am!”. And as a boss a few years later I was ei­ther too hard or too soft, fret­ting over dif­fi­cult pro­fes­sional in­ter­ac­tions once I got home.

I’m in good com­pany when it comes to strug­gling with cliques. Mel C, aka Sporty Spice, has spo­ken about how be­ing bul­lied as a young adult has af­fected her — later ad­mit­ting she was talk­ing about her time in the Spice Girls.

“I let peo­ple s**** on me,” she told At­ti­tude mag­a­zine. “Un­for­tu­nately, be­ing bul­lied can re­ally dam­age peo­ple and even when you are stronger and over it, it can still be in the back­ground — un­der­min­ing you.” In­deed, the world of celebrity is lit­tered with stars who were bul­lied for be­ing dif­fer­ent in some way. Ac­tress Jes­sica Alba was vic­timised for her buck teeth and Texan ac­cent, multi-award-win­ning singer-song­writer Ed Sheeran taunted for be­ing ‘a weird kid’ and hav­ing gin­ger hair. But look at him now.

That “some­thing” that makes peo­ple stand out from the crowd may mark them out as tar­gets when young, but can be the key to suc­cess in adult­hood. Says An­toinette Dale- Hen­der­son, au­thor of Lead­ing With Grav­i­tas: Un­lock The Six Keys To Im­pact And In­flu­ence, who coaches em­ploy­ees on how to stand up for them­selves at work: “As a teenager, the norm is to con­form and the last thing you want is make your­self con­spic­u­ous. But in adult­hood, hav­ing the con­fi­dence to let your unique­ness shine through can be hugely trans­for­ma­tional and lib­er­at­ing.”

How­ever be­ing picked on can, for some, leave a lin­ger­ing feel­ing that you failed. Of course, it’s not your fault but some­how you feel it is — or that you should have at least fought back. It can cast a shadow over your adult life in many ways, such as dif­fi­culty form­ing and main­tain­ing last­ing in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships and even psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders.

This makes that CV re­quire­ment of be­ing “a team-player” fraught with per­ceived dan­ger. One in three adults who were bul­lied at school claim it has had a neg­a­tive im­pact on their ca­reer prospects and self-con­fi­dence, ac­cord­ing to 2014 re­search from Ox­ford Open Learn­ing Trust.

Psy­chother­a­pist Rhona Clews says that we learn how group dy­nam­ics work in our teens, which lays a blue­print of how we think life “should” be: “If you get vic­timised, you think it’s be­cause you must have done some­thing wrong — rather than see­ing what’s be­hind that per­son’s be­hav­iour. The trauma can stay with you men­tally and phys­i­o­log­i­cally in adult­hood, so when you have a work col­league who’s ex­actly like your old bully those be­liefs are reawak­ened. It’s an emo­tional han­gover you can’t quite get rid of.”

For ac­tor Neil Ash­ton, who starred along­side Sarah Par­rish in ITV thriller Ban­croft, be­ing a vic­tim of bul­ly­ing as a boy has had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on his men­tal health. “I was used as a ver­bal punch bag at school. From an age when I didn’t know what it meant I was taunted for ‘be­ing gay’. I never fought back.”

Ash­ton has had coun­selling to cope with his re­sult­ing anx­i­ety and panic at­tacks. But it’s the self-sab­o­tag­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal scars that are harder to deal with. “I have this con­stant be­lief that peo­ple don’t think I’m any good, how­ever well things may be go­ing in my ca­reer. This can make my work very chal­leng­ing at times,” he ad­mits.

It’s a good thing schools and par­ents take the is­sue of bul­ly­ing far more se­ri­ously nowa­days, be­cause more than 14 per cent of Bri­tish pupils who took part in a re­cent poll said they were bul­lied fre­quently. The global survey of half a mil­lion 15-year-olds, car­ried out by the OECD, also found that UK stu­dents are highly am­bi­tious and com­pet­i­tive at school, with 90 per cent claim­ing they want to be the best in what­ever they do.

Surely this com­pet­i­tive cul­ture can only per­pet­u­ate the prob­lem? A 2015 ACAS study re­vealed that work­place bul­ly­ing is grow­ing in Bri­tain, with the helpline re­ceiv­ing around 20,000 calls re­lated to it every year. De­vel­op­ing a Te­flon coat­ing is some­thing we all need to work on to sur­vive the bul­ly­ing bear pit of the work­place.

When coach­ing em­ploy­ees on how to stand up for them­selves at work, An­toinette Dale-Hen­der­son rec­om­mends strate­gies to change the “vic­tim” script in your head and head po­ten­tial bul­lies off at the pass: “Re­mind your­self that you have a right to be there and walk into the room boldly, in­stead of slink­ing in and slump­ing in the near­est chair. Take the ini­tia­tive, greet peo­ple with a smile and start a con­ver­sa­tion. This con­veys ‘we’re equal’ and shows col­leagues how you ex­pect to be treated.”

And what of the per­pe­tra­tors? She says: “Bul­lies are of­ten inse­cure, lack­ing in some way and jeal­ous of oth­ers. They tend to tar­get those who are in some way higher than them in the peck­ing or­der, peo­ple who are per­ceived as more at­trac­tive, in­tel­li­gent, well off, or pop­u­lar with the op­po­site sex, but who are also vul­ner­a­ble. This de­tracts at­ten­tion from the bully’s own in­se­cu­ri­ties.”

Child­hood bul­lies of­ten take their ma­nip­u­la­tive be­hav­iour into adult­hood if the source of their sense of in­ad­e­quacy isn’t ad­dressed. “And there is some ev­i­dence that for­mer bul­ly­ing vic­tims can end up be­com­ing work­place bul­lies too, be­cause their ex­pe­ri­ences may lead them to be­lieve this is the way to be­come pow­er­ful and to dom­i­nate oth­ers,” says Shainaz Fir­fi­ray, As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Or­gan­i­sa­tion & HRM at War­wick Busi­ness School.

Of course the line be­tween goad­ing and bul­ly­ing is some­times wafer thin. 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’. Although the de­fault re­sponse is to laugh along and get through it, that can make us feel bad about our­selves and send a sub­tle mes­sage that it’s OK to carry on goad­ing. A bet­ter re­sponse is to be as­sertive with­out re­sort­ing to de­fen­sive­ness.

“Un­der­stand what trig­gers your feel­ings of be­ing bul­lied,” says DaleHen­der­son. “Learn to man­age the in­ter­play be­tween your­self and peo­ple who pro­voke them in you, so you don’t be­come para­noid or fall back into the vic­tim role.”

In my case a course of ther­apy and EFT (Emo­tional Free­dom Tech­niques), which com­bines heal­ing tech­niques such as acu­pres­sure (tap­ping) with neu­rolin­guis­tic pro­gram­ming (it is of­ten called “acupunc­ture with­out nee­dles”), re­leased the trauma of be­ing bul­lied and put it be­hind me.

Nowa­days I’m way more truth­ful and as­sertive in work and life. In­stead of try­ing to win peo­ple over in a group dy­namic, I keep a bit more of my­self back and fo­cus on de­cid­ing what I think of col­leagues in­di­vid­u­ally. And be­ing your au­then­tic self is lib­er­at­ing. Once you re­alise that ev­ery­one is a bun­dle of in­se­cu­ri­ties the world be­comes a much less scary place. And cus­tard? Yes please. Just not in my socks.

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