Tag Archives: bullying

Is it bullying?

Person A says that person B is bullying them. Person B denies it. Who do you believe? If you ignore it, you could well be enabling bullying and leaving a victim open to further abuse. One of the biggest problems in this scenario is that bullies are often very quick to claim victim status. Take as an example the man in the habit of screaming ‘you’re abusing me’ at the woman whose bones he broke (true story).

There are no foolproof ways of resolving this kind of situation, but here are some things to bear in mind.

People who can get out of bullying situations early on, do. However, where there’s a power imbalance – as there can be with workplace bullying, the victim may not be able to leave. Domestic abuse can include hidden power imbalances. Money, work, age, physical condition, size, and the invisible power of emotional blackmail can all be factors here. That a person has not managed to leave is not proof that they aren’t a victim.

People trapped in bullying situations become demoralised and less able to protect themselves. They may internalise blame and shame and feel it really is their fault. The person who admits they’re a horrible, worthless person may not actually be the bully. Demoralised people stay because they don’t believe anything better could happen anywhere else – this is what they deserve, it’s their fault and they may feel obliged to stay and try to put things right.

It is not bullying to express pain, difficulty, distress, or unhappiness. It is not bullying to disagree with someone or say no to them. People who bully seem to feel they have to be right, superior, more important and more powerful. This means they often can’t hear genuine negative feedback. They may try to call out as a bully anyone who doesn’t actively support their fragile egos. People in this situation are actually in trouble and potentially headed for more trouble – tortuous double thinking and mental health problems arise for people who can’t admit they make mistakes, and can’t hear negative feedback. Most of us are not equipped to deal with their problems, and misplaced support can increase the cognitive dissonance for someone unable to face their own shortcomings.

However, when all you do is feed back in a negative way, while insisting on staying in a situation, all you do is grind the other person down. What should happen if one person is doing a dreadful job but can’t be told and can’t be removed, and reacts to truth as though they are being victimised? And how do you tell this from a person who is actually being victimised?

A genuine victim will very likely be glad of any help and support, even if they feel they are to blame. They are likely to want to co-operate, and will be looking for ways to deflate the situation, make sense of it, reduce the drama, improve their own safety and get things on a more comfortable footing. They may be confused about what’s going on, distressed, or they may be angry if they understand what’s happening.

A bully pretending to be a victim wants attention and drama above all else. They don’t want the situation to resolve – and if it does they will rapidly create a new one to replace it. They will likely make demands about outcomes, they will be more likely to want the kind of justice that harms their ‘aggressor’ and their actions are more likely to move things towards isolating, excluding or otherwise harming the person who is actually their victim. They won’t hear criticism and they won’t accept mediation that requires them to take any responsibility at all for their own role in things. They may present as wounded and distressed or as angry alongside this.

It isn’t an easy way to go, but often the best way to find out who is actually a victim, and who is playing the victim in order to bully someone, is to get in there and offer help and mediation. Go in as a neutral party with a view to resolving things, and you’ll see the inside of the situation more clearly, and the responses of those you are trying to help. That gives you a basis in personal experience from which to decide how then to proceed. If it’s genuinely a personality clash, you can help resolve it, and if there’s really a victim and an aggressor, you’ll be better placed to see who is taking which roles. In situations of domestic abuse, the victim is in most danger of being killed or injured at the point when they try to leave. I strongly advise seeking help from the police. If you can’t take the mediator’s role, actively support a path towards mediation.

People die as a consequence of bullying – from aggression that goes too far, deliberate violence that murders, and as suicides. It’s important to take these situations seriously, because often it takes input from someone else to solve this and keep people safe. I suggest that if anyone claims to be being bullied, they should be heard with compassion and respect, as a first move. A person who comes forward as a victim is always in trouble, it just may not be the kind of trouble they’re claiming it to be.


In self defence

The most dangerous time is when you say ‘no’. When you try to get out, or run away, or resist the pressure to do as you are told. The time when you call them out for breaking the law. I’ve done it, and I’ve watched others do it. It doesn’t matter if you’re thinking about abusive partners, malevolent companies, bullying bosses, irresponsible landlords… the time they are most likely to seriously hurt you is the point at which you stop going along with their bullshit.

