Ever since childhood I have believed that bullying is dealt with incorrectly.
I’m old enough to remember when kids were told to “just walk away”. That one used to make us laugh. Walking away just meant you got kicked in the arse or punched in the back of the head, instead of the front. Teachers were clueless about bullying when I was a kid.
Do you remember your school bully? We all had one who stood out. There was something wrong with them. Even the most naïve children knew that; we always said to each other that they’d end up in jail or something terrible.
Well as an adult I got to find out. I was a Probation Officer for about 4 years and worked in Corrections for nearly 7 years total. I got to meet the school bullies when they were in their 20s, 30s and beyond. And yes, many of them did end up going to jail.
Some of them don’t, of course. Some end up being managers or bus drivers or chefs or just about anything you can think of. And they still have the bullying mentality. They get pleasure, or at least relief from pain, by targeting and tormenting others. Without serious rehabilitation or other support they tend to stay this way.
Forever it seems the focus on dealing with bullying has been to target the bullies. Schools try to make it safe for children to disclose when they’re being bullied, and some more advanced schools really focus on restorative justice. Bullies are given detention, anger management and even, though rarely, expelled.
In the adult world they are given verbal warnings, meditation conferences, changed teams or asked to apologise formally. Everyone tries to make the bully feel guilty and engage in restitution. Everyone pats themselves on the back for helping the victims of bullying.
BUT THEY ARE ALL MISSING THE POINT…
The problem is not the bullies.
These people range in psychopathy and other mental tendencies or traits that the average parent or teacher is not equipped to manage. Schools do not have the resources to really deal with bullies. Even if they can be “fixed”, room is simply opened up for the next asshole to take the throne.
The focus, therefore, must turn to the VICTIMS.
It’s all about supply and demand. If there are no victims, there will be no bullies.
While there are minor exceptions, bullies choose their targets consciously. These targets are already victims, they just don’t know it yet. You see, a victim starts as a victim, they do not become one through being hurt by someone else.
Being a Victim is a mindset.
In working with violent and sexual offenders, the common theme around the selection of victims was that they are NOT chosen at random. Even a violent and unexpected street attack will have a basic plan behind it. The offender is well versed in identifying an “easy target”.
It’s not about size, strength or even isolation. It’s about whether or not the target is a Victim. Sometimes it’s about circumstances, such as being the new kid in school, or being left alone with an adult who is given authority over the victim. But mostly it’s about self-confidence and capability.
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Here’s The Secret: If you look like you can handle yourself, you are very unlikely to be attacked.
This applies to physical, psychological, emotional and sexual attacks. Yes, of course there are exceptions. There are some crazy people out there who hurt people at random. But in my experience these are the very rare exceptions. Most offenders and bullies have a “type” they look for, either in a partner, co-worker, schoolmate, or even a friend.
Ask anyone who dedicated themselves to martial arts, at least for a couple of years; they never get to use it in real life! When I started Wing Chun kung fu, it was because I’d been in a few fights and had my ass handed to me in all of them. After 18 months of kung fu, no one had challenged me once. I even broke up fights between strangers without getting hit.
I didn’t tell random people that I knew kung fu. Hell, I didn’t even really know enough to defend myself. But I realised that something about me had changed at a core level. I believed I could handle myself. This would have reflected in my body language and demeanour. Enough to subconsciously trigger a red flag alert in any potential attacker’s mind, saying “Hey, maybe not that guy”.
I’m not saying martial arts is the answer to bullying (though I do believe it’s a good start for any kid lacking self-confidence). What I’m saying is that being a Victim is not a permanent state you are confined to. You can learn confidence through various techniques, and then the bullies will not see you as a target. They quite literally won’t see you, as they are attuned to body language and behavioural cues that you will no longer demonstrate.
If we can remove the victims, the bullying will reduce dramatically. There will be nothing for the bullies to work with. They will not simply switch to bullying confident kids, because there’s no pleasure in that.
Bullying is at its core about control. If the bully cannot control the victim, they gain nothing from the experience.
When the school bully would occasionally try to pick on one of the more confident or popular kids, it never went long term. The ones who got the long term torment were the real Victims. Why? Because they reacted in the way the bully wanted:
The Victims became obsessed with their tormentor.
Like psychopathic killers or sadists, bullies feel a strange version of love when they torture someone. In that unique moment when the bully is actively attacking, their victim is only thinking of the bully, which is very similar to love. It’s an obsession. Serial killers have often described similar sensations. The victims then grow to think, feel and breathe nothing but the bully for the longer term. The tormentor knows this, it fills the bully with a disturbed sense of love.
