Phone: 604-377-5277

A telehealth service for British Columbia

Dr. Derek Swain

Registered Psychologist #1006


Bullying and Harrassment

There are several misguided notions about bullying. One is that bullying is to be tolerated and endured as an essential ‘rite of passage' to toughen people up. Besides, what is a little name calling or ‘teasing'? Another is that the victims somehow deserve it, that it is their fault. Yet another is that if victims would only fight back, then the bullies would stop. All of these are false. Bullying is a learned behavior which will persist as long as society tolerates it. Rather than toughen people up, it often teaches them to cope by shutting down their emotional reactions, but the hard shell they develop often causes them to lose out on warmth and happiness which also get shut down. And the little name calling or ‘teasing' is not so little because it is not a one-off experience. It happens day in and day out, over and over, to the point that there is no escape. Victims never deserve their mistreatment, but they often learn to accept it. It is unreasonable to expect victims to fight back. Alone, isolated, and scorned, victims have few options. The bullies have specifically chosen them because they do not have the same level of aggression or physical and verbal skills. Only in Hollywood can we be assured that a victim fighting back will beat the bully.

Bullying is so pervasive that 90% of students typically report having been bullied at some time and, in adult life, bullying and harassment experiences account for 30-50% of workplace stress. And yet, the stigma attached to victimization is so great that people often deny the problem and then shun others who are victimized. So much stress is involved that victims often cannot learn or perform effectively. Their fear and anxiety can lead to stress related illnesses. The effects of bullying can be life long because victims learn negative messages about themselves, causing them to feel out of place. When people internalize the world's negative judgments, some part of them cringes in shame, resulting in a series of defences and compensatory behaviours which limit human potential and, as we have seen too frequently, can lead to suicide.

Shame is frequently instilled at a delicate and vulnerable age. Contemptuous messages, rebukes, teasing, ridicule, ostracism, and shunning are harmful. To be left out of activities and social discourse in devastating. Shame is about not being good enough. To be ashamed is to expect rejection, not for what one has done, but because of whom one is. Cruel beliefs about oneself magnify the negative and ignore the positive, resulting in an unconscious feeling of unworthiness. Male victims tend to feel incompetent, weak, and inadequate. Female victims tend to believe that they are unattractive and have poor relationship skills. These beliefs are crippling, implying that the core of the person is a deformed being, fundamentally unlovable and unworthy.

The impact of bullying on bystanders is also significant. Bullying creates a contaminated social environment in which people feel unsafe and are threatened as potential victims. Witnessing another's suffering can cause discomfort, guilt, and helplessness, all of which may be denied as a means of coping. The result is a social norm of incivility and indifference to others. And yet, bystanders have great potential to reduce bullying. The simplest step is to walk away and deny the entertainment of another's humiliation. Expressing discomfort and disapproval of the bullying is also socially helpful. Offering support to the victim, particularly friendship and positive comments are helpful in refuting the negative messages which are given to victims.

Electronic technology has brought us cyber-bullying whereby mean and harmful messages and images are transmitted via the internet. This form of harassment is particularly insidious because it allows people to be cruel and mean without the social inhibitions of face to face interaction. Through the internet, people can indirectly cause others tremendous harm and humiliation via indelible messages, messages which cannot be refuted and which will not go away. Sometimes the people who post these messages are too unaware or too immature to recognize the harm they are causing. Other times, they are simply hiding behind the electronics to spread their hurtful messages and hate. It is up to all of us to express our distaste for these messages and their perpetrators. At least, we can refuse to read these messages and refuse to pass them on to others. And we can offer support to their unfortunate victims.

Counselling alone cannot stop bullying and harassment. What it can do is offer comfort and reassurance
and help people rebuild their self-esteem, learn new confidence and assertiveness, and develop the skills which will resist the bullies and make harassment less likely in the future.