I’ve heard the other stories too, the people who keep their heads down and do as they are told. The ones who accept a change to the rules, and another, and another, until there’s nowhere left to go. The trouble with bullies, in every walk of life, is that the more you acquiesce, the more able they feel to keep doing it to you. Stand up to them and you will incur their wrath, but sometimes, it is possible to win through, get out, get justice.

It’s a pretty terrifying sort of process though. The more we do it, the more we refuse to accept those who would walk over us, the less it happens to other people, too. I keep telling myself this every time I get into one of these fights… it’s not just about me. It’s for the rights of those people who are not able to fight, who are too beaten down already, too abused to realise that what is happening to them is not acceptable.

Here we go again, to the theme music of Professor Elemental’s Fighting Trousers and Talis Kimberly’s Belling the Cat. Anthems for a hard day. Raw, exhausted, running on empty, too tired to work, needing to work. Too tired to fight and having to fight. Forgive the shortness of blog.


Psychological violence

The brain is a physical structure which is shaped by what we do with it – learning, practice, habit, life experience, memory – this is all part of the mix. Our minds are not amorphous things separate from our bodies but real, tangible structures that respond to what happens to them. Hit someone in the leg with a hammer and you will get nasty bruises, and possibly a broken bone. As a culture we take that kind of thing seriously. However, we seem to assume the mind is a whole other thing. Violent assaults on the psyche are not assumed to cause breakages in the same way. Now, when it comes to considering criminal damage, it will always be hard to produce evidence of psychological trauma, but I see no reason why that should make it culturally acceptable. I find myself wondering if depression and anxiety are to psychological damage what bruises are to the hammer.

For many the idea of psychological violence will involve really overt forms of torture. In practice we aren’t talking about watching puppies being drowned, or being threatened with death for not complying. Most psychological violence is far more every day. As a child I was taught the rhyme ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never harm me.’ It’s a commonly held idea. Bullying words aren’t causing you real pain, is the theory. We’re taught to accept this kind of bullying and to feel ashamed if we are hurt by it. This only serves the abusers. Humiliation, denigration, ridicule, dismissal, all undermine the sense of self. These things take away self-esteem and your feeling of being a person. The lower key, more mundane stuff is insidious, and can be inflicted daily. I remember a woman whose husband shouted at her all the time. She was a mess, but did not feel she could go to the police because she expected they would tell her she was being silly. He hadn’t laid a finger on her, but her nerves were tattered. I do not know how that one ended.

It’s so easy to make clear to a person that they are worthless, useless, a nuisance, unwanted, unloveable, unacceptable. The martyred air of one who is having to go to some lengths to tolerate you, is soul destroying to encounter. Having holes picked in the smallest things that you say and do, as though your small tastes and preferences are stupid. Being blamed is another one. Having your emotions ridiculed. Try being bullied to the point of tears by a person and then have that same person call you melodramatic and irrational for crying. A bit of you dies on the inside.

Being shouted at, being mocked, being the butt of cruel jokes. Your body treated as a sexual object, not a living expression of yourself. Or, your body treated as disgusting, or as something to laugh at, or as something you should feel ashamed of. Try telling someone they’d look so much better if they wore what you told them to, day after day, and see if their self-esteem holds up… or don’t if you’re any kind of decent human being. Lecture, demand, punish, tell off other adults as though they were especially stupid children. So often the one dishing it out is painfully insecure and only doing it to big themselves up. That flailing, fragile ego can be a source of so much pain and destruction.

Evil is often small. The worst things we do to each other are often mundane. Most of us will not be literally stabbed in the back. It’s that other stuff, the bruising of soul, the cutting up of identity, that causes the damage. The wounding to feelings is not fantasy, it’s not something we *should* be able to shrug off. Emotional experience is no less real than the hammer, and the brain is no less a physical structure than the leg.