So I think to myself; what do kids and adult victims need to know? What do parents and managers need to do? Here’s what I think (and this is hopefully just the start of a longer and better conversation):
1) Change focus from the bullies to the victims. While reprimand and punishment as per the school/company rules still applies, focusing on the bully achieves the opposite of what you want. It tells the bully that they are having an effect on the victim, which validates and enables their behaviour.
2) Teach the victim confident body language. For a quick-fix result while you are working on the longer term issue of low self-worth. Projecting confident body language may be all you need to dissuade attackers. Learning how to speak confidently will go a very long way.
3) Teach the victim social skills. The victim needs to learn how to build up the support of peers. The bully does not want a victim who is “stronger” than them, which is the same as a victim with lots of friends to protect them. This is why even low self-esteem kids don’t get bullied if they’re also popular. I don’t mean be fake to get lots of friends, but have the social skills to show you could gain support if you needed to.
4) Teach the victim self-respect. This requires long term dedicated work. The victim needs to learn how to measure their self-worth objectively and accurately. They should learn to behave in a way that makes them proud of themselves. Most importantly, they need to learn how to be unaffected by others, genuinely. No reaction equals no reward for the bully.
What do you guys think? I’m keen to hear from victims and bullies alike. What can we do to end this phenomenon that ruins childhoods and creates traumatised adults?
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I found the article very interesting and accurate. I also grew up in a very similar time to you and experienced the same sort of “advice” from teachers and parents to “be the better person and walk away”. In my experience that is perhaps the worst thing you can do, especially if you’ve exhibited fear. I’ve probably been on both sides of it and I’d have to admit that I’ve either joined in a bully session or used physical intimidation to my advantage in the past.
I’ve been involved in martial arts for many years and also security training suitable for police, prison wardens, etc. One thing I’ve learned is that if you back away or submit then you are in trouble. I had a very recent case where a man decided to escalate his road rage to the point of jumping out of his car to approach my vehicle. I immediately got out of my car and stood by the door and the man stopped in his tracks. Now, I’m physically large (around 115kg) and it has been remarked that I have physical qualities like those of a brick shithouse but that’s NOT what this guy saw. What he saw was someone making eye contact and speaking back with authority. Eventually he got back in his car and left. I think another key to focus on is adrenaline response. Believe me, my heart was racing and if I’d had to hold a glass of water the coursing will have been evident. As you will well know, this leads to the flight or fight response and for most people, this is incredibly hard to control. I can’t do it but I’ve developed strategies to work around it. As soon as I think something might happen or someone raises their voice at me I get a dump of adrenaline. For minutes or even hours afterward I’m not capable of holding a proper conversation. Fortunately, training has taught me to still be able to act.
I think training on dealing with an adrenal response is also important to stop bullies being able to get what they want. They probably get that same response by watching the person cower away.
One exception I would say was when I encountered an “ex” gang member at a party and he was looking to be the alpha male so if someone was confident and talking to women with ease then he saw that as a threat to his status. In that situation it is hard to act strongly as it seems to prompt them to want to show their dominance. I’ve only encountered that in New Zealand to be honest. Not once in the UK have I felt unsafe with someone doing similar things at a pub for instance. Here I’ve witnessed people walking around the pub looking for a fight and if you make eye contact they move away to an easier victim. That didn’t happen in NZ, it was seen as an invitation almost.
Hey Nick, thanks for those insights. I’ve found that the real key is in not escalating yourself. If you can control your emotional state and remain calm/unaffected, the other person starts to de-escalate. In my book I cover how I used this to manage really violent offenders and their temper tantrums. Something about not reacting makes them relax more. I think of it as not triggering the “chase” instinct, like what lions and tigers have. If there’s nothing to fight against, resist or chase, their anger subsides. It’s neither walking away or advancing, very similar to the road rage example you shared.
I recommend learning Mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness concepts to manage fight or flight response. You can get to the point where you can control your adrenaline.
Also being a massive beast certainly helps 🙂 That said, my ex’s brother used to get into fights often because he was the biggest guy in the bar. You can unintentionally be the trophy fight for status, especially to ex-prisoners.
Eye contact is a tricky one, holding it in NZ is certainly asking for trouble. I always wondered if that was universal, because I didn’t have an issue with it in the States either. Funny thing is, the best defence in a bar/nightclub is often to just have fun, it’s the serious guys who get into shit.