I remember, on my last day of school, the deputy head confidently telling us we would look back on our schooldays as the happiest times in our lives, I remember thinking vehemently: ‘I really hope you are wrong’. I went to state schools and was bullied, on and off, between the age of five and 16; physical bullying was a part of that until about 14 and I was habitually teased. I can remember being teased in the playground and then being ambushed and punched, walking home from infant school, and it went on from there, through two junior schools and a large comprehensive. At least holidays and weekends gave respite.
Looking back, I can see some of the reasons – I was always unsure how to react, so often reacted ineptly, inconsistently, uncertainly. I was physically poorly co-ordinated, so struggled at sports. I did not fit in; older parents and a different accent set me apart in interests, and as soon as I opened my mouth. I was tall, but thin, so easily knocked over; this had the added disadvantage of my father telling me that I was taller than the bullies, so I should be able to hit back.
Going back earlier, I was frightened of my father, and my parents’ marriage, although long lived, was unhappy; there was conflict and anxiety around at home. I was smacked at home, but no more than was the norm in those days – the 1960s and 70s – but my father’s temper and moods frightened me. Alongside that, there was the growing sense of not meeting expectations as I did not manage to physically hit back until my teens; so my parents went into the school again and again to try and sort things out. My younger brother, on the other hand, was good at responding and was rarely bullied. I acquired the message that, to be of worth, I had to be something I was not.
The school bus could be an ordeal, but beyond that was the safety of home. Living near woods, then going to live in the countryside and near the sea, opened a world of exploration and adventure, alone or with my brother, or later with some friends. There were teachers who affirmed me; for example, a junior school teacher, who gave me the confidence to learn to swim. Later on, I started to make friendships that did not lead to bullying. I started to learn to fit in with a macho culture, so when I did start to physically resist, even if not always successfully, that helped, as did learning not to cry or show emotions. As a teenager, while doing a holiday job, I was verbally bullied, so simply choosing to leave my job, rather than passively put up with it, gave me a sense that I could make choices. Being reasonably academically able both helped (I could achieve) and hindered (I was labelled a ‘swot’). Some of these learnings were helpful later in life; some were not.
Coming to a Christian faith, at the age of 17, for me was a very positive experience. I experienced something of the transcendent dimension, which gave a new perspective, and took me out of myself. I found a sense of point and purpose to my existence, and groups of people at school and in church who accepted me and with whom there was far less of that anxious edge to the relationships. University continued this process. Another key point of healing was in my late 20s, while at theological college, being involved in a Retreat in Daily Life, using the approach of Ignatian spirituality. This encouraged me to reflect back over my life. For the first time I was able to look at what had happened, rather than simply trying to put it behind me and, again for the first time, I saw that, as well as all the pain, some positives had come out of the bullying, through how it had shaped my character and my capacity to empathise and feel concern for those who suffered. As I trained in counselling, revisiting and reflecting on the experience of bullying in therapy was another step on the path of healing.
Why does bullying happen?
Explanations for why bullying happens are no doubt complex. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies illustrates the process of the ‘law of the jungle’ in a band of marooned boys.1 At one level, part of primate behaviour is a struggle for dominance in the group: as dominant males get to reproduce more, so some get pushed down. Competition can easily tip over into bullying, as recent scandals in UK athletics illustrate.2
Types of bully among young people include: the victim who becomes a bully, perhaps being bullied at home and taking it out on others at school; popular/aggressive bullies, who feed their egos and dominance by pushing others around; relational bullies, who like the power of deciding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ and bully or ostracise others to maintain their own popularity; serial bullies, who, to those in authority, appear charming and popular but who manipulate and lie; group bullies, who adopt pack behaviour to be part of the crowd and would not behave in the same way away from the group; and indifferent bullies, who lack the capacity for empathy, so appear cold, can enjoy inflicting suffering and can be dangerous.3 Many of these forms of bullying concern abuse of power and/or place in the pecking order of a group. Some of these types of bullying do occur in adult situations, where perhaps social insecurity is less of a motive and power and control more predominant – for example in workplace bullying.
René Girard, the philosopher and theologian, offers insights into group behaviour; he describes the human tendency to create scarcity, whether in terms of material scarcity or status, and the resulting process of mimetic envy and competition for what is scarce.4 This produces stresses and these can lead to scapegoating and, affixing blame to those who are different in some way, the scapegoat will be persecuted and or excluded. Charles Elliott points out that these processes become more toxic in societies/groups under pressure.5
In my case, and often in young clients, it is those who don’t fit, who stand out, struggle socially or are anxious, who end up being bullied.
Implications for therapy
For me, when working with clients in secondary schools and with adult clients, Carl Rogers’ core conditions including acceptance, empathy, and congruence, are the starting points. For clients who feel deeply unacceptable and isolated, experiencing acceptance and empathy from the outset is crucial.6 The core conditions also make possible the gradual process of self-discovery and movement towards a more positive self-image. With some clients, the use of story or artwork can be part of this journey.
