Tag Archives: bullying

Masks and controlling behaviour

I’ve seen a few people on the interwebs saying that being told to wear a mask is controlling. It’s not. It’s a clearly expressed instruction that has helpful consequences. Wearing masks reduces the spread of disease. It won’t stop it, it isn’t 100% guaranteed to keep everyone safe, but it helps. In much the same way that seatbelts help but do not 100% guarantee that you will survive a car crash. This is useful instruction, not control.

Controlling behaviour is designed to make you fearful and obedient. It makes clear to you that the other person, or organisaiton has all the power and that it is dangerous for you to be anything other than totally compliant. Whether we’re talking about domestic abuse, workplace bullying or tyrannical states, the mechanics are much the same.

Controlling instructions aren’t clear. They may be over complicated. The latest instruction might contradict the instruction before it. You may get multiple instructions that are incompatible, or they may be vague so you aren’t sure if you’re following them. Instructions may change frequently with little or no warning so it’s hard to keep up. The result is confusion, insecurity and no confidence that you’re getting things right – no matter how hard you try to comply. You will have to always be alert for the next rule change, and will have to pay a lot of attention. It’s exhausting, and when things go wrong, it will be your fault for not following the rules properly.

Controllers use a mix of threats and promises to make you compliant. So, for example the may offer something you want. Like being able to have more than six people gathered on Christmas day. At the same time they’ll hit you with something frightening that you really don’t want – that the young humans will not be allowed home from university for Christmas, for example. Carrot and stick. You know they can really hurt you. You know they can deny you things that are really important to you. It will be conditional on your behaving, so you’d better focus on those vague and changing rules and get it right…

Clear rules might be annoying and they might be limiting, but they aren’t controlling in this way. The real loss of freedom comes when you are at the mercy of vague rules that you can’t uphold, where the punishments for failure are fearful, and you are being setup to lose. Controlling behaviour isn’t about getting you to do a specific thing. It’s about getting you so fearful and stressed that you’ll accept whatever is done to you and do whatever you think you’ve been told to do. It’s also not about the early rounds where you are being broken in. Go out, stay home, you must go to the office, you must not go to the office, you must protect granny by not seeing her unless she babysits to let you work and then you must see her… this is small stuff. This is how you train someone. It’s once this has become normal, and you jump through hoops without questioning it that those with power over you can start telling you when to report your neighbours, and not to teach anything in schools that challenges the system.


Why we don’t always believe victims

It would seem a no-brainer, if you are a decent human being, that you would listen to and believe people who report abuse and bullying. But we don’t, and it is important to look at why if that’s ever going to change.

Bullies and abusers don’t go along with being called out. They deny everything, or they tell you that they are the real victim and the person who first clamed victimhood is really the bully. There are bullies who, as part of their routine, accuse their victims of attacking them. If two people are claiming to be victims of each other, the idea of always believing the victim doesn’t stand up very well, because you may not know who it is. More thoughts on this over here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/07/28/calling-out-abusers/

Most of us have a morality that depends to some degree on relationship. So we tend to believe the people we care about and disbelieve the people we don’t know or care about if that threatens someone we like. We also don’t want to believe that we love someone abusive, so we look for reasons to explain away claims of abusive behaviour.

Victim blaming is widespread. Many of us have internalised some of that.

Abusers know what they are doing, and around people who are not their victims, they act in ways that hide this. We are persuaded because they were always so nice to us. In public, they may have seemed like exemplary spouses and parents. They may tell us, with great love and concern how worried they are about the poor mental health and strange beliefs of their victim. We may sympathise, and go on to not believe the victim when they confide in us.

Victims are usually in distress. If they’ve suffered gaslighting, been blamed and made responsible, they may feel it is all their fault. If the bully has persuaded the victim that the victim is the bully, you’re going to have a hard time figuring out what to believe. I am inclined to take care of people who are afraid and distressed and seeking safety. I tend to disbelieve people who are angry and demanding retribution. I look at the power balances. I also figure, if I get this wrong, the angry person is probably better resourced to take care of themselves. It’s not foolproof. Nothing is.

