Having recently taken part in a discussion about bullying and its effects, hosted by ‘Mental Health Chat’ I was keen to share and elaborate on some of the main points from the discussion.
There appeared to be a shared understanding that bullying can take many forms, and can exist for both adults and children. A common theme of what bullying actually is, centred on a feeling of exclusion. This idea of exclusion is one that interests me and when asked to elaborate on how one might experience exclusion, there were a number of examples I could give. The various examples perhaps highlight for us how bullying is not limited to childhood experiences.
What sprang to mind were some of the experiences people have shared with me over time and some personal memories as well. I recalled when someone recounted to me being new to a workplace and working in a small, open plan office. Emma had diligently got on with her work throughout her first week, hoping to impress. On the first Friday after her first week of working there, everyone gathered their belongings and headed out for drinks at a local bar; everyone except Emma who no one thought to invite. The very fact established members of the work team made arrangements for their evening out in the presence of Emma, without inviting her along, heightened her feeling of isolation and exclusion from the group. Emma described feeling not wanted as no one appeared to want to invite her to join them for drinks. Leaving work on her own as everyone else headed for drinks together, she felt depressed and alone.
Staying with work, I can recall a personal experience of joining an organisation which consisted of a great number of long standing members of staff. All were very familiar with one another having worked as part of small teams for a significant number of years. As part of my role I was required to manage one of the teams. Introducing change can often be met with unrest from established members who have been used to a particular way of working. It is one of the tasks as a manager to contain and manage members’ feelings around this. However, what is common, somewhat ‘normal’ unrest and a period of ‘storming’ (Tuckman, 1965) soon became bullying; the aim of which was to obstruct and prevent change being made, and challenge my leadership of the group. It is important to note here that challenge is fine. It is how it is done and what exactly is challenged which differentiates the behaviour as bullying. What I considered to be bullying was the ‘linking up’ of group members and a collusive ‘splitting off’ from me as part of the group. This separate group persisted to criticise and challenge everything that I did with no reason as to why. They abandoned their individual tasks resulting in an increased workload for me. When I tried to address this with them they insulted me and accused me of lying claiming they had done the work that they had left. They created stories about me which were untrue and which they shared with their colleagues in other teams who were also their friends. As someone new to the organisation with no allies, I began to feel excluded and very much an outsider to the group.
These examples describe what some may regard as ‘mental’ or ‘emotional’ bullying. There are also cases of more ‘physical’ bullying such as a group or ‘gang’ of school children that physically beat up and attack another young person. We could argue that regardless of whether bullying exists in the form of what people say to another person or by someone or a group physically attacking another, the aim is to overpower and intimidate. I would argue that it’s this overpowering and intimidation that can evoke feelings of exclusion and loneliness in a person. In the above example of my experience of managing a group, I would argue their aim was to overpower me so that I wouldn’t introduce change; that instead I would give up trying to manage them and let them have their own way and allow them to manage me.
The longer the period of time a person is bullied, the longer lasting the effects can be. Such long term effects can often include feelings of anxiety and depression in an individual. An interesting point of view from some is that a person bullied is more likely to bully others. Perhaps this is where help and support for a victim of bullying is so important in order to help an individual process what has happened and recover from the experience without exhibiting negative behaviours towards others. This could be in the form of mentoring in school or through counselling or psychotherapy. It is understandable why one might want to let others know what the painful experience of bullying was like by giving them a flavour of the experience themselves. I have met many people who have said that through being bullied they made a conscious decision to be more assertive so as to try and avoid people thinking they can overpower and intimidate them. We could argue that an effort to be more assertive is something positive to come out of the experience. Anything positive that can come from a person’s experience of being bullied is surely a good thing, for the experience whether as a child or as an adult, can feel like a cruel existence; an existence that can feel so painful that at its most extreme has led people to take drastic action to end the suffering.
There is so much more that can be explored in regards to bullying. Many questions have been looked at and continue to be revisited as bullying continues to exist in a growing number of forms such as cyber bullying. Questions such as whether there are differences between how males bully and how females bully and whether it is more common among one sex compared to another. Other questions focus on exploring the effects of bullying both short term and long term and how to tackle bullying, particularly in schools.
One thing we can probably be certain of is that bullying is unlikely to go away. This in itself is a depressing thought.
*Consent has been used to use specific examples and names have been changed to protect identity.
References and further reading ‘The Four Stages of Group Development’ (Tuckman, 1965)
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