YOU IN ADULTHOOD
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.