Dealing With Bullies As An Adult
Almost every adult can remember at least one bully - someone who made his or her childhood difficult through intimidation. Here's how to reconcile that trauma as an adult.
Almost every one of us can tell at least one story about the 'school bully' we knew in our childhood. Despite our best efforts to keep our heads down and live out our young lives in relative peace, there was always someone who felt the need to invade our private space and intimidate us into surrendering our lunch money, our self-respect, our confidence in the world or something equally important. What is almost universal in our stories of bullies is the fact that none of us understood what motivated these people in the first place. We were singled out for punishment for some unknown reason, and few of us had the resources at the time to risk the ultimate confrontation, to call their bluffs. Parental advice was usually in the form of some 'non-violent resistance' sermon, claiming that ignorance would somehow magically transform these bullies into passive and harmless pranksters. Classmates who may have helped our cause were also being victimized, rendering their assistance moot. We were at the mercy of these sadists, and they somehow understood this interpersonal dynamic all too well.
So now it's twenty or thirty years later, and you are a full-fledged adult and remarkably well-adjusted, right? Wrong. Whether or not you choose to acknowledge it, chances are you are still suffering from the effects of the school bully. The question for all of us is what we can do to help recover from the 'school bully' once and for all?
First of all, you need to gain perspective. It indeed has been twenty or thirty years since that terrible day in the playground or that horrible walk home. Memories fade, and few people who were present at the time will recall the incident as vividly as you can. What specifically happened to you that day or month or year was indeed a scarring, traumatic experience, despite what your parents or classmates or teachers may have said at the time. It's okay to remember the pain and humiliation you felt at the hands of a bully. If it is appropriate, allow yourself to get angry. Yell, punch a boxing bag, go for a jog, stomp your feet. Express that anger, but remember this- you are angry at a memory that lives inside your own head. Once the anger is gone, allow the memory to go with it. If the memories are too vivid or too extreme for you to deal with, seek professional counseling. You WERE damaged, involuntarily to be sure, and this person's actions did inflict emotional harm. Don't minimize your feelings artificially, but strive for a perspective that will keep your mind on the present, not the past.
Another way to recover from the effects of a bully is to examine your own personal dynamics. Victims of bullies sometimes become passive-aggressive in their own right, seeking out domineering partners or deliberately sabatoging their own careers by not being assertive and self-confident in their abilities. Take an honest look at your current way of handling responsibility, or the role you play in your friends' lives. Do you see signs of that same scared 'victim' who took the path of least resistance as a child? Not every adult problem can be traced back to the effects of a childhood tormentor, but you might be surprised at how many of your present decisions are still being made from a child's perspective. Once you have successfully stared down that bully in your mind, then you may notice a definite improvement in your present relationships. Adult relationships still carry the vestiges of childhood ones, including the 'bully-victim' dynamic. One of your co-workers may still use intimidation tactics to prevent you from presenting that great idea to the boss. A romantic relationship may be unhealthy because your partner criticizes your decisions or completely dominates the relationship. By recognizing the signs of adult bullyism, you can avoid the same traps that hurt you in childhood.
Finally, there is the idea of 'confrontation' to deal with. You may be tempted to track down your childhood tormentor and give him/her a piece of your mind. Resist this temptation, at least until you can have such a confrontation within the boundaries of a professional counseling session. As badly as you may want to hurt this person, this is not a healthy way to proceed. First of all, there are privacy issues to consider. Unless this person's contact information is public knowledge, you'll probably have to do some research that borders on obsession. Few of us would welcome such an invasive phone call or letter from a childhood enemy, most especially the person you're looking for. Without some structured environment, the proposed confrontation could become more damaging than productive. Until you have gained perspective, your childhood emotions could become uncontrollable. If you do decide to make contact with the childhood bully, remember that you are both adults, with years of experiences separating you from those 10 year olds on the playground. Express your feelings as rationally as you can, and allow the other person to respond in kind. You may never become friends, but you might come to an understanding that will relieve much of your emotional baggage. Bullies are often the victims in other circles, and you may learn more about what motivated this person to act out as they did.