What worries me most at the moment is the campaign of psychological violence being deliberately waged. The perpetrators are in the media and in parliament, and the people they are working to destroy, are the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Slackers. Scroungers. Worthless, useless, sponges, waste of space… and who, being presented with that on a daily basis, does not feel themselves dying on the inside? Who can hold out against that and not start to feel that the world might be a better place if they were dead?

Depression kills people. If you bully a person to death with sustained psychological violence, they are no less dead, and you are no less guilty of killing them then if you had done it with the hammer instead. The law might not be able to judge it, but a culture can. We do not have to lie down and take it. We won’t fix it by taking up the same arms and using psychological violence back. That’s just another way of losing. Of course it’s tempting, of course we feel justified, and want to lash out and even the score, but all that gets in the end is more pain, more damage. We can say ‘not good enough’ and we can disagree, non-violently. Not just with the politicians, but anywhere people start taking word-hammers to other people’s minds.


Becoming a non-person

It’s well known that if you want to destroy a person, or a minority group, it’s best to start by dehumanising them. This makes it easier for your people to feel comfortable about the destruction process, and it also makes the victim more passive and easier to destroy. In fact, do a good enough job of the dehumanising and the victim will sometimes destroy themselves and spare you the effort. What further complicates this already nasty issue, is that most of us assume (until it happens to us) that we could resist. We think we’re clever enough to see through the propaganda, smart enough to get out of the violent relationship, capable of resisting government led denigration. The people who don’t, are therefore stupid and probably deserve it, we imagine. This actually makes us easier to take down too, because we refuse to see what’s happening. We don’t want to believe we’re falling, we want to beleive we’re clever enough that it couldn’t be hppening to us. Once someone is starting to go under, it gets easier to push them all the way down.

There are a number of ways to turn someone into a non-person, and you can start small. Constant criticism of lifestyle choices, personal appearance, preferences and so forth undermines confidence. We judge by economic contribution (our elderly suffer as a consequence.) Ridiculing of opinion – which we see all the time online and in the media. “Only a stupid person could think the way you do.” Doing things and then lying and saying they never happened (as is so often the way with workplace bullying). Minimising damage. We only pushed him, it wasn’t really a thump. It was only a joke, we didn’t mean for her to kill herself… Blaming the victim – we aren’t doing this to them, it’s happening because they are weak, stupid, lazy and irresponsible. Labelling them – note the way in which the word ‘benefits’ is so regularly publically linked to the word ‘fraud’ so that when you hear the first the second is more likely to show up in your head. (Illegal) Immigrants, Muslim (terrorists) Unemployed (scroungers) … there are many more, but you get the idea. We build the associations.

Becoming a non-person isn’t an event. It isn’t about a single occasion of someone being a bit mean (really, you’re a man, you can take it). It isn’t weakness (thin skinned, melodramatic, making a fuss). Note how we can further denigrate people for becoming victims. No, this is a process, and it can happen so slowly and over such a long time that you don’t even notice your personhood being stripped away. Or your participation in doing it to someone else. You slowly become an object, an expense, a nuisance, a scrounger. You stop being Bob who can tell a good joke and likes the footy, and you become that useless man. You stop being beautiful Esme who is a great mum, and become that lump of meat he shoves round the kitchen of a Friday night before using for sex. And somewhere, maybe you stop looking at yourself in the mirror because you can’t bear the eyes of the person looking back at you. Somewhere in the process you start to believe, as you are being told, that this all makes perfect sense: it’s happening because you deserve it. If everything around you reinforces your status as a non-person, are you going to hold out against that?

Disbelieving everything you are told starts, after a while, to feel a bit crazy. So you try harder, do more, work longer hours, try to humour the boss, accept the benefit cut, accept the brutal sex, and the labels, and you let yourself believe it is all your fault this is happening, and you lose a bit more self.

I’m watching my government undertaking this process aided by the gutter press, and every day the news items, and the shit in the media makes me sick. The language of denigration, the deliberate, relentless dehumanising. Right now, the victims of preference are the poor. We’re hounding the poor into ghettos. We’re doing it by forcing people on housing benefit out of more affluent places, especially London. We’re well under way with forcing them to work unpaid for the state, with the welfare to work scheme. We haven’t moved them into camps for that yet, but maybe we don’t need to. Does this sound familiar to anyone yet?

