevin Ward sheds light on the reality that adult bullying is a disruptive and damaging part of many people’s lives today.

The book BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People: Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns (2014) by Bill Eddy is a great resource for learning how to quickly recognise bullying behaviour in social and professional settings, and address it via brief, informative, friendly and/or firm (BIFF) responses.

The therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab’s book Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself (2021) is a powerful resource for establishing boundaries with people who claim significant portions of your physical and mental space.

The book All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto (2020) by the journalist and activist George M Johnson inspires readers to see the beauty of their own gender expressions.

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4 January 2023