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  • Writer's pictureSeema Banerjee

‘When they go low, we go high’ – Michelle Obama

A couple of years ago, I had a tyrant boss at my workplace who treated the office like her domain and all her subordinates as serfs. She clung onto the power that her job title bestowed upon her and abused it to the fullest. Possessing a noxious personality that was built upon belittling and picking on people, she ‘ruled’ the office with fear and intimidation. If anyone dared to disagree with her, they became the target of her wrath and fury. Easy to take offence and unable to accept any facts that didn’t agree with her own views, she would shut down any attempts at debate or logical reasoning, which caused even greater frustration amongst the team. This was perhaps because she was terrified to confront reality and reason. She was a classic workplace bully. Sounds familiar? I bet at least some of you may have crossed paths with such characters at some stage in your lives. If you haven’t yet, then you can truly count your blessings!

When thinking of a bully, the image that immediately conjures in the mind is that of a nasty kid in the playground; punching, hitting, jeering and name calling his poor victim. Whilst physical aggression and other overt behaviours such as constantly picking on someone, demeaning them and putting them down is instantly labelled as bullying, it actually encompasses a lot more than that. Think of the passive aggressive behaviours, cyber bullying, social isolation, ostracisation and silent treatment. They are all different manifestations of bullying. The end result is the same i.e. the bully tries to assert power by putting the other person down and rendering them powerless.

The effects of bullying are devastating. It is heartbreaking to read about the cases of young vulnerable preteen and teenage children that commit suicide as a result of being bullied. Psychologically fragile, at a stage where they’re still developing and discovering themselves, these young children become easy prey for the bullies and the effects can be long lasting and disastrous. This is like a cancer in our society and we ought to do everything we can to eradicate it.

Bullying is not restricted to children alone. Sometimes the child bullies do not outgrow these maladjusted behaviour patterns and carry them through into adulthood. At other times the bullied become the bullies themselves. It can thus happen at all ages, all stages, all levels and take on a multitude of forms. Present in any sphere of life and relationships, it can include the mean boss, the authoritarian teacher, our social circle, the social media, a domineering spouse or even difficult family members.

Take for instance our basic evolutionary need for approval, acceptance and belonging and the effect it can have on our physical and psychological health when bullies try to tamper with that need. Being a part of a tribe is what kept our ancestors safe, secure and also protected them from the wild beasts and other predators. As humans, we have therefore evolved into social creatures with a strong need for acceptance and seek validation, in varying degrees. Social networking sites such as Facebook succeed because they cleverly tap into this basic human need for connection and social approval.

Now let’s paint a scenario. You post something on social media and it regularly gets ignored, whilst others in your friend circle actively engage in each other’s posts. How does that make you feel? Abandoned? Excluded? Rejected? Sometimes, being ignored can be even more damaging to one’s self esteem versus being picked on. It can make one feel totally unworthy of any attention at all. I recall a conversation that I had with a friend recently who candidly stated that the fact that someone is posting something on a social platform is an indication that they want to share that information and are thus seeking some form of approval – consciously or even subconsciously. When one is consistently ignored, it can lead to feelings of being ostracised by the group, something akin to being abandoned by your pack. In evolutionary terms, this would have had serious consequences to our survival.  Being alone, one would become an easy prey to the hostile climate, the wild beasts and subsequently perish. This form of bullying by isolation requires the active participation of other group members, who compound the situation.

Other examples of bullying can include people spreading rumours, talking behind your back, labelling you as such and such ‘type of person’. Being solely excluded from a party that your entire social group is invited to, is another instance of bullying. Situations where you are not allowed to disagree with someone via debate and discussion, where your freedom is stifled and your opinion and free speech are blocked, is a form of bullying too. Then there’s the case of ‘ganging up’ against someone, when a group rallies around a ring leader, supports him unquestioningly and targets the poor victim. This strategy is commonly adopted by online trolls and playground bullies.

Dealing with bullying can have damaging effects on one’s physical and mental health. The stress associated can increase blood pressure, heart condition, lead to chronic illnesses besides making one depressed, have low self esteem and a general feeling of helplessness and dread. Unfortunately, such challenging situations can crop up sometimes in life and adopting a few effective strategies may help in overcoming the situation and thereby rising above it.

First and foremost, recognise it. Only once we realise what is happening in a given situation does it give us the assurance and validation that the problem is real and empower us with some coping strategies to deal with it. Some of us do not like to consider ourselves as victims or to think of the people that we associate with as bullies. However, this can lead to confusion as to whether our fears are real or imaginary and can further aggravate feelings of despair and anxiety. It is time to acknowledge the situation and to call a spade, a spade.

Once you acknowledge the situation, it can help with how you respond to it. Whilst bullying can thwart your sense of being accepted and valued, it can help if you remain calm and try to focus your energies on your own strengths and your sense of self worth. Easier said than done, but it’s definitely worth a try! Recognise that the bully is trying to shatter your confidence, and by believing is yourself, you can, in a way, disarm him.

Confide in your trusted friends and family. Talking to someone always helps. It builds resilience to cope with unfavourable circumstances and is deeply healing, eventually restoring your self confidence, esteem and feeling loved and supported.

Have the courage to stand up to the bullies. The bully might not change, yet being honest, open and communicative can help in certain situations. Listening carefully to the bully’s accusations and attacks and responding with logic and reason can help you to feel less frustrated and powerless. I read somewhere that the only people who are angry at you for speaking the truth are the ones that are living the lie. So, go for it- speak up!

If someone else is being bullied, speak up too. Try to advocate on behalf of the powerless and for what is right. The next time you see a political leader mocking a disabled journalist, recognise that it is a form of bullying, and condemn such behaviour. Never be an apologist for bad behaviour. Teach your children to be kind, respectful and compassionate beings and to be never bullied into silence either. Encourage them to find their voice and to speak up when it matters, even if it means questioning authority. Might is not always right!

Be the better person and never stoop to the level of the bully. Be mature and respectful in your interaction, avoid verbal slander, rude or offensive language and name calling. No matter how bad the situation may be, refrain from making personal attacks and stick to logic and reason when you respond. Maintain dignity, be guided by the power of words and choose them wisely.

It you have the choice, walk away from the bullies. Do not allow them to destroy your peace. Delve into their psyche and recognise that those that are weak are the ones that resort to bullying. The ones that attack you are often the ones that are aware of your true potential and feel threatened by it. They have their own demons to face up to and their opinion about you doesn’t hold true nor define the person that you are.

And finally, step onto your yoga mat. Practising mindfulness and yoga can be uplifting when dealing with negativity and strife. It transports you into a positive zone, establishing a sense of balance, restoring peace and harmony and bringing about clarity of thought. That in itself is deeply empowering, so, when they go low, we go high…

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