An un-nuanced approach that goes ‘I always believe victims’ can be deeply threatening if you are someone whose abuser has cast them in the role of the bully. If you have had your reality dismantled in this way, this is such a hard thing to deal with. For a long time, I believed myself to be an awful person, deserving of any punishment that came my way. For some years now, I’ve lived in a strange, inbetween place where some days I think I have experienced gaslighting in the past, and some days I think I’m an awful person who deserves everything they get. On the good days, I dare to think I might get over having been made responsible in this way. I’m able to write this because today is a good day.

On a bad day, a flat statement about always believing victims can, and has panicked me. I think about the people (there were several) who were so loud and confident about being my victims, and how knocked down and powerless I felt in face of them. There is always the fear one of them will come back for another go and that they will be believed, and I will not. And the fear that no matter how hard I try, I am so inherently awful that I can only cause harm. On a good day, I think that’s the gaslighting impacting on me.

And I also know that for some people, any experience of being said no to, any criticism, any less than perfectly positive feedback counts as an attack. I know that several of the people in my history experienced me as a terrible person because I couldn’t give them what they needed. I did not prove kind, patient, generous, forgiving, understanding and co-operative enough for them and they experienced that insufficiency as abusive. They’re not making it up, it was their experience of me, and some of them I have seen go through similar issues with other people.

Abuse and bullying are really complicated. A superficial response that says ‘I will always believe victims’ and doesn’t dig into the mechanics and specifics of anything it encounters, is not a magic solution to the woes of the world.


Emotion and responsibility

How much should we hold people responsible for our emotions? And how responsible should we be for other people’s emotional responses to us? This is a question that is so often relevant in situations of bullying. Bullies often treat their victims as responsible for how the bully feels, and for what they do, while taking no responsibility for how their behaviour impacts on the other person. “You made me do it” is a really problematic thought, an act of victim blaming. Equally I’ve seen memes suggesting that no one else can make us feel anything and how we feel is totally our own responsibility and I find that unhelpful, too.

We all have feelings, and we all respond to what we encounter. We all hold responsibility for ourselves, and some degree of responsibility for how what we do impacts on others. I think the first question to ask here, is whether the person being blamed can choose to do differently. For example, if someone in your household is loud when you need to sleep, they probably don’t need to be loud and it may be fair to expect they can stop being loud. Their loudness isn’t necessary to them, your sleep is necessary to you. At the same time, your need for sleep is not something you have control over, nor is how you feel when sleep deprived.

However, sometimes we may make people responsible for things they have no power over. If I find you very attractive, and I make you responsible for that feeling and act like because of it, you owe me love, or sex, this is not ok. Whether or not you find me attractive in turn is not something you can choose. How your face is, does not make you responsible for how I feel about your face.

It is fair to ask a person to take responsibility for the feelings they cause in some contexts. If you shout abuse at a person, you are responsible for making them feel like shit, for example. It is not usually fair to make someone else responsible for how you behave in response to your feelings. If your feelings lead to violent responses for example, the violence is your responsibility, not caused by the other person. If your feelings leave you needing to act protectively, it’s worth remembering that this is your choice because if you feel like you’re just reacting, that can leave you feeling powerless.

Power and responsibility are very much linked to each other. The person who takes no responsibility will likely feel they have no power in a situation. This may encourage them to keep making other people responsible, and to be angry about how powerless they feel, without having looked at how they are giving power away. Most of the time, most of us have choices about how to respond. If you don’t, then that’s a serious red flag. If you don’t feel safe about responding by changing things so that they would be better for you, look carefully at what’s going on. If you feel so obliged to humour another person that you regularly do so at the cost of not meeting your own most basic needs, there is a problem. Not wanting to choose differently is not the same as not being able to, although we may tell ourselves otherwise.

