School bullying: how do we ever get over the past?

Stories of bullying are one of the saddest things. And bullying can be almost as painful for the people who care about the victim, in a different way. Even years later, to think back to the time fills you with a kind of sickness – horror, sadness for the vulnerability and suffering, a longing that things could somehow have been different.

If you personally lived through it, how on earth can you find a way to process and move on?

The school environment

As adults, there are laws and procedures to protect us (theoretically) against harassment and abuse. But it’s strange how as children, we can find ourselves abandoned in anarchy. School is almost our entire social sphere, but if our peers behave like Neanderthals, there is little we can do about it. This is just our daily reality. While teachers should be able to protect us from harm, there isn’t much they can do about social ostracization and some of the emotional abuse that takes place. It’s worth remembering that we were in a unique environment – a no man’s land stretching out between the care and security of our parents and the freedoms and responsibilities of adulthood.

Why does bullying exist?

Children and young people bully because they have some kind of displaced need for empowerment. In the majority of cases, this stops by the time they reach 16 or so. It is as if, as young people, a longing to feel like grown-ups, in full control, is externalised and taken out on others. Strangely, when the desire is finally fulfilled, and they become adults, there isn’t so much to prove. The task of actually being a grown-up consumes their energy and attention. As adults, we look inwards, preoccupied with ourselves, social status and personal relationships, rather than, in the case of bullies, people who are supposedly beneath us. It’s that funny thing isn’t it – bullies seem really harmless later in life and you can’t believe this person evolved from such a monster.

Who are the bullies?

It would be tempting to say that all bullies are evil people. But they were children. It’s hard to stomach but it’s true. We probably all know lots of people who were bullies in a past life; worked with them; made friends with them; had relationships with them. Some of them may not even realise that they were a bully.

If we’re being really purist then yes, something could have been done differently in their childhood, preventing them from being a bully. We can speculate on what that might be ‘til the cows come home. The point is, what they did wasn’t nice but as long as they haven’t brought that behaviour into adulthood, we can’t hold it against them still.

What we can learn from injustice

That’s what it is – a great injustice; something that no one should ever have to go through. But then sadly, life will throw these things our way. And though it’s not much consolation at the time, to have lived through injustice gives you a profound and visceral appreciation for right and wrong; a new way of seeing the world; sharp clarity. You have seen things which others cannot imagine; this is your asset. You have the power, if you wish, to observe the world through this lens; spotting the signs of injustice wherever they take root and doing what you can, great or small, to destabilise and undermine it whenever you can.

Understanding why we were chosen

This is the hardest bit of all. It might not be your ‘fault’ in any way that you were chosen, but it is important to understand the full picture in order to move on from it.

In some cases (and definitely only some), we may have played a role in our own victimhood. For instance, at primary school, I wanted to be friends with some girls and sometimes they were nice to me, and sometimes they were mean. As an adult, I now see that I had an admiration for those girls which drove me to keep coming back for more. Admiration can be an unhealthy habit, going hand-in-hand with a sense of inferiority. This admiration was my personal issue and the only person who could fix it was me. Realising this dissolved the potency of memories and healed any pain.

But people who were truly bullied are usually good, nice people who just couldn’t quite get to grips with the rules of the game. The new cruel and canny way of relating was so foreign to them that they had no way of fitting into it. And they were not armed with the self-assurance afforded an adult; the knowledge that there is more to the world than this. And ‘weakness’ was spotted by others. And it was exploited.

Moving on

I ask myself, is there an antidote? Maybe we should we be raising all our children to be tougher. Is there a way to give them some calm self-assurance in the face of challenge. Or is there a way to help them understand that life will one day be far bigger than this? Possibly not.

But we must not carry the pain of childhood into an adult world because the rules have changed. In the adult world, what does it matter if you don’t have nous? You are now free to be whoever you want to be (and people might even love you for it!). Things which were once ‘weaknesses’, these things which appeared a burden to your child-self –being thoughtful, hardworking, sensitive – these are now wonderful and special qualities which you have to offer to the people around you.

Let go of the terrible status attributed to your aggressors because neither you, nor they, exists any more. That was an age of innocence and naivety for both of you, played out at different ends of the spectrum. Embrace being you and see that although there is suffering behind you, you have every chance of flourishing in this free world.