The blogpost of on the subject of bullying has prompted me to expand on a topic many people have asked me for over six years to address. One of the main raison d’tre of Ehell is to empower people through the use of manners and etiquette to interact successfully with less than pleasant people. We call them rude boors and Ehell is rife with stories and requests from people seeking how to engage with people who have become more sophisticated in their pushy, rude, aggressive, domineering behavior. While childhood bullying gets a lot of media attention, the reality is that everyone will encounter adult bullies for the rest of their lives and if one does not acquire the tools to manage these interactions, you will not be as successful as you could be. Ehell wants its readers to be the best equipped bully busters.
In preparing the content to be published on the blog several weeks ago, I made a purposeful, conscious decision to not post the story to the logical Wedding Hells Bells blog but rather the main EHell blog with a subject line that clearly indicated that the focus would be on giving people second chances, to not use old history as an excuse to deny oneself interaction with the broader family and to throw off the victim identity, and my response reflected that emphasis. Of course a wedding invitation is not a summons, calling to inquire why a guest declined to attend a wedding can be rude and focusing the discussion on those elements of wedding etiquette would have apropos if I had posted the story to the wedding blog. But I didn’t because regardless of how Lisa, Brady and female in-laws behaved, my attention was on the OP’s “here and now” response to bullying years earlier. A lot of readers completely missed that intended focus and there were many comments I declined to approve which endorsed, encouraged and enabled the OP to be deceitful, to continue to identify herself as a victim, to nurture her hatred and memories, to take draconian steps of cutting off family for having the audacity to associate with the alleged bully and to not move forward. The comments were a total antithesis of everything Ehell stands for. Do these people *really* understand what this site is about?
Can childhood bullies change? Some social research would say they do not. They just become more sophisticated in their bullying. But I know they can change because I’ve seen it. It wasn’t hard to find examples online of childhood bullies confessing their dirty deeds with shame and remorse. Read Carly Pifer’s memories of being a vicious teenaged bully in “I was a mean girl….When I read about bullying today, I realize: Hmm, I did that.” Or John Cook’s admission of vicious bullying that he deeply regrets as an adult. Dear Prudence column writer Emily Yoffe wrote that she receives “quite a few letters to ‘Dear Prudence’ from adults who look back and regret being bullies and wonder how to make amends.” The OP recognized the bride as her “most hated adversary” from years earlier and chose to decline to attend the wedding with apparently little thought that maybe a childhood bully had changed and before any of the subsequent drama with family occurred. Hatred is an active, not passive, emotion and evidence that while one may not think of one’s “most hated adversary” all the time, that person does reside in a dark, little, festering corner of one’s heart or mind just waiting for the mental knock on the door to come out. Hatred is a poor choice of emotion upon which to base decisions as to how one will interact with others.
The often unasked question is, can childhood victims change? To answer that question fully there must be a dichotomy between “pure” victims and what is known as “bully-victims”, children who have been bullied yet retaliate with bullying. In one recent study, about one third of the children who either bullied others or were bullied themselves were identified as bully-victims. Researchers Schwartz, Proctor, & Chien identified the distinguishing feature of bully-victims as struggling to control their emotions. For example, bully-victims may unintentionally prompt children to bully them again by reacting very emotionally to teasing, threats or physical aggression, and may have similar problems controlling feelings of anger and frustration, predisposing them to retaliatory aggression. According to an excellent education.com article on bully-victims, “children with a combination of behavioral and emotional problems are at greater risk for psychiatric disorders and criminal offences in young adulthood than are children dealing with only one of these problems, and have proven less responsive to a comprehensive school-based program for children with severe emotional disturbances. Consequently, it is of the utmost importance that these individuals receive support and services that address the full spectrum of their needs.”
“Pure” bullies and “pure” victims have the best chance of changing as they mature into adulthood whereas bully-victims appear to be predisposed to having emotional and psychological disadvantages to overcoming the bullying behavior into adulthood. A groundbreaking study by Duke University psychiatry professor William E. Copeland followed 1250 NC students from ages 9 into adulthood over a period of 20 years and found that bully-victims had the most serious psychological problems as kids and they also showed up with higher levels of anxiety, depressive disorders, and suicidal thinking as adults than either the bullies or victims groups. The Duke study also confirmed that all three groups–bullies, victims and bully-victims–had higher rates of some type of family hardship than the kids who didn’t experience bullying at all. All three groups suffered psychologically in some way as adults demonstrating the point that no one comes out a winner of childhood bullying.
With that in mind, thinking back on one’s childhood experiences of being bullied should reflect a perspective of realizing one’s bullies are likely to have experienced family hardships, were not emotionally resilient, may have likely been bullied themselves and are more likely to have psychological issues as adults. This type of thinking is what a cognitive therapist would refer to as “grounding”, i.e. getting you to “ground” yourself in the realities of today, to deal with issues in the here and now as opposed to reacting emotionally to past history. Acknowledging that your bully was a messed up kid significantly helps you to step into an adult viewpoint looking back in time. My own reflections on the childhood bullying I experienced prompted me to realize just how good I had it as a kid compared to my bullies, to be thankful for the blessings I did have and to frankly be thankful my life was not a royal mess like several of them ended up having. I pitied them.
The basic definition of bullying is the exploitation of power differentials done repeatedly over time. Etiquette and manners gives us a solid ground or framework of ways to use civility to change the power differential. If you’ve read EHell for years you know the theme of taking control of a situation through authoritative grace and civility is a pervasive one. I’d go so far as to say manners and etiquette, done with confident graciousness, makes one very powerful and changes the power differential considerably. People who are adept practitioners of good manners and graciousness are neither victims nor bullies. Izzy Kalman is a school psychologist in New York City, leader of antibullying workshops, and the author of Bullies to Buddies: How to Turn Your Enemies into Friends has a very interesting way to bully proof children that is compatible with Ehell’ point of view. It boils down to, “If you get upset, you lose.” (Sound familiar, anyone?) How to bully proof a child (or adult, for that matter) is explained more fully in this document. Please do read it because I’ll likely be referencing it more in the future.
Over the next few days we’ll explore work place bullying, cyberbullying and ways to address those issues.