Were you bullied as a kid?
Do you know what it's like to go to school and be picked on, to always be worried about what the next insult will be and when it will be thrown at you?
to sometimes be unsure if people are being nice or trying to trick you?
to not be included and to know that you are purposefully not being included?
to wish you belonged?
Do you remember those experiences as if they were yesterday?
Many adults do.
Their memories aren't vague but very clear. And research shows that we feel the reverberations of bullying experiences on self-esteem and in relationships well into adulthood, perhaps for a lifetime.
Bullying isn't just physical intimidation. Teasing, being picked on, name-calling, sexual harassment, purposeful group exclusion, and spreading rumors are all behaviors that encompass bullying.
Maybe you experienced it just a few times or maybe you experienced it everyday. Either way, being bullied is painful and it shapes self-concept, relationships, decision-making, and aspirations during years of significant personal development.
When your brain is growing and you have to go to a place everyday where you must constantly be on guard, where you are fearful of what might happen next, and while, at the same time, you are learning something about who you are, this is going to have an influence on the wiring of your brain and emotions. It will affect how you will react to the world later in life.
Many adults who were bullied as kids say they have trouble trusting or getting close to others, feeling secure in relationships with friends and/or romantic partners, or feeling confident--whether it be at work, in socializing, trying new things, or participating in activities. Some adults become perfectionists or people pleasers, going out of their way to make sure no one can find or point out a flaw.
Others just give up trying and struggle to live up to their potential.
If you were bullied, you might have escaped those kids but not the memories and not the way it left you feeling about yourself and others.
Bullying is a significant problem in America. It’s a public health issue. Kids who are bullied are more likely to struggle with mental health problems like depression and anxiety as a result. Too often, bullying is passed off by adults as “kids just being kids.” Sadly, in many circumstances, the victim is the one blamed, assumed to be doing something to cause it.
This can feel devastatingly lonely for a kid who is already being shunned by peers.
We all need a sense of belonging, especially during our developmental years.
We need to know that we are valued by our peers and that we have something to offer the world. These are developmental needs, human needs. Being teased and ridiculed or excluded can be traumatizing.
Elena deLara is a researcher who has extensively studied the effects of childhood bullying on adulthood. She discovered common symptoms and struggles such as low self-esteem; shame; problems trusting others; problems in relationships; a tendency to people please; food or substance abuse/misuse; emotional problems; feelings of anger, rage, and desire for revenge; and poor body image. She discovered that the trauma can be so consequential that symptoms can parallel PTSD. Maltreatment at school can have just as much impact on mental health as that of kids who experience maltreatment at home.
If you’ve gotten this far in this post, bullying has probably had an important impact on you. Despite the pain, I wonder if you have also identified something positive that came out of those experiences.
Were there ways in which bullying made you a better person today?
Perhaps you felt it propelled you to excel, to prove those kids were wrong about you. You might feel it made you more empathetic and considerate of others. Perhaps it compelled you to be an activist in some way.
Finding the positives is important.
But even with the positives, you might still feel angry at times, wishing you could shake off those mean words and the rejection, wishing that it did not have such an effect on you.
Maybe you still wonder if something really is wrong with you.
I want you to know that the pain you experienced matters. It’s important. Your life matters.
Processing those experiences with others can really help you heal, gain insight, and help to repair the ways in which those experiences might have changed you.
Here are some things you can do.
1. Join a Group
I'm starting an 8-week group this summer for adults who want a chance to process these bullying experiences and explore how those experiences still impact the way they seem themselves and those around them. You can find more details here. Send me a message if you'd like to talk with me about whether this group might be a good fit for you.
You can process the experience of bullying in therapy groups that aren't specifically focused on bullying as well. Therapy groups are excellent for understanding and improving relationship experiences. You can search for one by zip code here.
2. Write Your Story
Write out your story. How do you tell the story of your experiences of bullying as a kid? How did those experiences shape your childhood?
Afterwards, answer the following: If it happened a lot, what were the exceptions? Was there a kid who was kind? Did you have some friends at school or elsewhere? Did anyone listen to you or support you? Did someone ever stick up for you? Were there good times? What would you tell your kid-self now that you didn't know then?
Don’t deny the painful experience, but try to integrate the good stuff (whether it was something positive then or something strengthening that you now know as an adult). Include the positives as part of your story. So often we focus on what went wrong and lose the good parts as a result. Even if they were few, it’s important to remember what helped you along.
3. Self-Criticism vs. Self-Compassion
Many adults who experienced bullying struggle with being highly self-critical. Learning self-compassion is a significant step to breaking free from the messages you received about yourself as a kid. I recommend this exercise by Kristen Neff as a start. You can also view her TedX talk on self-compassion.
4. Online Support
There are a number of supports and articles online. Google “adult survivors of bullying” and you’ll find many.
Here is one: https://www.facebook.com/PeerAbuse/
5. Read Ellen deLara's book, Bullying Scars
Ellen deLara’s book Bullying Scars, The Impact on Adult Life and Relationships is an academic type of read, but good if you are interested in her research and the research of others on this topic. She includes many touching quotes from "survivors" she interviewed.
6. Learn About Anti-Bullying Projects
Below are some anti-bullying programs. Perhaps you will want to be involved or help a school near you. Sometimes we find healing in helping to make a difference for others.
7. Don't Stop Growing
Whatever you do, keep growing. Self-criticism can be like bullying yourself. Identify your strengths. Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself the way you always wanted to be treated.
And if you feel disconnected, fight to find connection. Look for people who really think you're great. Building relationships as an adult is harder but not impossible. You deserve it and it matters!
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About Melissa King, LMHC
I am a licensed mental health counselor in New York City with a psychotherapy office in the neighborhood of Murray Hill in Manhattan. Find out more about me here. I'd love to hear from you. Email me if there's a topic you'd like to read about here.