I have been targeted by bullies most of my life. That may come as a surprise to those who have confided that they found me intimidating prior to getting to know me. I credit these opposing ideas to the fact that I am typically the quiet person in a room. For some, being quiet is a sign of weakness; for others, a sign of strength and confidence. In school, the quiet loner is typically the target of bullies – and, from my experience, the same holds in the world of adults. My lifetime of dealing with bullies has proven one thing – the idea that they are strong is a complete fallacy.
My lifetime experience with bullies began when we moved to a new town after my eighth birthday. I’d come from a place where I had friends, and no bullies, to a place with few friends and many bullies. I had not developed the necessary coping skills, and I’m innately non-confrontational. For several years, I spent recess hiding from whatever bully was targeting me at any given moment. It wasn’t until seventh grade that I learned the truth about bullies.
That year started as the other school years had – with a couple of bullies setting their sites on me as a good target. One truth about bullies – they aren’t always smart, and sometimes push the target too far. The first to make that mistake attempted to steal my science book, when the teacher had stepped out to get more books. As I tried to hang on to the opened book, he closed it on my arms and sat on it. As the pain set in, with no ability to move, I realized I had only one recourse – I bit him. He immediately jumped up, rubbing the red mark on his arm.
Although he made cracks about getting rabies from me, as his buddies laughed, he walked away and left me and my book alone. I remember feeling surprise at how easily he gave up. It planted a seed, but was not yet enough for an idea to come to full flower. It took one more incident, with a worse bully, for me to really understand the other truth – that bullies are actually weak.
That year there was one kid who made me his favorite target. He was widely recognized as one of the toughest boys at the school – so what chance did I have against him? He’d find me at every break, his followers in tow, tailing me wherever I went, taunting and even throwing rocks. It became a daily ritual – one that I endured, when I couldn’t find a way to avoid it.
One day, I’d picked up my art projects to take home and was late getting to math class. As I hurried around the corner to my classroom, there was the bully with his posse of followers. As I tried to walk past them, he stood in front of me. I tried to get around, but he started to push me as the group began shouting taunts. I shielded the shoebox with my beloved art pieces, but quickly realized the risk that they would be destroyed. Arms full, and lacking any other option, I let fly with a kick in his direction. The face in front of me suddenly turned ashen, and he took a step back.
I remember feeling puzzled at how quickly he stopped, then suddenly coming to the realization that my random kick had hit a critical bulls-eye. Rather than giving me comfort, it created a fear that severe retaliation would be coming. The bully’s friends began to goad him to take up the attack again, as he stood there looking shocked. It was the next moment that truly surprised me, and finally cemented the idea that bullies are actually weak. As his friends continued to goad, the bully looked straight at me and said, “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to hit a girl!” With that, he turned on his heel and left, his followers now registering their own shock – but all of them too weak to take up the fight for themselves. If a bully is weak, their followers are even weaker.
That schoolyard scene gave me a whole new view of bullies as insecure, scared people who have learned to use force as a way to hide their own emotional weakness. From that day on, I never ran from another bully – even as I was still targeted regularly. The following year a school bully, fond of flashing his switchblade just to see his ‘victims’ jump, made the mistake of flicking it in my face when the teacher stepped out for a moment. I looked at the knife, millimeters from my nose – and broke out laughing! He never bothered me again – in fact, he was rather nice to me after that! The next year a classmate, angry at something I’d said about a girl he liked, threatened to beat me up if I I ever dared say such a thing again. I laughed and said that I had every right to comment on her riding, that he didn’t know anything about horses, so he had to right to question what I’d said. Besides, I added, she had another boyfriend and wasn’t interested in him anyway! He never bothered me again.
I have not always come out completely unscathed in my encounters with bullies. My most recent bully was the boss I left last year. When a bully is in a literal position of power over you, it is far more difficult to thwart them. While he was never able to get the literal best of me, nor destroy my reputation as he tried hard to do, the stress of keeping him at bay took a toll on my mental and physical health. Sometimes the best you can do with a bully is simply walk away, taking away all opportunity for them to bully you. Watching now, from the outside, he continues to bully – but I clearly can see the corrosive effect it is having not only on relationships, but on his own sanity and health. Weep not for the bully – they eventually get what they deserve!
The trouble with bullies is that most people still view them as strong. The current resident of the White House is seen by his followers as being a strong leader – but he is a bully. He may brag that when he gets hit, he hits back twice as hard – but his history shows that only holds true when his mark is weak. When the mark is strong, he backs off. He blinked on Iran. He’s blinked more than once on China. He’s changed positions numerous times when someone whose disapproval he fears – Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh – criticizes him or puts out a different opinion on the topic. That is not the tough individual he would like us to believe he is, just as my schoolyard bully was not actually tough enough to take a hit.
Bullies choose their victims carefully. The schoolyard bully did not take on the athletic boys; and the occupant of the White House is no more than a lap dog around the toughest autocratic leaders in the world. They choose those who are perceived as the weakest, in order to safely create their own facade of toughness. And it works. Generally they choose their targets well – those who either cannot, or do not want to, fight them. This provides the bully plenty of opportunity to flex their muscles – literally or figuratively – and make a good show of toughness for their followers.
What is sad to me is that we’ve all grown up with story lines, in all media, portraying the actual weakness in bullies – yet, much of our population still perceives bullies as strong. Many of the executives in my previous employment saw my boss as a strong leader – even as many of us fled the floundering ship. The supporters of the current White House resident regularly cite his strength as a key quality they admire. Even in the world of horses, in which I dwell, many famous trainers have made their fame by being bullies to animals 6-8 times their size (and horses can, by nature, be very easy to bully).
Learn to recognize bullies. True strength and confidence are not noisy. People who are strong and truly confident do not need to brag about it. Bullies brag. Bullies swagger. Bullies belittle others – truly strong and confident people help lift other people up. Bullies often appear to be looking for a fight, or some other way to prove their superiority. Strong and confident people never look for fights – and only take on those battles that are for a just cause.
The next time you view someone as strong, take a moment to ask why you feel that way about them. Is the perceived strength gained at a cost to others around them? Or are they strong because of what they bring to those around them? If you admire a tough guy, because he pushes others around, take a moment to imagine that toughness turned on you. If you appreciate their toughness, but are glad they aim it at others, are you simply enabling another bully?
If you find yourself the target of a bully, try to remember that their overt toughness is hiding insecurity and weakness. If they hold actual power over you, try to find a way out. The only thing worse than a bully, is a bully who writes your paycheck! If they have no actual power over you, don’t give them any! You don’t have to pick a fight with a bully in order to win (in this era of too many guns, that can be dangerous). Sometimes the best answer is to just not give them the satisfaction of showing any fear.
And here’s hoping that in 400+ days the American voters give the bully in the White House a great big laugh in his face and point him to the door!