Far too many of my childhood memories center around being teased and bullied. Braces, thick glasses, social awkwardness, severe ADHD and the ’80s seemed to work in concert against me. It was a crappy experience. It was also a defining one. Much of who I am is due, in part, to having been bullied in my youth. And while I’m not happy about this fact and wouldn’t wish bullying on anyone, I eventually came to a place where I wanted to make something positive out of all the negative.
Learning to stand up for myself was a big one. The problem that I eventually found is that too much of overcoming bullying centers around this act. I used to look at it as the ultimate solution. I think, to some extent, we all do. We get to the point where we’ve finally had enough, our fingers roll into a fist, and we finally, after all those years, punch Biff in the face in order to change our future (sorry … like I said … the ’80s).
Standing up for myself was always an important step, but it was only the first and it often wasn’t the most useful. Sure, I gained confidence and eased my pain, but it was always temporary. Standing up for myself took bravery, but it was usually more a byproduct of being fed up than it was a sign of strength. Those moments were rife with emotion and, more often than not, I held onto both the experience and the emotion far too long … usually until everyone involved, including myself, came off looking bad. I found that standing up for myself was important, but continuing to stand up to a bully after I’d said my peace just turned me into a different kind of bully.
Rather than becoming the very thing I hate, I started making the experience less about my tormenter and more about me. I started looking for a better way to get through these crappy situations with grace. I found inspiration in one of my favorite lines from Charles Bukowski, “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
For me, bullying is all about power. And this usually had less to do with someone trying to take power and more to do with my giving it away. For years, I gave away that power to just about anyone looking to take it. It wasn’t because I was unwilling to stand up for myself, I actually got pretty good at that early on (being rather tall and rather large didn’t hurt). True freedom from my bullies only came once I could move on from what they put me through. This happened when I finally started separating what a bully said from how they said it. It let me turn a a negative experience into an opportunity to grow.
There is no valid reason for what a bully does, but when you can’t let go, there is occasionally a word of truth hidden inside the hurt they spew (I find this to be especially true as I get older, as personal name calling turns into harsh professional feedback). Now not all bullying experiences involve nuggets of truth, but thankfully it’s always proved easier easy to move on from those that don’t. On the other hand, I find it impossible to move on when hearing something I fear, consciously or unconsciously, to be true. I can’t let go of the situation because I can’t make peace with it. Instead of trying, I just hold on to the anger and indignity (which, despite being justified, isn’t particularly helpful).
When it comes to being bullied, I’ve found that there’s only one thing I can control: the way I react. I think it’s worth it to try and make more out of that reaction. It never made me feel any less a victim in the moment, but it let me feel like less of one in my life. I couldn’t stop that fire Bukowski was talking about, but I was able to chose how I walked through it.
How do you walk through fire?