When it comes to behaviour, you should feel free and able to choose how to react, respond and express yourself. If you feel someone else is ‘making’ you behave in certain ways, look hard at this. If they have that much power over you and you have no scope to choose, you should seek help, because that level of control is abusive. If you’re making someone else responsible for your actions because you feel like it’s their job to take your emotional backlashes and answer your every need, then the problem is you, and you may need help to change.

One way or another, if you cannot control your own behaviour in a situation, seek help, and if you cannot tell if you are the bully or the victim, get professional advice. A belief that you have no power doesn’t always mean that you are the victim. Some of the most bullying people I’ve encountered had stories about how it was other people ‘making’ them act in certain ways. It can be really convenient to cast yourself as powerless if you want to spend time hurting people. It can be an easy way to control well-meaning people, who will try harder to make you feel better every time you tell them they are responsible for what you do. It’s a hard thing to deal with, and no doubt a hard thing to see in yourself and undertake to change.

If you’re seeing this from the outside and cannot tell if a person is a victim or a perpetrator, encourage them to seek professional help – either way, they need it.


After the abuse

One of the things that can be very tough for someone leaving an abusive situation, is the emotional aftermath. Where romantic partners and friends are concerned, the process of coming to terms with abuse can be very difficult. I think coming out of bullying in the workplace is easier because the odds are you didn’t have that much emotional investment to begin with. That makes it simpler to recognise the bullying and to put it behind you.

You love someone – be that romantically or in friendship. You love them, and trust them and invest in them. You assume that they love you. When they tell you they were only trying to help, or it was for your own good, you believe them. When they tell you it was a mistake or an accident, you believe them. We’re all human, we all mess up. You accept your friend, or your lover, and you accept their flaws and shortcomings. Victims of abuse are often persuaded by their abuser that nothing wrong has happened. It is the love the victim has for the abuser that makes such persuasion possible.

Then, at some point, something happens to make you question this. You catch them in a lie. You find you just can’t take any more of how they treat you, and you reconsider what their behaviour means. Or perhaps they turn on you, telling you they despised you all along. Perhaps they are the ones who leave, and they knock you down hard as they go. All of their previous behaviour is now reframed by something that makes it look like perhaps they never were your friend or ally. Perhaps they hated you all along. Perhaps you were a resource to use, an ego boost, a whipping post.

If you’ve never been there, you may think at this point, shocked and heartbroken, that it would be easy to walk away. It isn’t. What you end up with are two incompatible realities. In the old reality, this was your beloved, or your dear friend, someone you were open hearted with and trusted. In the new reality, this person thinks ill of you, may be a real danger to you. It is painful thinking so badly of someone you loved so you may try and resist that. You may hold onto the old love, and try to find excuses for what’s happening. You may want to fix things or try to change things. If they come back after this latest offence and make sorry noises and offer excuses, you may accept that and go another round with them.

This is part of why domestic abuse victims often find it so hard to leave their abusers. If you love someone and are in the habit of forgiving them, it’s a difficult turnaround to accept that you can’t afford to keep doing that. It is really hard to believe the worst of someone you love. It is often easier to carry on believing they are ok, even when they are manifestly mistreating you.

If you have other people in your life who truly care for you and support you, then you will be able to compare them to the abuser, and it will help you see what’s not acceptable. This is one of the reasons abusers will often try to isolate their victims. If you are alone, and the abuser is the only person you’ve got, you may cling to them because there’s nothing else. Letting go is very hard in that context, as is believing that anyone else could ever treat you well.

It takes time to change the story of your relationship with a person. It takes time to unpick what seemed like love or friendship, and accept that it wasn’t. It is a hard thing to swallow, when you suspect that you’ve opened your heart to someone who has abused your trust. It is natural to resist that interpretation and to want to think the best of people. It is a hard thing admitting that your friend or lover is full of shit, and has no love for you at all. During that unpicking time, you are likely to feel disorientated and vulnerable.

