Undoing the damage caused by bullying
It’s widely accepted that LGBTQ young people face a higher risk of bullying, and that bullying can cause long-term harm.
We caught up with Nicholas Rose – who specialises in therapy and counselling for LGBTQ people – to talk about why bullying is such a big deal for queer people.
A lot of LGBTQ people report having experienced being bullied – particularly at school and growing up. Why do people bully each other?
In my experience, people who are struggling to cope with the pressures of their lives find various outlets to cope – being a bully, abuser, or gaslighter are all behaviours that enable them to escape feelings that they are finding unmanageable and have yet to learn how to deal with.
Muddled thinking can enable bullies to bully under the guise of statements such as “someone needs to get things done”, “It’s just kids flexing their muscles”, or “they are very clever in their job but they could have better people skills”.
Someone is bullying when they impose their will physically, sexually, emotionally, or socially through acts that scare, humiliate, hurt, or exclude in order to try and reinforce their own unstable and volatile feelings of self-worth or impotence.
A bully will be a repeat offender and have a pattern of bullying behaviour. They might bully one person constantly or they might bully many people just once. Both can be hard to spot because if there’s one victim then the bully can demand secrecy through threats of further and worse bullying, whilst people experiencing one-off events might easily process the experience as “maybe they were just having a bad day”.
Are LGBTQ people particularly susceptible to bullying?
According to research by Stonewall in Britain’s schools, 45 percent of LGBTQ pupils – that’s nearly half – are bullied for being LGBTQ.
When we look specifically at the experience of Trans kids, things are even worse – 64 percent are being bullied.
What sort of damage does bullying do?
Acts of bullying are harmful – causing traumas, negatively changing a person’s behaviour, and can result in them feeling unable to function at daily tasks.
The experience of bullying is also to end up feeling stuck with very negative feelings. It’s those negative feelings that the victim is left with that often causes a barrier to recovery. The sufferer can start to blame themselves for not coping and in effect starts to internalise and integrate a negative and critical self-construct. It is almost as though the judgement of the bully becomes the judgement of the bullied.
Bullying can have a number of negative consequences from PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders to impacting on confidence, self-esteem, and lead to other problems such as drug and alcohol misuse and other risky behaviours. It can lead to difficulty at school, at work, in relationships, in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It can mean that someone may not have the quality and potential of life if they had not been bullied.
In childhood, being bullied can affect how someone relates to the world and forms relationships and so patterns of coping and unhelpful behaviours can become very firmly established, becoming difficult to unpick. A few examples include development of social anxiety, or self-harming.
Meanwhile, in adulthood, being bullied in a situation where you have a limited sense of freedom – for example, a job with a bullying manager – can also result in staying in a situation long enough that again unhelpful behaviours can become entrenched. Unhelpful behaviours might include depression, or use of alcohol or other drugs.
Is bullying something that we eventually get over, or does it have any lasting impact?
The impact of bullying depends upon a whole range of factors, including the bullied person’s previous experiences of abusive behaviours and being able to spot abuse, the severity and amount of time the bullying takes place over, how the individual copes with the bullying – for example, avoidance of social situations can lead to social anxiety – and finally, whether help and support is available at the time.
Many of my LGBTQ patients talk about having been bullied.
Often, patients have never told anyone about the bullying for fear of being judged or blamed, often because they painfully blame themselves enough already and then it can also be that they did not realise they were being bullied.
In some dysfunctional environments bullying flourishes and is normalised so that the bullied, when looking around at their environment, believes that is just the way things work and that they are not “normal”.
Is there a cycle of bullying as we sometimes see in other forms of abuse – are people who have been bullied likely to become bullies themselves?
Our responses to experiences are never the same – some people may well respond to having been bullied by being bullies, others may respond by becoming activists against bullying. After bullying, the amygdala – the part of the brain that alerts us to threats based partly on what we have learnt in life – will likely be highly sensitive to other people’s behaviours, how they then respond will be uniquely personal to them.
What often gets missed though is that bullies do need to be stopped – not only for the sake of those they are bullying but also for their own sake. If you think about people you know, can you ever imagine thinking that them being a bully will help them in life?
What techniques or strategies could we use to help navigate our way past the trauma of bullying so that we can minimise the impact it has on our lives going forward?
Bullying has a lasting effect on a person for as long as they have any sense of confusion as to their role in their experience and do not work through and understand the impact it has and continues to have.
If someone has been bullied, they need to recognise that they have been subjected to unacceptable behaviour and that it is not their fault. They then need to look at the ways in which bullying has affected the way in which they are living so that they can make changes to combat and manage the impacts.
Reading about bullying, talking to friends and family, reporting it and seeking help are ways to prevent and recover from bullying.