Updated: Dec 24, 2019
My understandings of bullying are based upon therapeutic work with clients and personal life experience. Victims of bullying can suffer lasting psychological harm and at times of severe distress some have attempted or committed suicide. Their close family are also victims as they witness the effects of bullying upon their loved one.
Some of us will have been onlookers. Bullying can occur in so many situations, at school during classes and in the playground, within our family, on public transport, at work and more. Sometimes bullying is hidden and sometimes it goes on in plain sight. I am interested in what makes bullying possible. Who becomes a victim and how do some people get away with using physical and emotional harassment? As a counsellor, how can I best support my clients?
Who is bullied?
People are prone to being bullied in situations where they stand out as different from the majority. There might be physical, cultural, gender and ability differences, or something more subtle, a look of vulnerability that is recognised and exploited
Bullying can also be directed towards someone who appears to be a threat either to an individual or to a group. The power of the group over an individual or a minority can be enormous and impossible to withstand.
I use the term victim to describe someone who is a target of bullying since they are the injured party. This is with the understanding that people who harm others might also be a victim of their own personal circumstances.
There is the view that by seeing themself as a victim the bullied person is accepting this as their position rather than finding their own power and resilience. However blaming the victim is an important source of the bully’s power and I do not want to add to this by inferring that it is the sufferer’s responsibility to stand strong. In many situations this expectation is unrealistic and might increase the victim's distress.
Bullies have power
Perhaps the perpetrator sees something in the victim that triggers their own difficult feelings, or maybe they hope to gain group status, or something else. The bully’s own insecurity and vulnerability might be at the heart of their behaviour.
Whatever the perpetrator's reasons and underlying issues, within the actual situation they have enough power to victimize others. People bully because they can.
The effects of being bullied can allow perpetrators to continue. Victims might be too afraid and too ashamed to seek help. Sometimes bullys deny or play down their behaviour causing victims to feel uncertain and mistrusting of their own experiencing.
Being bullied affects a person’s self worth. The implication and sometimes the assertion, is that this is their fault. Victims experience blaming and shaming messages whilst in a state of great distress and vulnerability Shame can keep bullied people in an isolated position, making it possible to continue tormenting them without fear of outside intervention.
The victim may feel too embarrassed about their appearance, personality, intellect, lack of friends and what is happening to them, to expose themselves further by seeking help. In a state of inner shame and low self worth the victim often believes that other people will not take them seriously and will blame them instead.
Blaming the victim
Blaming the victim can be a deliberate strategy, used to justify the bully’s actions to themselves and to any witnesses, even with very flimsy reasoning.
Thus a group of school girls might corner their victim at break time, drag her to the cloak room and shove her head in the toilet because ‘We don’t like the way she looks at us/ there’s something about her/ she makes us do it’.
Blaming masks the actual situation and can create feelings of disgust and mistrust towards the victim. Onlookers may be drawn into the bullying. Perhaps blaming also soothes the consciences of those who turn away.
The power of fear
Self protection and fears of being bullied oneself can also influence people's reactions. Onlookers might recognise personal characteristics similar to those of the person being bullied. By joining against that person they might hope to divert attention away from them self.
Counselling People who have been bullied
Bullying can crush a person’s confidence and sense of self. Being humiliated, physically hurt and manoeuvred into compromising situations against one’s will is extremely disempowering. I find that clients who have been bullied can often see that they are not responsible for the actions of others. At the same time they believe that somehow they have brought this situation upon themselves. For some clients this is a dilemma that we work with.
How can I challenge bullying therapeutically? For me it is about trusting my client’s experiences and understandings of the situation. Hearing and accepting how things are from their point of view. Being beside someone as their own meanings emerge, and supporting them as they find their own way forward. In this way clients can deepen their sense of self and increase self-empowerment.