There are no easy answers in this sort of situation. I think the important thing to know is that there’s nothing weird about finding it difficult. In the aftermath of abuse and the lies that always go with it, figuring out what’s real takes time.


Calling out abusers

When you call out bad behaviour in others, a number of things may happen. A person who has made an honest mistake, or just been careless, will likely be upset but also sorry and remorseful. Decent people called out on their cock-ups tend to own it and try to deal with it.

Whether you’re responding to something done to you, or calling someone out over what you’ve seen them do to others, the results can be the same, although the consequences of that, in turn, may be different. Here are some of the most obvious outcomes and their implications.

The abuser denies everything. Frustrating if you’re an observer, devastating if you’re a victim. If you’ve been shouted at or hit, and then told that these things did not happen, it’s confusing and distressing. If you endure a lot of it, you may feel you’re going mad. Denying what happened is a form of gaslighting.

The abuser blames the victim. The victim in some way made them do it. Again, this is devastating for the victim, and may over time persuade them that they are responsible. It’s hardest on child victims who have no reason to know it isn’t their fault. If you are not the victim and you get this response, do think carefully about whether the person on the receiving end could really have caused what happened to them. It’s not an argument anyone should be comfortable with. Making victims responsible for the abuse they experience is a form of emotional abuse and gaslighting.

The abuser derides the victim. The victim is crazy, a drama queen, over reacting, a liar, making it up, fantasising, needs help. This is another form of gaslighting that will, over time, cause the victim to doubt their own sanity and judgement. They will complain less, and do less to protect themselves if they are persuaded that their responses are irrational and unreasonable. If the person challenging over abuse is persuaded that the victim is ridiculous, the victim gets less help and support. If everyone is persuaded that the victim is silly and makes a fuss, abuse can go on and nothing is done about it. Do not be complicit in this.

The abuser minimises what was done. A blow becomes ‘just a tap’ a violent shove becomes ‘a little accident’. The abuser says it wasn’t as bad as the victim was making out – again this undermines the victim’s confidence in their own judgement and plays into the idea that the victim is making a fuss about nothing. Watch out for the use of the word ‘just’ in this context. Where the abuse is non-physical, this is even easier to persuade onlookers about. The victim is a snowflake, a drama queen, wants to be the centre of attention, has no sense of perspective, makes mountains out of molehills…

If you have heard about abuse from someone else, rather than seeing it first hand, there is a further thing to take into account when calling someone out: Bullies often play victim. If two people tell you that they are each is being bullied by the other, the odds are that one of them is telling you the truth, and the other is saying it to do more harm to their victim. On the whole, victims tend to be fearful and seeking safety while bullies claiming victimhood are likely to be angry and wanting retribution. Victims may be confused (for all of the above reasons) and not sure if it’s their fault in some way. Bullies are confident when they self identify as victims. The victim is the person most likely to be apologising and wondering how to fix things. If the bully is playing victim and the victim is the person who is saying ‘I think it may be all my fault, I’m afraid I’m a horrible person, I can’t get anything right’ then it can be all too easy to misjudge what’s going on.

Also, if someone is more offended by being called out than they are worried about the harm they may have inadvertently caused, they’re out of order.


Overcoming our own thoughts

I’ve done CBT work – I was given a booklet by my doctor some years ago. It gave me a few fire-fighting techniques, but I found it of limited use. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy assumes that the problem is you, and if you change your thinking you won’t feel as depressed or anxious. When the problems originate outside of you, changing your thinking can be like stepping into a gaslighting program where you start having to persuade yourself things are ok when they aren’t. This does not improve anyone’s mental health.

