Little did I know it at the time, but growing up it seemed as if I was walking around with a sign across my forehead that said ‘Bully me.’ However, just like a ‘Kick me’ or ‘I smell’ sticker stuck to my back, no one thought to tell me it was there, so from the tender age of nine I found myself being picked on.
It began at football training, where every Saturday I would show up to engross myself in a sport that I had loved since I was big enough to run. Unfortunately though, despite the hours of practice I put in, I was undeniably shit! I couldn’t tackle, I couldn’t save and frankly, I was somewhat scared of the ball!
As we got split into teams for practice matches one boy, who for the sake of this blog we’ll call ‘Mike’, made it his mission to remind everyone of my lack of talent and would sarcastically shout ‘Oh great! We’ve got Phil’ as the coach put me in his team, to which the others all laughed in response. Needless to say comments like that worked wonders for my self-esteem! (That’s Mike’s sarcasm rubbing off on me there by the way.)
A year later, one of the girls at school approached me in the playground a few times asking “Why do you always hang around with the boys?” Although merely a question, it was said with such an air of judgement that it made me feel conscious and embarrassed, and from that point onwards I realised my masculinity was starting to become an issue for some of my peers. Not concerns you should really be having age 10.
But then came secondary school. This is when the bullying really began.
For six long years, I was ridiculed, humiliated and torn apart for being one of the lads where I would often find myself on the receiving end of slurs like ‘Man’ and ‘He-she.’ My worst memory though is of a boy in my maths class walking into our lesson and throwing my book on the floor for no reason; then when I retaliated by throwing his bag, he turned around and shouted at me “You’re a fucking man-beast!”
If I wasn’t being mocked for my male demeanour and boyish outfits on mufti day, I was being slated for my appearance; from a visible wart that sat on my leg, to my small chest, to my ‘ugly’ face.
But to think bullying is only something that happens in school or only carried out by kids is simply a myth. During my A-Levels, one of my teachers felt it was their turn to have a go and even after I left that environment, I was harassed in the streets by teens who would heckle at me and I have been bullied in the workplace too.
At this point, you may assume I feel nothing but hatred for the people who did this to me. The ones who looked at me in contempt. The ones who triggered my anxiety. The ones who made me feel inhibited in class. The ones who caused me to sit in my bedroom crying after school.
Those who impinged so much on my mental health that they are part of the reason I now have to pay to see a counsellor.
But actually, you’d be wrong…
Ten years ago I did hate my bullies and wanted nothing more than karma to come their way. But fast forward to today and although I still have some pent-up feelings towards those who I never got closure with, I refuse to believe bullies are ‘bad people’ who simply deserve to be punished.
Something I’ve come to realise in recent years is that no one is inherently ‘bad’, we just do ‘bad’ things. Although even ‘bad’ is just a concept. But we’ll save that debate for another time! Ultimately we’re all born into this world the same; innocent and naive. No one is born malevolent.
Whether it be because of our upbringing, peer pressure, or our own insecurities, there is ALWAYS a reason behind why people bully. I am not saying this justifies that behaviour, I am simply saying it explains it.
I know this first-hand because as well as being a victim to bullying I too have been the perpetrator. For a while I got into the wrong crowd at school, ironically with the ‘bullies’, which resulted in me becoming one of them. From sniggering at people and making them feel uneasy, to sitting back and being complicit as I watched them be subjected to the same treatment I received, despite knowing the turmoil they were going through. Even at the time it felt wrong, but logic told me that the more I got on-side with the “bullies”, the less they would bully me. Effectively it was a survival technique – one I heavily regret, but equally one I can understand and empathise with.
People who bully often come from troubled backgrounds and have little self-worth. I’m sure some of you will be sat there now yelling at your screen “Well I’ve had a hard life and I never bullied anyone!” But may I remind you that not only is nobody perfect, but everyone reacts to life differently. Plus, who are we to judge the way someone responds to a life we have not experienced ourselves?
A tough upbringing, exposure to negative and abusive behaviour, and being a victim to trauma will make some people the most empathetic of individuals. Others, however, will end up taking their pain out on those around them. This doesn’t, however, mean that they are a ‘waste of space’ or ‘bad news’, but instead, that they didn’t get the right support when they needed it.
Imagine this – the person bullying your child may be getting abused by their parents as they struggle to cope with the stress of living in poverty. The person bullying your child may have just been kicked out the family home simply for being LGBTQ+. The person bullying your child may have just lost their sibling to suicide or is possibly failing at school. Your boss who is bullying you might be going through a divorce or having a mental breakdown.
Again, this is not to let those who bully have an endless supply of ‘get out of jail free cards’, but to make others understand that bullyish behaviour is probably a reaction to the individual not coping in their private life or having access to the help that they so clearly need.
At the end of the day, demonising those who bully and simply telling them to stop isn’t always going to help or be enough to prevent it from happening. Vilifying those people will only make them feel worse about themselves, meaning we are more likely to perpetuate the issue than actually solve it. And in holding a lifelong grudge we run the risk of hurting ourselves further, as when we don’t forgive, it eats away at us and causes us further issues down the road. Really, the best way to stick your middle finger up to a bully is to forgive them.
I agree that those who bully need to understand the ramifications of their actions, apologise to those involved and inevitably stop spreading hatred. But I also believe the best way to do this, along with explaining to them the consequences of their actions, is by giving them the time, space and support to open up about their own issues. If you knew a friend wasn’t coping you would most likely offer them love and support, no? Sometimes those who bully just need the same olive branch.