Every morning, I’d get off the bus with a sense of dread in my 12-year-old heart. I’d zone out as I lifted my feet to navigate two floors of marble stairs. Once I visited my locker and shuffled to my homeroom, I’d sag into my chair, waiting. And Brad Drew would come. He’d kick me in my thighs so hard I got bruises. He would call me, “fat ass,” something that my greasy-haired, painfully self-conscious, riddled-with-weight-issues 12-year-old self would recoil at. Kicked painfully and called fat ass. That’s what I remember of seventh grade.
I did find my anger once, and took it out on another boy by running scratches over his face with a pencil. Of course I felt terrible and had no idea what had made me snap, since I’d been a.) cultured through Appalachia to be obsequious and to silently take abuse, b.) taught in my family that abuse was normal and c.) living a life of numbing my feelings through dissociation. My reaction was a trauma trigger, and I only found that out 7 years ago.
Today, at age 50, I still have a bully in my life in the form of my ex-husband. He has chosen to do the work of making me an enemy instead of doing the work of co-parenting, and has chosen family court, a place that is biased against me, to do his dirty work. This has caused me emotional and financial pain, and has affected my parenting. It’s left me reeling and trying to figure out what to do, how to heal when someone is still, in a sense, “calling me ‘fat ass’” because he’s no different than Brad Drew in his mission to demean me.
This journey has also been a gift.
I heard once that, “your enemy will teach you more about life than anyone else.” And, every time the bully rears his ugly head, I hear my therapist’s word in my head: “torMENTOR.” Bullies have something to teach us. Bullies deliberately deny our humanity, and this is a form of scapegoating and exiling who you are. Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes this about being bullied (exiled):
“While exile is not a thing to desire for the fun of it, there is an unexpected gain from it; the gifts of exile are many. It takes out weakness by the pounding. It removes whininess, enables acute insight , heightens intuition, grants the power of keen observation and perspective that the ‘insider’ can never achieve.
“That is, to be ourselves causes us to be exiled by many others, and yet to comply with what others want causes us to be exiled from ourselves.”
― Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
The important part of that, to me, is where she points out that to “comply with what others want causes us to be exiled from ourselves.” Your values will never line up with a bully’s, yet many of us grew up trying so hard to fit in with people whose integrity and ability to humanely connect was seriously skewed. Learning to gracefully refuse belonging in a place that hurts your soul, to people whose shame and blame towards you is unbridled, is the first step to belonging to yourself.
This is where your values can be clarified. What do you accept in yourself and others? What beliefs and practices do you have around others that enhances your self esteem?
One of the things my therapist taught me was “100% free expression.” Expressing the truth of your heart and your feelings is a healing experience. In a bullying situation, your voice and humanity is deliberately silenced. Practicing truth-telling with people who hear you can ground you in reality. There’s a lot of gaslighting and fucking with reality that happens with bullies. Being able to validate your perceptions and speak them aloud heals you.
Often, a bully is fiercely loyal to a system- a system that is cruel and heartless. This could be a family system or a social system. Growing up with multiple experiences of men as bullies has brought the question of loyalty into my heart. I have conflated loyalty with trauma bonding because the love for people who’ve hurt me is still there with the pain of abuse. Disentangling loyalty from trauma bonding offers multiple opportunities for clarifying values, and for setting boundaries around how I will and will not be treated. No fuckery allowed any more. I cannot in my heart bear loyalty to a system that creates violence and victims.
I read on Carmen Spagnola’s website that, Abandonment is the gap between what you need and what you get.
Not getting your needs met is a valid thing to grieve. We grieve what we loved- and loving another person, holding hope for their highest self, making excuses for their behavior, hoping this time they’d SEE…so much effort and love gets put into dysfunction there is a profound sense of loss.
Working through the grief of all levels of abandonment- being abandoned in self, in life, in dreams- is where the real depth resides. Learning to feel all the rage and sadness around life’s deeper disappointments is vital to experiencing life’s joys. This is where your shame messages are especially heightened.
Do you know your underlying shame messages? Listen closely to your inner voices. Often our inner critic bears the shame messages and voices them aggressively in order to protect us. Shame, even self-directed shame, causes a trauma response of fight, flight, or freeze. This is an ultimate survival instinct that causes us to avoid pain. It’s counterintuitive, especially if you’ve been raised within trauma, to go to the pain but that’s exactly how we heal. Welcome the grief.
Josh Korda writes:
“Without grieving, the emotional brain fails to learn anything; I’ll seek out my abusers in the hope that this time my needs will be met; the wounding occurs again and again and again.”
Grieving is the way out of pain. How to grieve is another post.
FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE
Triggers take up permanent residence in those who are living through trauma, and with past triggers. For me, fight (teenage energy) and freeze -dissociation- have been my biggest challenges. The first step is to identify when you’re being triggered. Fight is easy, and is easily justifiable too. Fight is where our sense of fairness and outrage at injustice pops up.
This is where Internal Family Systems has been most helpful- to recognize when I’m triggered and what “voices” or parts in my head are vying for attention and demanding action. Working to accept and validate those voices and embracing a practice of mustering up “Self” energy has been rich with growth, and opportunities for grief.
Often, the pacing goes: violation-trigger response- notice the triggers- go through an IFS process of separating from my parts-connect the present with a past event-grieve the past and the present simultaneously based on an abandonment of a part at a key phase in my growing up-unburden shame messages.
Always the connection to the past, and always the grieving.
I’ve always struggled with this. When one is so obviously being victimized, isn’t it easier to just be a victim and convince others of the victimizer’s “wrongness” so you can be vindicated and have justice served? And more importantly, be rid of this pain and suffering and exposure to another person’s cruelty?
Ha. If only life were fair instead of royally fucked up.
Once the grief is released and the shame messages put in the light of reality (you aren’t a ‘bad’ person), this is where some practical work in dealing with bullies can occur. Shame keeps you a victim. Reframing bullies as teachers, and reframing the situation as one that can be used for your growth is the way you get out of being a victim. You can actually use a bad situation to your advantage. Even if a bully takes away everything you own, gets his lies believed by everyone in your life, makes sure he has kicked you while you’re down enough times that you are left with nothing, you can use the situation for your good, and even for the greater good. I think just thinking this way has given me the most hope, even though I’m still learning how to use bully situations to my advantage. If I’m left penniless, I have to accept that healing from my shitty childhood is worth way more than money. Even if my children are unfairly taken from me by a man who has no integrity, I am going to be ok and I am going to use this situation to help others, to work my purpose in this world.
Someone bullying me means a story is being placed on me. It means they are replacing ME with their story. In that case, I have to shine ME even brighter until the truth comes out. And the truth always comes out. The bully’s story about me is not my story, no matter how many people he gets to believe it. It’s fucked up and it will always be fucked up and all I can do is work my healing and identify with people who are KIND.
I hope this helps. I didn’t want to offer a listicle since healing is so complex. There are no pat answers and as a culture we have so many things that take us away from our feelings. Sometimes I think feeling your feelings is an act of anarchy, the best kind.
Make space for rage and grief, bitches!