So, when your thoughts spiral out of control into anxiety and depression, and learning not to think those things isn’t the answer, what can you do? This is what I’ve come up with…

1) Define the problem. Pin down exactly what is making you feel anxious or depressed. If that’s triggering you into other problematic things, acknowledge it, but don’t dwell on the triggering any more than you can help. Take yourself seriously.

2) If you can get away from the trigger at all, do so, and then get whatever respite you can and your mind will eventually calm down.

3) Risk asses what’s going on. If the source of your distress is primarily functioning as a trigger and isn’t a threat in its own right, then go for self care, and maybe if you feel brave, look at the mechanics and see if you can change anything. Affirming that the threat is in the past and not with you now can help. Talk to someone about it, try and build a new perspective. If it’s an out of date coping mechanism, you can unpick it on those terms.

4) If you do your risk assessment and feel that the problem is happening right now, how you progress will depend a lot on the nature of the problem. Dealing with the threat or removing yourself from it are your best bets. If you feel the threat is small, then talking through how it makes you feel, or getting some help to tackle it may suffice. A scary bit of paperwork can be dealt with, you can recover and move on, for example. If you have a history with something it is perfectly reasonable to find it difficult. You can get on top of this, and you can feel better about things.

5) If something panics you so that you can’t think clearly about it, try and find someone who can work it through with you.

6) If the threat is real and larger, see what help you can get, be that the police, medical assistance, etc. There may be support groups out there, or advice to be had. If you are dealing with a significant threat, it is not irrational to feel anxious or depressed. Be clear with yourself that your feelings are totally appropriate, and vent them where you can to try and avoid being paralyzed by them. Work to remove the threat or to escape from it – you won’t be able to recover until the problem is dealt with.

7) If the threat is ongoing, it is going to take a toll. This includes situations like domestic abuse, workplace bullying, dealing with institutionalised racism, or any other misery created by the wider society and political structure you’re stuck in. Sometimes there is no ‘away’ to escape to and as the person suffering it really shouldn’t be your responsibility to fix what’s broken. If you take damage dealing with something like this it is not a sign of weakness or illness. It is a natural, human response to something inhuman. I wish I had more to offer you than this.


Heroes and Monsters

I suspect most of us want to be heroes. We want to be the sort of person who stands up to the bully, tells the abuser they are out of order, maybe even the person who punches Nazis. There’s a great feeling to be had when you’re fighting the good fight, righteously doing the things that need doing. It feels powerful, and exciting, and wonderful. And you get to kick someone else while holding the moral high ground.

I’ve been the monster in this scenario, several times now. I’ve been the bad and wrong thing that deserved kicking, and I’ve had people kick me when from my perspective, I was already down and bleeding. I’ve had people kick me and tell me how proud of themselves they were for standing up to me. I’ve had people attack me for talking about depression, anxiety, pain and despair. I’ve been told what an awful, mean, bullying, unfair, unreasonable sort of person I am. I’ve had people try to cost me my day job on that basis. Were they right? I wondered at the time. I tend to take criticism to heart, because I’m nasty and unreasonable like that.

The desire to be heroic can leave a person wide open to certain kinds of manipulation. I’ve seen it done. And I’ll pause and salute the courage of one person who, having realised they’d been manipulated into attacking me, came back and apologised.

It’s easy to tone police the vulnerable person whose language you dislike rather than going after the system oppressing them. A notorious problem when white feminists deal with women of colour, for example. It’s easier to go after the ally who isn’t completely perfect than to go after perpetrators of the problem. It’s easier to go after people who have no power, than to go after the ones who do. Safer, too, because the people with no power can’t really defend themselves or do you any real harm, whereas those with power, can.

It’s important to look at what we’re being persuaded to do when the opportunity comes along to be heroic. Put your body in the way of the fracking machines? That’s heroism. Call out an actual bully who has the power to harm you? That is brave. The odds are if you wade into a fight, you won’t know everything that’s going on. If you’re on the bully-kicking team, and the bully just lies there, whimpering, if you knock down without consequences, if your righteous indignation looks poised to wreck someone’s life… pause and look at that power balance. Ask whether the response is proportional. Ask whether you’re sure the person you’re taking apart really deserves that.

