I’m often torn about the best way to deal with a bully. Do you call attention to the fact that he is being a bully, or do you ignore it?
The point of calling attention to it is to say you don’t agree with it. You speak up because to be silent is to participate. You speak up to stop the abuse.
But to be silent is to not give attention to the bully. A bully, at the heart of the matter, is someone who wants attention. It is someone who didn’t get enough attention for doing good things, so he does bad things. 6 or 60, it makes no difference. A bully is a bully if he is harmful to another person, either mentally, physically, or emotionally.
So if you ignore the bully’s misplaced attempt at a way to get attention, will it go away? Will he figure out another way to get the attention he craves?
We all want attention. We all want to feel special and important. A mark of a well adjusted person is that she does not constantly need validation from others in order to feel this way. She is comfortable as is. A well adjusted person can self-soothe, and knows on her own that she has done well. She doesn’t have to seek approval and encouragement from others constantly. She doesn’t have to tell stories about all the important things she has done or all the famous people she has met.
But a bully hasn’t gotten to that point yet. Perhaps he was bullied as a child by his father. Perhaps this is just normal to him. Perhaps he will always be an emotionally stunted person. Perhaps everyone is afraid of telling him he is wrong, so he has never gotten the feedback he needs. As far as he knows, he is OK. He feels big by making someone else feel small.
The few times I’ve stood up to bullies it terrified me. I was afraid of the repercussions. All were authority figures, and I had something to lose in every situation. But in every situation I’d finally had enough of being pushed around and lorded over.
A funny thing happened, every time. I spoke up, calmly, and respectfully, but assuredly. I pointed out how my point of view coincided with reality, and how it differed from the point of view of the bully. And every time the bully backed down. Every time it was like deflating a balloon. Every time the bully developed a new respect for me and never pushed me that way again. It doesn’t mean that the bully suddenly became a great human being. But it is as if I drew a line. I said I’m not willing to take this, and he never went there again.
Now my dilemma is when I see another person being bullied. Say it is an adult child of a bully. This person has been bullied his whole life by his father. This abuse is normal. The adult child has been taught that he is not worthy of love. He has been taught that he deserves to be treated badly. He has been taught that he has caused his father’s anger, that he is responsible for the abuse he gets.
If I stand up for him, am I short changing his growth? Baby birds have to peck their own way out of their shell or they won’t be able to make it in the world.
I remember a time when I lived near Washington DC. The lady I lived
with had three cats. Two were Siamese, and they were siblings. One was a Main Coon. His name was Bill. Those crazy Siamese cats were newcomers to this home, but they ganged up and made sure to get in the way every time food was put out. There were three bowls, but they would make sure they ate first and Bill ate last.
I felt this was monstrously unfair. One day I put out their food and held back those two punks. Bill just stared at me. I sang out to him, encouraging him. I told him to go ahead and eat. Hesitantly, he did. After about five minutes, I released the Siamese siblings. They looked at me in amazement. Bill didn’t get in their way, and Bill didn’t eat their food. They had theirs, and he had his. It was as it should be. This was all it took. They got the clue, and shared from then on. Bill didn’t become a bully to them out of revenge. Harmony was restored.
But it isn’t that easy with people. You’d think it would be easier. I couldn’t speak to these animals – I showed them how to behave. I showed Bill that he was valuable, that he had a right to eat. Not first, not better, just the same.
I think there is some lesson in here for me. Perhaps I have to do a little of both. Perhaps I have to stand up to the bully, to let him know that his actions aren’t OK, and show the victim that he has value. And then I have to wait, to let this seed take root. You can’t force growth, and you can’t change a lifetime of being oppressed overnight.
I believe in the power of prayer, but I believe in prayer made visible more. Sometimes I’m impatient for change.