Bullying in the workplace and the playground - my personal experience
There is something that persists about both bullying in childhood and adulthood, something that seems intransigent - almost impossible to deal with. In bullying - whether in the workplace or in the playground - threats, insults and physical attacks are visited on a "victim", who is often seen as "vulnerable" or easy to attack, by a "bully", who is often seen as "cruel" or lacking empathy. The seeming cruelty that is done between individuals is often described as thoughtless and people often refer to the "bully" as an idiot or worse. I think there is something important in the description, because there is an implied lack of thinking and a detachment from the consequences, and I think this is crucial to understanding how to deal with it.
As children most of us will have experienced bullying and many of us will have engaged in (if we dare to think honestly about it) marginalising or discriminating against other children. Learning about difference, and the hurt that noticing or speaking about this can cause, is something that starts around the time that we move between our first school, into senior school. Who is in which group and who is popular becomes very important to many children and items such as clothes, phones, and other gear can be markers of where you are in the pecking order. It is common for all of us, at any age, to try and adjust our status in whichever group we are in, by acquiring things or ingratiating ourselves with others...but bullying is a much more coercive and disturbing process than this.
I was lucky to only experience mild bullying as a child, but came across a number of individuals in a team that I worked in as an adult, whose joint interest resulted in bullying me. The experience was so awful that I developed physical symptoms (including stomach and bowel problems which were embarrassing and very painful). I was totally miserable, and unable to speak to anyone, for some time, about what was happening to me. I felt ashamed and stupid. I had never experienced anything like it before and didn't know how to deal with it. I became sure that it was something that I was doing and that if I only thought about it enough and tried hard enough, I would be able to "sort it out". How wrong was I? I became desperately unhappy and my life outside work suffered considerably. I was unable to talk to friends and became very isolated. I didn't have anything to say that I thought others wanted to hear and felt as though I was a boring and useless person to know. My relationship with my partner suffered and I stopped doing things that I enjoyed as my sleep was so disturbed (I was only getting 2-3 hours sleep a night), I was totally exhausted all of the time. I put on weight and this was yet another stick to beat myself with and started to lose hair in patches. Just writing about it now and remembering how things were, makes me feel deeply sad - it was a terrible time.
I was very lucky that someone noticed and asked me what was happening - it was someone I did a short piece of work with who was not associated with the organisation that I worked with at the time. He really listened to me and I was able to tell him what was happening to me and how I was feeling about it. What he helped me to see was that I was not going to be able to solve the problem myself (2 of the people who were in the group that bullied me were very senior to me and were in direct line management) and that it would be 'ok' and not a sign of my failure, to find a safe exit - i.e. a different job.
He also helped me to see what had ignited this problem - I had increased their shame. I had come into a new job and had, in trying to seem interested and engaged, highlighted a number of areas in which the organisation and team were under-performing. Looking back I would not behave like this again. I would be and have been, much more cautious. I hurt the people that then hurt me - not knowingly and not in a planned and systematic manner, as they did, but nevertheless I hurt them. I had no idea that my eagerness would get me into such a fix. It has taken me a long time to be able to say this as I felt so hurt and so angry all I wanted to do was retaliate. I used personal counselling and therapy to help me deal with these feelings so that I didn't carry on the process of "hurting back", but it was very tempting.
And this is the crux of bullying. It is catching. When you have had a terrible feeling "pushed" into you, you want to get it out of you...and the quickest way is to push it into someone else. However, you are then left with the anxiety that they will retaliate and so you threaten and dominate them in order to make sure that they don't try and "push" it back into you.
I don't believe that bullying is done by people that don't feel anything or don't think, I think it is done by people that are vulnerable and full of terrible feelings that persecute them all the time. I think that the people that reacted to the shame I caused them, then dominated and bullied me because they hoped that I would not expose them. One of them went into my personal files at work and even investigated my partner and then told me that he had done this without any permission or authority to do so and had done so out-of-hours...can you believe what would have happened if I had exposed this? His very senior position would have been at risk.
I believe that people who bully have the sense that they are in a precarious position and cannot deal with the difficult feelings that life has thrown at them. They often react to others and know that this makes them more vulnerable and they spend so much time thinking about the horrible feelings that they have, that they don't have much energy left - so they pick on others who are much less than them (in size, power or status). It often seems odd when the bully in the playground is the biggest kid, or the bully in the office is the boss, doesn't it? Really they are very small inside.
So what does all this mean and how can it help? If you are being bullied it might help to read the following several times:
- it is not because there is anything wrong with YOU
- you may well not be able to deal with this on your own - seeking help is a good idea
- this may be bigger than one other person - someone may be bullying the person who is bullying you (often this kind of thing can become endemic in organisations)
- you can say that you are being bullied and you deserve to be taken seriously
- the law can protect you and understands that you may have no evidence to prove that you are being bullied - it is a mental torture
- you are under threat and it is hard to think - now may not be the time for understanding how this happened, but there will be time for this when you are in a safer place
- running away can make you more vulnerable - you need to do this carefully so that you have a safe exit
- after you have sorted the problem (either by moving or taking the problem head-on) you also deserve support as you may find that you still have some strong and difficult feelings to deal with
My advice would be to anyone who is being bullied, to make a plan about how to put a stop to it. You do not deserve to be bullied and you can find a way through or around it - I did. Recruit help and do not do this alone - it is awful enough as it is, you do not need to be alone, into the bargain.
Conserve your energy for each step of your plan and congratulate yourself on each little win. Write down as much as you can remember of what has happened (with dates and times) and continue to take notes from now on (I started taking notes of what my supervisor said when he got me alone and it freaked him out). You are not weak and helpless, and remember this can and will stop.