Taking down abusive people who are in places of power is difficult, hazardous work, and often has a high cost for those doing it. If the takedown feels safe and easy, if the ‘bully’ can’t really do anything to stop you, if you can shame and blame and hurt and humiliate them with impunity… there are questions to ask.

Of course it is true that people with no power can be mean, spiteful, horrible and so forth. Is the first port of call on discovering this to trash them in every way possible? Or should we be trying to talk to them about what the problem is? Should we consider that education, insecurity, inexperience, incompetence might be part of the mix, rather than malice? Should we try to help them not do it again rather than going for psychological warfare?

Because the thing is, it takes very little effort to call someone a bully, especially if you have no reason to fear them. I’ve been called a bully for saying no, for disagreeing, and for not co-operating. I’ve been called a bully for complaining about how I was being treated, when I found that treatment unkind. For people who are really wrapped up in their privilege, a challenge to comfort and ego will be re-branded as bullying. It is not bullying to tell men that women are afraid of being raped. It is not bullying to prevent one person using another person as a resource. But these are things that I have seen called out, because some people can’t handle discomfort and prefer to blame the messenger. Feeling discomfort is not the same as being bullied.

If we want to tackle bullying, we have to do so by not perpetrating it. It’s easy to go in guns blazing, and when you do, it is easy to blame, shame hurt and humiliate people who have been victims all along, and that really doesn’t help.


Reputation damage and calling out abuse

Trigger warnings – rape

A deliberate attack on your reputation from a false accusation of abuse is a terrible thing to have to deal with. I’m not speaking hypothetically here, I’ve experienced it. Alongside this, I see routinely in mainstream culture the idea that an attack on a man’s reputation is as bad, if not worse than an attack on a woman’s body. We don’t take people seriously when they claim to be abused – especially women and children – because they might be making it up as a way of attacking someone – usually a famous and powerful man. The people with the most scope, power and opportunity to abuse are the ones whose ‘reputation damage’ is often taken most seriously. It may be more about power than gender in essence, but power and masculinity still align more often than not.

Reputation damage hurts. There will always be people who want to believe the worst of you, and people with axes to grind who take it as an opportunity. Which you may or may not deserve. A reputation can be a key thing not only in terms of your personal relationships, but your professional life. Your job, your scope to pay the bills, your place in society may all hang on your reputation, and a loss of reputation can have a very high price tag.

I’ve seen two guys who were friends of mine deal with rape accusations. One was proved innocent because physical evidence taken at the time in no way matched the accusations. He went through a great deal of stress and anxiety, followed by relief and getting over it. Another friend dealt with accusations that were directed towards his work life, and not to the police. I saw him sickened and distraught, and it cost him dearly, and he survived. I suspect it has changed his behaviour in some ways, but it certainly didn’t ruin his life or damage any of his closest relationships. False accusations happen, and they certainly do cause a lot of pain and misery. I know far more people who have been raped and assaulted than I know people who have had to fend off a false accusation.

I’ve spent time with a lot of women who have experienced rape and assault. I was there one morning when another woman came in covered in bruises from the night before. I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories. Most rapes do not involve strangers with weapons, they involve someone you trusted enough to let get close. Friends. Partners, Husbands. Rarely first dates, but sometimes that. It’s not just the physical assault that does damage, but the absolute betrayal of trust. Some victims will never get over what happened to them. Some victims will die, because assaults of all kinds can prove fatal.

Assaults on reputation tend not to prove fatal.