Are we going to wake up one morning and find that the Tories have come up with a bold, final solution to poverty? And by then, will we have dehumanised the poor so thoroughly that, as the Germans did with their vulnerable people in the 1940s, we let the state kill them? That’s where you ultimately go with this kind of logic.

When they came for the disabled, I did not speak out, because I was not disabled. When they came for the single mums, I did not speak out, because I was not a single mum…

The bottom third of the UK population is now experiencing poverty, from what statistics I’ve seen. We have to start speaking out and we have to actively resist all attempts to dehumanise the vulnerable. No more labels, no more blame culture, no more robbing people of their basic dignity. You don’t need gas to kill people. You can freeze them to death with homelessness, or inflated energy prices. You can starve them to death. You can drive them to suicide. You don’t have to be as obvious as a death camp. You can make your whole country a death camp for the ones you don’t want along.


Trolls, and psychological violence

Apparently the government are going to fight trolls, by making it a requirement for sites to hand over details of abusive users. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-18404621 It could work. It means articles need not be taken down for one spurious allegation, and it means real bullies and liars might have a tougher time of it. On the whole, that would be a good thing. There are balances to strike here around freedom of speech and the protection of whistleblowers. I want the freedom to complain about my politicians, say if I think organisations are acting shamefully and whatnot. But, I’m not hiding behind an unrecognisable name, and I’ve got no desire to unfairly bash anyone. That of course doesn’t mean that someone else couldn’t take umbrage at what I write though.

I’m not sure how much odds laws will make, in the scheme of things. People have to act on them, crown prosecution has to be willing to take cases forwards, and judges need to take the offences seriously. At the moment, crimes against the body are taken very seriously, where crimes against the mind are not. It does not help that psychological violence leaves much less clear-cut evidence. Bullying is often subtle, and if it’s not written on a web page or spoken in front of witnesses, what you get is a one person’s word against another’s scenario, and they are pretty much impossible to take to court.

In terms of damage done, if someone attacks me and breaks a bone, I’m going to experience pain, fear, and a long period of bodily healing. If it seems like a one off thing and I have good support, odds are I will get over it. The fear, the psychological part of the attack will give me more of a harmful legacy than the wounding. If someone torments me psychologically, over a period of time, I might never have so much as a bruise on my skin, but my mind might be damaged for the rest of my life. To destroy a person’s confidence or self esteem, is to destroy them. To make a person afraid to leave the house, is to imprison them, but you don’t even need to lock the door.

Culturally though, we don’t take this kind of attack seriously enough. Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me, and all that rubbish. Words push teenagers to suicide. Words need taking seriously. But while psychological assaults are taken as less serious, we collectively tend to look the other way. If you saw someone being beaten up in the street, you might do something, might call the police. But if a friend is crying, again, because she’s been shouted at, again, you might feel tempted to suggest she pulls herself together. We don’t, as someone pointed out to me on facebook, bother the police just because we’re being shouted at. Even though being shouted at can demoralise, humiliate, take away our confidence and autonomy, make us do something we didn’t want to for fear of worse to come if we do not behave as required. The threat of violence, or the implication of it can be frightening, but is much harder to prove, or explain. A person who fears what will be done if they don’t comply can end up doing hideous things under duress, with little scope for legal protection.

We say ‘it’s just’ ‘it was only’ and we minimise the effects of psychological abuse. We say it’s better to be thicker skinned. You’re too sensitive. You’re over reacting. You’re making a fuss about nothing, because you are weak, silly, attention seeking, and so the victim is knocked down again, and becomes unable to even mention how shitty they feel.

This is not the world I want to live in.

Bullying is not ok. Verbal cruelty is not ok. Shouting at people and intimidating them is not ok. Using websites and hiding behind fake names to harass people, is not ok. My main hope is that this change in the law might mark a sea change, in which we all start expecting better of each other, and not turning away from the issues of non-physical violence.


