IT COULD STILL BE DAM­AG­ING

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFESTYLE -

It’s hard to look dig­ni­fied when a jug full of school cus­tard has just been emp­tied into your lap. But life had been full of in­dig­ni­ties since we’d moved up North. With an un­for­tu­nate Lon­don ac­cent, from the age of nine, I was bul­lied by the group of girls I called my new friends.

The un­writ­ten rules of this clique were a mys­tery to me. I put up with the whis­per­ings be­hind my back, the ex­clu­sions from their in-jokes and the hu­mil­i­a­tions; all I wanted was to be­long.

When I got punched in the face by the ring­leader for speak­ing when it “wasn’t my turn” I made no at­tempt to throw a punch back — I just cried.

All that changed with Cus­tardgate. Whether one of the clique ‘jest­ingly’ knocked it in my di­rec­tion or I el­bowed the jug off the ta­ble my­self, I can’t be sure.

But none of these girls I called friends lifted a fin­ger to help when I ended up cov­ered in Bird’s In­stant. And when they aban­doned me pub­licly and ran off laugh­ing I had a sud­den mo­ment of clar­ity.

Sit­ting there sob­bing, as sticky yel­low goop drib­bled into my socks, an­other girl from my tu­tor group prof­fered a wad of pa­per tow­els and said ‘They’re not your friends.” I had to agree. So I be­came friends with her and life im­me­di­ately got bet­ter. When the clique talked to me sub­se­quently I barely gave them the time of day.

But of course, bul­ly­ing leaves its scars and his­tory has a ten­dency to re­peat it­self — a mes­sage at the fore­front of the #StandUpToBul­ly­ing cam­paign, which has its na­tional aware­ness day to­day — seek­ing to shape at­ti­tudes to bul­ly­ing early on and avoid peo­ple suf­fer­ing long-last­ing ef­fects.

Like many oth­ers who have been vic­timised in child­hood, self-es­teem is­sues plagued me for a long time, mak­ing it hard to trust oth­ers. So when I worked in an of­fice where a gobby, pop­u­lar col­league would stage-whis­per “Shhh ev­ery­body, she’s com­ing” when I walked into the room and then chor­tle at her own “joke”, I gen­uinely didn’t know how to take it.

Cliquey­ness, whether in friend­ship groups or at work, made me a self-doubt­ing wreck. I’d de­fer to the pushy types, un­able to truly be my­self or stand my ground.

Of course, some­times what I per­ceived as bul­ly­ing was ac­tu­ally per­fectly in­no­cent be­hav­iour that hap­pened to trig­ger my sense of vic­tim­hood. Your al­pha col­leagues be­ing stand­off­ish or snig­ger­ing in a hud­dle when you’re try­ing to de­liver a pre­sen­ta­tion may re­mind you of be­ing tor­mented by the Mean Girls at school, but that doesn’t mean it’s any­thing of the sort. Over-sen­si­tiv­ity to the slight­est glim­mer of cliquey be­hav­iour can make of­fice life a mine­field.

So per­haps, with hind­sight, a ca­reer in the dog-eat-dog world of jour­nal­ism was an un­wise choice. Turn­ing up on the first day for free­lance shifts at the of­fices of a mag­a­zine was like be­ing the new girl at school all over again. I re­mem­ber one job where the anx­i­ety was so bad that I didn’t stop eat­ing all day — bul­ly­ing vic­tims of­ten have is­sues with com­pul­sive be­hav­iour.

Some­times I clammed up, hardly able to squeak a word, even when I had plenty to say. On other oc­ca­sions, it was more a case of self-dep­re­ca­tion and over-shar­ing — clas­sic peo­ple­pleas­ing be­hav­iour of the bul­lied.

Tales of my goofi­ness, like that time I in­tro­duced my­self to some­one fa­mous and mixed them up with some­one else, would be pro­duced like an ex­hibit as if to say to new col­leagues, “Look how un­threat­en­ing I

“If some­one’s try­ing to get a rise out of you it’s im­por­tant to keep a sense of per­spec­tive and not re­vert to play­ing small.” The trauma can stay with you ... in adult­hood. ... It’s an emo­tional han­gover you can’t quite get rid of.” Rhona Clews, psy­chother­a­pist

At a glance: how to deal with bul­ly­ing

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