Knowing perfectly well that false accusations happen, and are damaging, I still believe firmly that the default response to an accusation of any kind of abuse, is to listen and take it seriously. As individuals, we are not equipped to deal with these kinds of accusations, what we need to do is actively support victims and get the police involved, and get it investigated. Most rape allegations don’t result in court cases because unless the physical evidence is collected quickly, it is just one person’s word against another, and impossible to prove the way our courts work. But, police involvement can persuade someone that what they did is rape, and wasn’t ok, and isn’t a good idea. It can persuade them they may not get away with it next time. If a person stacks up enough rape allegations, the odds increase of it being taken seriously. The same is true with other kinds of assault as well.

The really problematic false accusations are not the ones made against powerful men, but the ones used to keep victims under the thumb. My go-to example here is the man shouting ‘you’re abusing me’ while breaking his partner’s bones. A short version of a true story. I’ve witnessed this done – where a bully attacks a victim and then plays the victim and draws people around into supporting them. As a quiet witness to one of these I was able to put the lie to it, but many bullies are cleverer than that, and don’t make their methods quite so obvious.

It is better to take allegations of bullying and physical assault seriously than to ignore them. It is better that someone take reputation damage than that bullying and assault go unchecked. It is as well to look closely, because in situations of abuse you can be sure someone will be lying, and it isn’t always obvious as to who.  Most often, victims are frightened and seeking safety, whereas people making false accusations will present demands and seek revenge.

I’m still dealing now and then with the fallout from being accused of bullying. At the time, I did not put in a lot of work defending my reputation. I spent a lot of time pointing out how important it is to take bullying accusations seriously and not just sweep it under the carpet and pretend everything is fine.  It was a strange, and deeply ironic situation to be in. I don’t regret my choices. Having experienced both abuse, and reputation damage, I can say with confidence that abuse is life destroying, whereas reputation damage is unpleasant, and that risk of damage to reputation should not be the priority issue, ever.


Am I in the wrong?

At one extreme are the people with little or no self esteem who take every criticism to heart. At the other extreme are the narcissists who reject any negative feedback. Sanity lies between the extremes, but how to find it? How do we decide when we’ve got it wrong? If we can’t identify our mistakes, we can’t learn, grow or change. Mistakes can be wonderful teachers, and permission to make mistakes is key to breaking into new things. The person who takes every failure to heart and the person who can’t bear criticism may find it equally difficult to take risks around getting things wrong.

It wasn’t what I intended! This is a very common way of resisting negative feedback. Intentions matter, but they don’t reliably define outcomes. What we meant and how someone else experienced it don’t necessarily align. If you meant well and got it wrong, this is often a good opportunity to find out how someone sees the world differently to you.

It’s not my fault! Maybe it was an accident, and if that’s true, it’s worth flagging up. It’s also worth paying attention to blaming and shaming, because in cultures where the buck is passed, no one can get to the bottom of a problem to prevent it reoccurring. If it’s all about punishment then people can’t be honest about mistakes. We all make mistakes – lack of knowledge, inability to predict all the variables – these are the usual causes. Some leeway for mistakes is essential. That said, the idea of it being a mistake is not a get out clause for all shortcomings. Perhaps we could have done more, tried harder, researched better…

You’re just making a fuss! This can be the classic way of negating someone else’s experience when their response isn’t convenient to you. And sometimes of course it is true, and the person complaining is just someone who likes to nit pick and find fault. Check the power balance between the person complaining and the person on the receiving end if you aren’t sure how to respond, and be most careful with the person who has least power.

On the other side of the issue, people with poor self esteem are easily persuaded that it was their shortcoming, poor judgement, lack of care etc that caused the problem, even when there’s no evidence to support the idea. The sort of person who can end up apologising because they said ‘ow’ when their foot was trodden on, and it wasn’t like the other person meant to stomp on their toes… A low self esteem sufferer who is in a blame culture will likely just keep internalising the blame and never builds self esteem as a consequence. This is a hard thing to unpick, but it calls for recognition of your limits – you can’t magically know everything, you aren’t so psychic that everyone else’s preferences and needs are visible to you, and you aren’t, ever, the only person who could have done something differently.

