It Never Really Ends
There are plenty of people who are knowingly engaging in abusive behavior. But then there are individuals who genuinely do not realize that their relentless criticism, nitpicking, and devaluing of others is bullying behavior.
Heck, sometimes we do it to ourselves.
And, no, I'm sure this woman didn't consider herself a bully. But wow, my classmates and I loathed going to class, each of us having been humiliated at some point by her in front of our peers.
Recently I had a client, B., who is applying for a post-undergraduate research opportunity. They are specifically looking for students who do not have graduate school experience; the program is meant to be a bridge between undergraduate and graduate coursework.
So you can understand why I was frustrated on B's behalf when she told me that a professor had responded to her request for a letter of recommendation with, "I don't know why you are applying for this. This field of study isn't a strength of yours."
Never mind that another one of B's professors had selected her specifically as a good candidate for the program. Never mind that B's resume and career objectives actually make her an excellent fit for the position. Believe me, we looked into it BEFORE starting all of that work,
Nope. This professor shot off an email with careless wording, implying B's weeks of work preparing her applications were pointless.
RAWR. I responded to B that I did not care for her professor's response. Perhaps it was a miscommunication - maybe her professor didn't realize that the program is tailored to students like B who do not yet have the research experience necessary to be strong candidates for graduate school. But there was no mistaking that it hurt her feelings and left her feeling discouraged.
Her note stayed with me for a long time, until I realized what was bothering me. It was the belittling tone of the professor's doubt. Telling B. this wasn't her strength. Well, last time I checked, the best way to improve is to work on - not avoid - a so-called weakness.
Naysaying is a kind of subtle bullying, making the person on the receiving end doubt themselves - their abilities and their value.
[Note: There is a difference between a gracious no, a thoughtful critique, and flippant naysaying. The latter, such as in B's case, is aimed at discouraging, or worse, devaluing an individual.]
I had been under the impression that T. wanted to meet for other reasons, and so I was unpleasantly surprised when T. began listing everything they had his daughter involved in: a sport, playing two kinds of instruments, volunteering, after-school clubs. He explained the strategy behind each, the idea that if they could get their daughter to play exactly the right instrument and be a varsity player for exactly the right sport, she'd get a scholarship.
Right?, he asked me, wanting assurance. Are we doing everything right?
I ignored his question and replied, "What does your daughter think about all of this?"
He said she was agreeable to what activities they put her in, and launched into a description of how their lives revolved around her extracurriculars and it was sometimes exhausting, but what are you gonna do?
I asked one more question: "How old is your daughter?"
I suggested he listen to his daughter, and if she ever expressed disinterest in or frustration with juggling so many activities, they let her change what she was doing or drop it completely.
Parents who consistently override their child's interests and ideas about what they want to do are accidentally bullying their kids.
I know you want to learn how to play the guitar, but you're more likely to get a scholarship by mastering the viola.
Most parents I meet genuinely want the best for their kids and believe they know better than a teenager what road to take to achieve success.
And while parental guidance is incredibly important for a student's success, even more so is a parent's unconditional support.
This is why I insist on working with my clients one-on-one, without parents. They are young adults who deserve the opportunity to develop their own interests outside of and apart from their parents' expectations about who their child should be.
The Bully Within
When I was a student, I treated college and graduate school not only like it was my job, but also, as my identity. My self-worth was deeply invested in my ability to prove to both myself and others that I was smart enough. Enough for what? I couldn't tell you. Being good enough is a moving target, and therefore elusive.
That's why anything less than an A- had me mentally berating myself. My first semester at Harvard was particularly bad, due to Russian Morphology (a linguistics course - but doesn't that sound like a class young wizards would take at Hogwarts?). I wasn't exactly a natural, and consistently struggled to get at least B's.
Every time I got a paper back, was in the middle of an exam, or froze when the professor called on me, a voice in my head sneered:
You're an idiot. You studied for hours and STILL don't know how to do this?
What kind of moron can't remember that?
Wow. Maybe the university made a mistake admitting you?
Notice how my internal dialogue rapidly devolved from taking empirical evidence (my performance suggesting I was not understanding the coursework), and turning it into wild speculations about my overall intelligence, competencies, and my self-worth.
I'm willing to be honest about this because I suspect many other people have a Bully Within, students or otherwise.
As more than one person has pointed out to me, would you talk to your friend the way your Internal Bully pushes you around? Of course not, because then you would be an actual bully, not to mention in danger of losing all of your friends.
Sometimes the hardest - but most important - bully for us to identify is the one we accidentally let live in our own heads.
In this case, fighting back involves standing up for yourself. With others, diplomatic wording can go a long way.
And as for the Bully Within - recognize it for what it is - a mixture of self-doubt and anxiety. Start talking to yourself as you would a good friend. It will feel strange at first but it's worth it. Standing up to internal bullies will make it easier for you to take on the external ones.