Living with fear

One-off traumas are awful to experience, but generally, if it seems like a singular event, people get over it fairly well. It’s the experience of living with fear, and having the unthinkable become normal that does the longer term damage. This is what underpins shell shock, as experienced by soldiers. Post traumatic stress disorder is just as likely for civilians after wars. However, being crippled by fear is not an experience unique to this level of hostile experience. People who experience much lower levels of bullying, abuse, persecution or difficulty over a long period can end up just as scarred. It’s not a very well understood problem, nor is it much talked about outside support groups for the afflicted.

People coming out of long term bullying, or abuse can be just as psychologically damaged as people coming out of war zones and can display all the same kinds of symptoms as shell shock. This is not because victims of these apparently lesser problems are somehow being weak or pathetic. This is a biological process that has everything to do with how fear acts on the body. It is a very bodily condition. Once you can get your head in on the process, you’re actually moving towards healing. Prolonged fear causes physical sickness and needs treating more like an ailment of the body and less like some kind of character failing.
There are a number of things that can happen to a person. If you are constantly victimised and nothing you do will protect you, you will come to believe that the whole world is hostile and threatening. You may be unable to respond to even mild setbacks, and feel overwhelming despair in face of even the smallest problems. You may build fear associations such that leaving the house becomes unbearable. For me, it was postmen. I still break into a cold sweat if I see a postman, or post van. I know why, but that doesn’t stop me. When you have lost power and control in your life, the idea of being able to solve problems, or being able to cope barely exists in your head. Each new scenario is there to punish you further, to take you apart, to kick you again. The loss of hope is a consequence of living with fear.

You may develop superstitious beliefs about actions or behaviours that will keep you safe. This can lead to obsessive and compulsive disorders. People only feel safe when they have performed rituals that, from the outside, look crazy and irrelevant. The desire to be safe may also lead to passivity, acquiescence. The abused woman may make no sound when she is beaten if acknowledging pain makes it worse. She may become unable to vocalise any kind of pain at all. The abused child may learn to do anything at all to please adults, in the hopes of avoiding further torment and thus become even more vulnerable.

Once your body has learned fear as normality, things go a bit crazy. The fear responses happen when there’s almost nothing to trigger them. That can mean heart racing, stomach heaving panic attacks that leaving you weeping and fighting for breath, and not even knowing why. The experience of this kind of bodily panic suggests that there must be something terrible going on, you just don’t know what it is yet. When terrible has become normal, that’s not irrational at all.

There was a cure for shell shock. All you had to do was get the soldiers out of the war zone, give them total rest and tranquillity, gentle physical activity and time outdoors. With peace and the right support, many would heal. The only way to break the cycles of physical terror, is to bodily remove the sufferer from the source of their fear, support them to feel safe, keep their environment unthreatening and gradually rebuild their sense of what ‘normal’ ought to look like.

This is one of the reasons why those apparently lesser forms of harm can turn out to be the most damaging. Short of going into a hospital, your chances of getting a few gentle, stress free weeks in order to heal are slim. The longer you are trapped in a fearful situation, the more normal it becomes. A few weeks might enable you to recover from a few months in a war zone, but what if you’ve been a victim for a decade? Making a new ‘normal’ so that you are not afraid all the time, is not going to be so quick. A good doctor can do a lot to help a person, but a careless one may feed paranoia and reinforce feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. Add in the social stigma of mental illness, the fear of having your children taken away, or losing your job, and the fear itself becomes self perpetuating.

Fear does not always show on the outside. Panic attacks, and expressions of a terror that is rooted in your body like a parasitic plant, are humiliating. Most sufferers go to a lot of effort to hide it.
What would you do if you saw someone succumb to what appeared to be irrational panic? Tell them to pull themselves together? Mock them? Pity them? Avoid them? And if it happened to you, who could you go to for support? Who could you tell? Who would hold your hand and help you rebuild your life?

There but for the grace of… what? Go any of us. The going is easy and there are plenty of people who will happily take you there. The coming back is very, very hard.