People who wish to blame others are often quick to draw extra people in. They don’t deal with a problem by trying to solve it, instead they make accusations and point fingers and enlist support. Their main aim is to prove it isn’t their fault and this matters more to them than sorting things out. The person who wants to sort things out may shoulder more responsibility than is fairly theirs because that way they can change something, fix something. From the outside, this can look like one righteous person – the accuser – and one guilty person – the fixer. Blame and bullying often go together. Blaming someone and making them responsible for things beyond their control is a standard abuse tactic. Enlisting everyone else to confirm the blame and uphold the position of the bully is also a standard abuse tactic. When we focus on who was wrong, and who to blame, any of us can be drawn into supporting an abuser, not necessarily with any awareness that this is what’s happening.

It takes a certain amount of courage to face down a mistake. To look at it, own it, make sense of it and sort it out. It’s a vulnerable thing to do. We may look bad. We may pay a cost. But, I’d rather take that road any day than blame someone else for the sake of covering my own arse. I’d rather deal with the consequences of my errors than pretend there isn’t a problem. What I need to stop doing is co-operating with buck passers, people who always want more, and people who can’t take any responsibility for their share of the problem.


Stealing the language of distress

If kindness is part of who you are, then the last thing you’d want to do is add to someone’s suffering. But, how do we tell between people who really are in trouble, and people who steal the language of distress for other reasons? It’s a really hard call to make.

I have no doubt there are people who permit themselves to be fragile rather than face down their problems. I can’t easily tell by looking who has real issues, and who isn’t prepared to deal with the grit and shit of life and shoulder their share of responsibility. Not at the first glance, although over time it gets more obvious.

People dealing with real issues will have things they can’t deal with because body and/or mind just can’t, but otherwise will tend to do the best they can with what they’ve got. People with genuine issues often hate being seen as victims (but not always). People who have survived massive doses of crap tend to have courage, determination and backbone – at least some of the time.

If someone is obviously financially secure, and obviously more well than not, and educated and resourced then I may be a little less inclined to see fragility as something to respond to with care and support. I am especially wary of people who use the word ‘triggered’ when they mean discomforted, and people who talk about being bullied when I can see what happened didn’t have that shape. Being told no, is not automatically bullying. Being disagreed with is not necessarily bullying. People with a lot of privilege who get entitlement issues when told they can’t have things their way, can be quick to claim victimhood, and to use the language of disempowerment to try and get their own way. It’s important to take a long, hard look at how much power people have.

One of the things I will do is help people get stuff done. The person who can make use of that help and use it to get stuff done, I will keep helping. The person who wants me to do things for them – and we’re talking things they clearly could do for themselves – I am not going to indulge.

It is hard for victims to talk about bullying and abuse. It is hard for people with mental health problems to talk about vulnerabilities and triggers. It can be really difficult for people with bodily health issues and physical limitations to flag up what they need. Privacy, and dignity are big factors here. For the person who just wants to have it all done for them, privacy and dignity aren’t issues in the same way. However, by using the language of triggering and disempowerment, what these people do is make it that bit harder for people with real problems to get taken seriously. That makes me cross.

There are also people who take this language and use it deliberately to further disempower those who are already in trouble. Take the ‘all lives matter’ response to ‘black lives matter’ as a case in point here.  Take the people (I‘ve met some) who can say without irony that they think middle class white boys are the most prejudiced against group there is. Take the Christians who see any kind of equality for other faiths and people as an attack on their rights and freedoms. Take the man who is fighting for the right for a grown man to walk into a comics store and not be forced to buy a copy of Squirrel Girl (he was on twitter).

There are no easy answers here. Precise use of language goes a long way. If we let people who are basically fine take over the words needed for talking about large and serious problems, then we shut down whole areas of conversation. And when we do that, we keep power in the hands of those who had it all along, and keep silencing people who need to be heard.