Updated: Jun 28
My understandings of bullying are based upon therapeutic work with clients and personal life experience. Victims of bullying can suffer lasting psychological harm. At times of severe distress some children and adults have attempted or committed suicide. Family members are also victims as they witness the effects of bullying upon their loved one.
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 I am concerned with how to best support my clients.
In my experience, 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 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 in 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. There might be circumstances where the victim is able to bring about some change. However, in many situations this expectation is unrealistic and might increase their 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.The bully’s own insecurity and vulnerability might be at the heart of their behaviour.
Whatever the perpetrator's reasons and underlying issues, within this 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 a bully denies or plays down their behaviour. This can leave their victims feeling uncertain and mistrusting of their own experiencing and fearful that they will not be taken seriously if they seek help.
Bullying often includes humiliation of some sort. There might be name calling, labelling, showing embarrassing pictures online, laughing at someone's expense and more. Even when the situation has changed and the bullying has stopped, victims may continue to suffer its harmful effects.
Whilst the bullying continues, victims may feel too embarrassed and too ashamed to expose themselves further by seeking help. This keeps them in an isolated position, making it possible for the torment to carry on without outside intervention.
Blaming the victim
Blaming the victim can be a deliberate strategy, used to justify the bully’s actions to themself 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.
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 themself.
If it comes to light that a child who is aged 16 or under is being bullied, I consider it ethical and in the child's best interest to ensure that a parent or a trustworthy adult is aware of the situation. Any discussions with parents would be with the child's knowledge. Hopefully they would be present and included in discussions and decision making.
If a young person or adult is currently being bullied they might choose to explore their situation, and how to deal with it during their counselling sessions.
A genuine and trustworthy counselling relationship creates a safe space for people to talk about their experiences and to express their feelings. This can bring some relief and healing.
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. There are people who believe that somehow they have brought this situation upon themselves. These are all areas that we can work with together.
Working therapeutically with the emotional effects of bullying includes trusting the client’s experiences and understandings. It is important to hear and to accept how things are from their point of view. Exploring what has or is currently happening and its impact can bring some clarity. Often fresh understandings emerge. There can be new insights and recognition of personal qualities and srengths.