Those who have been bullied can experience a deep sense of shame; the bully’s evaluation of you is internalised. Pattison notes the difficulty of articulating shame, because its roots lie in the preverbal stage in young children; in addition, shame is felt as being about the whole of who one is, so is difficult to articulate.7 The experience of shame makes us want to hide ourselves rather than express ourselves. Victims who go on to become bullies are vulnerable and are scapegoating – projecting their shame onto their victims.
Those who are bullied come to therapy wanting help to make it stop. The therapist cannot wave a magic wand, or in transactional analysis (TA) terms, become a rescuer; but he/she can work with the client to help them to move out of the victim position. The person who is bullied will often feel trapped and helpless, so one step is to start to look at what choices there are, however limited these may be. For some clients (young people and adults), brainstorming possible choices is a good first step, encouraging them to rule nothing out, even the apparently stupid or wacky, as the temptation is to shut down possibilities and stay trapped. So possibilities on how to react/not react, who to tell or not tell, where to go and so on are spelt out. The brainstorming may also bring out suicidal impulses, which can then be addressed. Using an insight from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) the ‘behavioural experiment’ can be helpful. In other words, try something different and see what happens. We can learn from the experiments that don’t work as well as those that do. With young clients, one experiment could involve simply trying sitting in different places on the school bus and observing whether that makes things better or worse. For adult clients, it could, for example, lead to a decision to join a trade union.
Through making choices and experimenting, a client can start to find power, and so the imbalance of power between bully and victim can start to be addressed. In TA terms, this can help the client to move out of the victim place. Therapy can enable clients to find power through making choices in their vulnerability.8 For some clients, the use of assertiveness techniques can provide ways of responding to verbal bullying.
For both adult and younger clients, naming what is going on as bullying can be empowering as bullying is often cloaked in secrecy and denied. Once bullying is named and recognised for what it is, it becomes easier to start to tackle it.
Implications for spirituality
The Christian tradition teaches that love is the core quality of God.9 Islam describes Allah as the lord and giver of mercy.10
The spiritual exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola start with ‘The Principle and Foundation’, in which the retreatant spends time experiencing the unconditional love of God; this is foundational and includes awareness of our flaws, experience of vocation and so on.11 Being beloved and responding with love are the heart of the matter. In spiritual accompanying, connecting with this is vital, maybe addressing shame, and moving to a sense of agency, both though finding purpose and making choices, or discovering some vocational sense (using vocation in the broadest sense of a purposeful life direction that contributes to the wider good).
The Christian faith often stresses a movement through:
guilt → repentance → forgiveness
For the victim of bullying, a more generalised sense of shame, worthlessness and helplessness is the starting point, so movement, in the following way, is more meaningful:
shame → acceptance by other(s) → self-acceptance
My own experience was and is that, at its best, a church or other faith community can offer something of this acceptance – mirroring something of the divine nature. At worst, the Church or any faith community can be as bullying and scapegoating as any other organisation. However, at best, the divine love / beneficence / compassion / acceptance is modelled. However, this movement from shame to acceptance could be more explicitly articulated. Shame is, by nature, often a hidden emotion, so an important step in the release from shame is naming it.
The spiritual practices of a faith, such as meditation, contemplation and prayer and secular mindfulness can help develop self-awareness and self-acceptance. These and public worship can foster a sense of connectedness, both with God, and with others, and a sense of purposefulness in existence.
One path in many faith traditions is that of non-violent resistance; this involves moving beyond both victimhood on the one hand and perpetuating a cycle of violence on the other. Walter Wink, a theologian, interprets Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, about turning the other cheek and going the extra mile, as acts of non-violent defiance, making a choice rather than being stuck as a victim, even when the overt power lies with the oppressor.12
Bullying is more recognised and therefore probably less endemic in schools and workplaces than in the past; nonetheless, it is still a serious problem. New avenues for bullying have opened up with social media, meaning the bullying follows you home. Serious bullying leaves lifelong psychological, and on occasions, physical, scars. As therapists and spiritual accompaniers, we need to be alert to bullying and its consequences, and be prepared to name it for what it is. By the quality of our presence, we can be part of a healing, transforming process.
Andrew De Smet is a counsellor/psychotherapist, spiritual director, mediator and Anglican priest. He is Pastoral Care Adviser in the Anglican Diocese of York. Until recently, he was a volunteer counsellor in a secondary school.
1. Golding W. Lord of the flies. London: Faber and Faber; 1954.
2. Report on Bullying in the UK Para-Olympic swimming team. The World at One [radio programme]. BBC Radio 4 2017; 12 October.
3. https://www.verywell.com/types-of-bullying-460491 (accessed 19 February 2018).
4. Girard R. New York; Crossroads Books, 1996
5. Elliott C. Memory and salvation. London:DLT; 1995.
6. Kirschenbaum H, Henderson VL. The Carl Rogers reader. London: Constable; 1990.
7. Pattison S. Shame, theory, therapy, theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2000.
8. Litchfield K. Tend my flock. Norwich: Canterbury Press; 2006.
9. Gospel of John chapter 3 verse 16, First Epistle of John chapter 4 verse 16
10. The Qu’ran (translated by Abdel Haleem MAS). Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2015.
11. Fleming D. The spiritual exercises of St Ignatius: a literal translation and a contemporary reading. St Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources; 1978.
12. Wink W. The powers that be. New York: Doubleday; 1999.