Insights into Bullying

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If only the saying, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me, were true. In reality, being judged harshly, being teased unmercifully, being made fun of for how we look or for who we are—being bullied—may break our spirit and cause deep and lasting scars.

Children who are abused, called names, or ridiculed by their parents, their siblings, their peers, or even their teachers can’t help but believe that there is truth behind the cutting words or angry slap. To a child, everything is personal. They are likely to blame themselves for causing others to hate them enough to hurt them. What happens from there?

When someone is bullied physically, emotionally, or spiritually, they are apt to go into Endurance mode. Endurance is when you wake up in the morning assuming today will be as emotionally painful as yesterday and the day before. Endurance means that you don’t experience 365 different days a year; you experience 1 day a year 365 times. Endurance is believing that your wishes, dreams, and goals don’t matter. Endurance is hopelessness, dread, and anxiety rolled into one. Those who have been bullied suffer from Endurance and are likely to develop a belief system that is severely limiting, self-judgmental, and fear-based. What are the symptoms of this suffering?

If a child doesn’t commit suicide, get strung out on drugs, or have a fatal “accident,” he or she often grows up exhibiting the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Like other PTSS sufferers, they/you may become distrustful, secretive, self-abusing, and sometimes even abusive towards others as a result of all their pent-up hurt, rage, and humiliation. So how can we stop the bullying? How can we help those who are being bullied or have been?

The good news is that bullying is finally receiving the attention it warrants. We are recognizing that bullying creates more bullying, is a trigger for depression, suicide, and drug abuse among teens, and often creates a lifetime of disorders that hinder people from living the extraordinary lives they deserve.

One story currently garnering major press began in my home town of Mill Valley, California, at my daughter’s school, Tamalpais High. Two sisters who attend the school, Emily and Sarah Buder, along with their mother Janet, read an article about a girl in another town, Olivia, who had suffered from the torture of bullying at her middle school. Although the Buders had never met Olivia, they felt compassion and a desire to help. They began an email campaign requesting other teenagers and anyone who had ever suffered from bullying to write to Olivia. Fast forward some months: Thousands and thousands of letters poured in from all over the world to support Olivia and her mother. As a result, today Olivia realizes she is not alone. She no longer feels the need to isolate. And she has come to believe that there are many good people in the world, people who care. She has even received letters from admitted bullies who have apologized and promised never to do it again, people who confessed that their bullying began years earlier when they were emotionally or physically abused themselves.

Bullying is a cycle we can stop as the Buder family, Olivia, and others are showing us. First, just as we have done with sexual abuse and molestation, we must take it out of our collective closet, shine the light on it, call it by its name, and let those who have experienced it know that they are not responsible for carrying shame. We must not turn the other cheek, ignore it, or tell those who are bullied that someday it will get better. This only teaches sufferers to endure loneliness, shame, humiliation, rage, and self-hate. Loneliness can become a habit. Shame can become a habit. Drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity can become habits—lifelong habits. By naming bullying we take away the power of the secret. We become islands in the stream for those who have suffered from bullying, safe havens where they can rest, release, and rebuild.

Secondly, we must open our eyes. We must commit to noticing not just the bullying behaviors but the symptoms of those who are being bullied. Anyone who is depressed, self-destructive, accident prone, suicidal, anxiety-ridden, doing poorly at work or in school, has difficulty concentrating, has low self-esteem, or has addictions may be suffering from bullying. If you have the courage to ask, you may find that they have the courage and the desire to share their secret with you. When I have had reason to be suspicious that a new client was sexually abused, I have often just asked straight out. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the response, “Oh, my God. How did you know? I’ve never told anyone, not even my _________ (therapist/husband/minister).” Few want to live with the secret of sexual abuse or of being bullied. Most think they have no other choice.

Thirdly, we must recognize that the act of bullying is a cry for help. We must stop seeing the situation in simplistic terms, categorizing people into perpetrators and victims. We must realize that anyone who bullies must have been subjected to bullying themselves. If we simply criminalize bullies, particularly teenagers who exhibit these disturbing behaviors, we will be missing thousands and thousands who need our help. The cycle of bullying will break when we reach out with compassion to everyone—bullies and bullied alike. This doesn’t mean that we should tolerate bullying. On the contrary, we should have zero tolerance for words and deeds that are hurtful—by others as well as by us.

Who among us hasn’t said something hurtful when we’ve been hurt or humiliated? Who among us doesn’t owe someone an apology for having uttered, in a moment of anger, a cutting remark, a harsh criticism, a mean-spirited “joke”? As Alexander Soltzenitzen wrote (slight paraphrase): “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take all the evil people and put them over there, then we wouldn’t have to deal with them. And all of us good people would stay right here. The problem is that the line separating good and evil cuts right through the human heart.”

Let’s get out of Courtroom Earth where we vilify others self-righteously, labeling them as bullies, and set up Classroom Earth where we can admit to our own mistakes and make it safe for others to do the same. Let’s make our personal amends so that it is not too much to ask others to do the same. Let’s open our hearts, remembering that all judgmental, harsh words and all hurtful behaviors are simply disguised cries for help.

Lastly, we can help heal ourselves and others suffering from abuse through self-expression such as poetry, literature, art, drama, and music. Teresa Rodriguez Williamson, San Francisco Woman of the Year, author of Fly Solo, and founder of the premiere women’s travel site,, was bullied when she was young. While still a child, she wrote this poem, which won the California State Writing Contest.


I have been faced with a cold
A cold unknown to man
Only to children
A cold of being left out
A cold of no love
A cold of no care
Feel it
And learn from it

In our family, community, our nation, and our world, let us feel, learn, and create the warm heartedness we all so deserve.

Jane Straus is the author of Enough Is Enough! Stop Enduring and Start Living Your Extraordinary Life (Jossey-Bass, 2005 pub.). She is a frequent television and radio guest expert and writes columns for numerous magazines. She also has a life coaching practice for individuals and couples. You can read more about how to live an extraordinary life, view Jane’s TV and radio interviews, read excerpts from her book and articles, and find out how to book Jane as a keynote speaker for your next event by visiting

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