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Overcoming Bullying in the Long Term

There are few experiences in life that are more damaging to a child than being bullied. Regardless of the perpetrators intent or motives, bullying is psychological and/or physical abuse. Victims are chosen by virtue of perception. We were viewed as different, less than, inexplicably deserving of such treatment. Many of us internalized this negative perception.

The impact on self esteem is devastating because the child most often develops shame and self loathing by virtue of being unable to stop their tormentors.  Those of us who endured persecution by our peers carry scars that never completely fade.

We’ve come a long way in understanding how salient bullying is and how it can be addressed in public schools and community settings. We’re only just beginning to understand the long term affects.

7th and 8th grade were without question the two worst years of my life. I already had a lot of experience being the new kid in schools but junior high was the worst. I was an easy target. Coke bottle glasses, physically awkward, hand me down clothes…it’s like having a target on your back.

The worst part of being bullied is that while it evokes a fight or flight response; there’s never anywhere to run and fighting is generally not an option. Feeling exposed, fearful, and overwhelmed becomes a daily experience. Each individual encounter has the potential to be traumatic. The cumulative effects can easily leave a person with chronic anxiety and depression.

I did a lot of healthy and unhealthy things to overcome being bullied. In high school I frantically sought a place I could belong to ensure having some sense of identity and protection. I smoked a lot of pot and drank because that’s what the peer group that would accept me did. I got jobs to earn money to buy stuff the cool kids had. I found employment in the restaurant business which is the biggest misfit occupation of all. The misfits accepted me because I was good at my job and because I didn’t care that they were drunk or high while they did theirs.

Too many of us who survived developed addictions because drinking and drugging were the only way we could cope. I’m blessed that my body never could tolerate alcohol and while I always liked the idea of getting high, the reality of getting high was never much fun for me I do however remain a misfit.

In therapy I often reference the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It’s the story that best describes those of us who have not only survived, but thrived. We never fit in growing up. Most of us survived a lot of additional hardships. We felt like freaks. Many, many years later, we discovered that freaks, geeks, nerds, and (insert what you were called here) are actually the very best people. The trick is we have to find and befriend each other.

We make our families out of kindred spirits.

I am forever a work in progress and I yet I am often surprised to find a chip or two (or ten) remain firmly on my shoulder. I was talking recently with an amazingly talented and gifted man who has horrible self esteem. His identity today remains unchanged from being the kid who was frequently humiliated.

We talked about bullying and our scars. He asked me if I would tell a teenager today to “just ignore it” or to “rise above it”? Without a moment’s thought I replied, “No, I’d tell him to punch the bully in the face.” The nice man was shocked. How could I advocate a course of action that might result in negative consequences? Simple – I reason it’s easier to live with what you do than what you don’t do.

And there it is – another scar. I can’t truly feel good about my position but as a survivor of bullying I remain very biased. Despite years of therapy, despite the fact that I am cool today, despite everything…I’m not simply opposed to bullying…I hate it. I hate those who do it and I hate those in authority who tolerate it.

For most people, high school never ends. Same values, perspective, attitudes and behaviors. Maybe you got to be the quarterback or the prom queen. If so, I probably don’t want to know you unless you’ve grown a lot. Those of us who were on the chess team, those of us from the drama club and the band geeks and the stoners and the drop outs, those of us who were bullied or otherwise rejected…where are we today?

I’m kicking ass and loving life. I’m a misfit. I’ll never fit in, but I’m loved and I’m cool. Find yourself some kindred souls and be cool. Don’t pretend or pose or fake it. Just be around people who recognize it. Misfits are the very best people.

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