“My son is miserable in his first few months of high school,” his suffering mother told me. “He’s picked on for being short again.” Jeffrey* comes from short parents, but he was little even by their standards. After much thought (and more Teased in middle school, he began a body building campaign so that, with the encouragement of his parents, he offered his junior high tormentors, to quote the book of Exodus, “a strong arm and an outstretched hand.”
When he enrolled in a new high school in a new city, his torment began anew, this time by means of innuendo, passed notes, and derogatory gestures–I guess a little more “mature” than name-calling. Why didn’t Jeffrey return to the strong arm policy? He looked at his peers, who, unlike himself, were bigger than they were in eighth grade and he was scared. Plus, he told himself, there’s a lot of them and only one (short) me.
This thought is the cause of Jeffrey’s losing his battle. His mind is defeating himself before he begins to fight.
He knows tattling will make it worse. Besides, bullies are sneaky, hard for teachers to observe. Even though Jeremy knows these limitations, the inability or unwillingness of teachers and principals to protect him is likely to sour his attitude toward school and perhaps adults in general.
What more powerful thoughts might help? The remainder of this blog is addressed to Jeffrey–and to Janice, to Jeremy and Julia, the countless known or hidden young people tormented and scarred by bullying.
First, bullies are afraid. If they weren’t, they’d pick on someone their own size (literally, in Jeffrey’s case). And they wouldn’t need a crowd to back them up. Why are they afraid? Most commonly, they’ve been bullied themselves, often by a parent. Sometimes they’ve got a secret weakness (perhaps learning disabilities) which they use tyranny to hide. Other times they pick up inherited or family fears, social, financial, or marital.
The “friends” around them are scared, too, scared that if they don’t follow the bully, he’ll turn on them next. (I use “he” since this is Jeremy’s story. There are at least as many female bullies whose cruelty knows no bounds.) Each bullying episode they witness strengthens their dread, cementing the bullying clique. They’re afraid of being found out and also often feel guilty about their cruelty.
The bully only picks on people who show fear in facial and body language. Like dogs, bullies are very sensitive to the physical communication of other humans–avoiding the gaze, moving slightly out of the path, head down, eyes lowered or darting around for support, rapid breathing, arms close into the body, showing up late to avoid a confrontation.
The victim must follow Lady MacBeth’s advice to her husband, “Screw your courage to the sticking place.” Back to dogs, remember the old adage: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that counts. It’s the size of the fight in the dog. The most seriously bullied young man in my practice was very large, tall and heavily built–man-sized by freshman year of high school.
Pick your time and place–maximum advantage to you. When and where is the bully alone?. This is the “research” phase when you discriminate the leader from the hangers-on. Who enters the room first, laughs loudest, starts the songs or jeers, initiates subtle clothing changes? The aggressor’s posture will be bold–arms slightly farther from the body, head erect or leading, wide stride, jaw set, eyes looking around.
Observing these postural signals may provide an “ah ha” moment. This bully’s powerful posture is the opposite of the victim’s (described 2 paragraphs earlier). Learning these clues may help you to change your own presentation. In fact, the research and planning itself turns you from victim to problem-solver.
Keep in mind that nothing a bully can do in a fight will be anywhere near as painful as the humiliation you feel being a victim. And the adrenalin will keep you more than comfortable; you’ll actually feel excited. If your method is the fist, recall the boxing advice: punch all the way through your opponent; don’t stop at the skin. (This, of course, is in your mind as well.)
Practice in your imagination until you get the scene just the way you want it. A research study of mental practice in basketball players showed that those players who imagined free throw shots, correcting errors in their mind’s eye, were slightly more successful in actual play than those who practiced real free throw shots. In addition, practice what’s called “combat breathing” to take yourself from fearful to calm. Take 4 deep breaths on a 4 count: breathe in for 4 counts, hold, breathe out for 4 counts. Visualize your successful fight while combat breathing all the while.
Don’t be put off by extraneous fears, such as getting suspended or angering your parents. Hopefully, adults will be on your side, as most people loathe a bully. Even if they’re not, it’s still worth it. A bully can torment you for months and years, taking the joy out of your life. A day or even a week suspension is a cheap price to pay.
Unless you are in real gang warfare (and then disregard all of the above), this strategy works. It works so well that sometimes the bully runs before you get to do your real damage. It’s not uncommon that you two become fast friends afterwards. You’ve freed the bully’s crowd from their servitude, and some of them may befriend you as well. Most important of all, you earn back your self-respect.
It’s in your own mind that the battle is won or lost. Your actions merely follow your thoughts.
*Jeffrey is not simply a client whose name has been changed to protect his privacy. He is a teaching example, composed of bits and pieces from real individuals, combined with fictional elements designed to make the story more educational and more readable.