Because I work with a population of teenage girls, the issue of bullying comes up frequently. Usually, bullying is seen as a one-directional behavior–someone is abusing and manipulating another person. However, I see bullying as an interaction. The fuel for this dynamic comes from the choices and behaviors of both parties, leading to the lopsided and damaging interpersonal transaction that defines bullying. Recognizing this duality is not blaming the victim, but rather empowering someone on the receiving end of bullying to fight back (without having to actually fight). One very powerful element of this interplay is when the bullied person unwittingly protects the bully. This phenomenon came to my awareness when I was talking with a 15-year old client named Sarah. She was telling me about the litany of cruel and nasty things that other girls who are supposedly ‘friends’ will say to her on a weekly basis. I could see the amount of pain, embarrassment and loss of confidence that she was suffering. Instead of whipping out the traditional assertiveness skills toolkit, I took the time to listen to her explain her experience, and a much more interesting and insidious dynamic emerged.
I asked Sarah what she does when her friends say nasty and insulting things to her.
“Well usually there is a crowd around us and I don’t want to make everyone feel uncomfortable by saying something confrontational. Plus I don’t want to make the person who said it seem like a bad person in front of everyone. My mom tells me that I need to grow thicker skin, so I am just going to work on doing that.”
“I guess if you had thick skin you could take all kinds of abuse” I replied sarcastically (yes, sarcasm is one of my favorite therapeutic interventions).
“Most of the time I just end up laughing it off like it’s no big deal. It’s weird but I find myself apologizing to the person hurting me. I wonder why I do that. I don’t know, lately I have felt like maybe I don’t deserve to be treated better.” She starts to cry.
It kills me. “I think you deserve a lot better treatment from yourself.”
Sarah gives me a confused look
“So, remember when I said you believe everything you do? Maybe what you are doing in these situations is lowering your self-worth.”
Bristling a bit, she says “But I’m not the one saying bad things about myself, it’s them saying it.”
“For sure, but think about this: if you saw a close friend being bullied, would you laugh it off and tell your friend to apologize?”
“Of course not! I would stand up for them.”
“It would be awful not to. Yet you apologize and laugh it off when people are cruel to you. So, you are sending yourself the message that you are to blame for the cruelty and that the need to prevent any awkwardness in the crowd is more important than your emotional well-being. Without realizing it, you are protecting the very person who is abusing you. To your self-worth, this is devastating because you are throwing yourself under the bus so you can protect your bully from being called on her bullspit. Unfortunately, bullies feed on your power. They thrive on the apologies you give them, they like that you protect them from having to take accountability for how they treat you. You are rewarding your bully, which just causes the bullying behavior to escalate.”
“Wow, I never thought of it that way. It has never occurred to me that was what I was doing but it makes complete sense.”
“Of course it does, I’m a genius!”
She throws a pillow at me