Bullying has an impact which lasts years. I know - I’ve been a victim

Posted on: 2018-11-16 09:00:00

Girls bullying a younger boy
Bullies love to chip away at an identity – and the use of language can be their most belittling tactic.’ Photograph: Janine Wiedel Photolibrary / Ala/Alamy

A scene that often replays in my mind is being 13 years old, curled up in the foetal position on the floor and being kicked in the ribs. I’m screaming but then my voice catches and becomes a silence that sticks as a lump in the throat that stays there for years.

Bullying – which can be physical, mental, emotional, verbal – can steal a lot, including our confidence and self-esteem. It can also steal language, the ability to express what we have experienced.

This week is Anti-Bullying Week, and it is important to understand that, if not addressed, bullying can have deep and damaging consequences – echoing far into the future and affecting our relationships and behaviour.

I have experienced physical bullying: the sudden sharp pain of being pinched in the playground, the searing sting of a slap, the foot stamping on me, hands shoving me into the blaring traffic of a busy road. I have experienced verbal bullying too. “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words will never harm you,” went the childhood chant – which I found confusing because words can harm and hurt most, can break your heart and spirit.

Bullies love to chip away at an identity – and the use of language can be their most belittling tactic. Often the first thing they take is a person’s name: I was “Freak” for much of my younger life. I was dehumanised – I had “lips like a slug”, “hair like a horse”, and was “a stupid Indian cow” (considering that a cow is actually deemed a holy animal in India, I’m now taking this as a compliment).

Studies reveal that childhood bullying can be a major risk factor for poor mental health in adulthood, raising the risk of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal thoughts – all of which I have had. Research by the University of Montreal also suggests that bullying can change the structure surrounding a gene involved in regulating mood – making victims more vulnerable to mental health problems as they age. Another study into the long-term ramifications revealed that bullying could lead to “reduced adaptation to adult roles, including forming lasting relationships, integrating into work and being economically independent”.

Donald Trump
Bullying can happen in childhood and in adulthood, too. Indeed, the leader of the most powerful country on Earth uses bullying to dominate and degrade.’ Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

The theme of this year’s Anti-Bullying Week is “choose respect”, and it is important that we explore and put into practice the ways we can respect others and ourselves more, to both help those who still grapple with the effects of bullying, and to stop others from having to suffer. Empathy – a crucial understanding of the minds and hearts of others – can stop us from wilfully hurting others. One report has revealed that reading can help to teach empathy: I believe books should be prescribed for both bullies and those who’ve been bullied.

This year I was asked to write for Three Things I’d Tell My Younger Self, a new book aimed at helping young people cope with life. What would I say, if I could journey back through time? Words can harm but can also heal. I would tell my younger self not to internalise the voices telling me I was worthless, useless, a loser, stupid, ugly. I now recognise that by speaking out, writing back, by finding and using our true voice, we can break the poisonous grip of the past.

Bullying is a repeated pattern of abuse of power designed to dominate those perceived as inferior, as weaker. Bullying is an endemic, systemic attempt to degrade, and we need to recognise the signs and empower ourselves to deal with it, and prevent it. Bullying can happen in childhood and in adulthood too. Indeed, the leader of the most powerful country on Earth uses bullying to dominate and degrade his opponents. In this world of so-called strong men, let’s remember that strength can actually be found in vulnerability – in showing the ways in which we have been hurt, how that hurt has shaped our lives, and how we can begin to heal it through empathy, kindness, and respect.

 Anita Sethi is a writer and journalist, and a contributor to Three Things I’d Tell My Younger Self

Anita Sethi
Source: The Guardian

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