Rising Above Bullying

By Sam Farmer
Blog Post

All that I can remember from recess that day in 5th Grade was pitch black, followed by me opening my eyes and finding myself with my back on the ground, surrounded by a bunch of kids looking down at me, and the perpetrator standing directly over me. That’s it. There was no trip to the infirmary or to the hospital, and nothing memorable was said to me afterwards by anybody, not by my parents, my teacher or the playground supervisor. Though I will never forget what happened, in my mind, this bullying episode ended up amounting to nothing more than an incident that started and ended after a few seconds, then I got up off the ground, finished the school day as normal, and life went on as if nothing had ever happened.

I find it remarkable how lucky I was not to have gotten hurt that day, granted who the bully was and his capacity for intimidation, and I feel fortunate that this bullying episode did not emotionally scar me as bullying often does to folks like me on the Autism Spectrum. In fact, my self-esteem and emotional state are strong and healthy today despite being the victim of this and other bullying episodes in my life, largely because I have had the wisdom to see the bully as somebody who thinks he (or she) is the stronger or smarter one, though in reality, he is not stronger or smarter. I also attribute my emotional state after the 5th Grade bullying episode and others in which I was targeted to what I’m calling “inner strength”.

When I ran an Internet search on the word “bully” shortly before I started writing this piece, I was struck by the definitions for this word that I came across which refer to the bully as having superior strength, or that refer to the victim as being “smaller” or “weaker”. I question that. How do you define strength? I define it as involving more than just a physical attribute; it also exists inside, in one’s mind, heart, and soul. Anybody who is dependent upon bullying others in order to feel content or whole is not as strong as he might appear. I would question that person’s mental and emotional strength, or inner strength. And because true strength goes well beyond physical strength and beyond somebody’s capacity to level hurtful words upon somebody else, never assume that you are weaker than any of the bullies who targeted you.

By “rising above bullying”, I am referring to the ability to see the bully for who he truly is, to remain true to yourself and not let the bully force you into being somebody you are not, to continue to live your life as you did before the bullying incident, and to not let any bully lead you into a perpetual state of fear. Inner strength will help you rise above. You deserve better than to feel scared. You deserve to be happy. Otherwise, the bully wins. Don’t let the bully win!

I have found that help and support from a loved one or from somebody you trust are of paramount importance whenever you are struggling with something or working to reach a goal. This is certainly true if you are having a difficult time coping with having been bullied or if you are working towards being able to rise above bullying. The emotional support my mother provided and the guidance I received from the therapists with whom I worked in my youthful days eventually put me on the road to finding my inner strength. Little did I know that I was strong all along; I just needed help discovering that about myself. You need not go it alone in your efforts. Others can help you build inner strength or to find it in yourself if it is already there.

Also understand that bullies need help. In fact, some bullies have themselves been bullied earlier in life and end up resorting to bullying in order to “make things right”, to be able to feel strong after having been made to feel weak, or maybe because they didn’t receive the help they needed after they were bullied. If a bully who seeks help can eventually come to understand that happiness and fulfillment come from within and can neither be given to you by others nor come from exerting power over others, then he or she can be rehabilitated and can learn to stop bullying others. If you have been the target of a bully and can understand this concept, then you are more likely to rise above bullying and move on with your life by virtue of knowing that the person who bullied you is just as human as you are, may have been bullied just as you were and is not better, stronger or smarter than you.

One summer’s day in sleepaway camp, a bunkmate who at the time I looked up to as being smart, strong and generally likeable, ended up bullying me by dunking me several times under water during our free swim activity. He might not have thought much of it at the time, perhaps viewing it as a game and no big deal, but it was certainly a big deal to me even though I didn’t come close to drowning and was not in any way injured. Strangely, I continued to respect and even admire him, probably because at that stage of my youth, I did not have the sense of self-respect to know that he did not deserve admiration or respect after what he had done to me. Once camp wrapped up that summer and my Mom and I were discussing it, I made a comment that suggested that the bunkmate bully was somehow above me, to which she replied, “Sam, even [my bunkmate’s name] is no better than you are”, or something along these lines. Thankfully, I knew back then that my Mom was wise and worth listening to, and I took her words to heart such that I was then able to see this bullying episode for what it was, arrive at a better understanding of who my bunkmate truly was, and move on with another good life lesson under my belt.

You can rise above bullying by choosing to focus on what you have going for you and on what you are trying to accomplish instead of on the bully, or, in my case, the bullies. That was the firm decision I made when I attended an athletic camp during Spring break of my sophomore year of high school. I consciously chose to look past the arrogance and obnoxiousness of some of the athletes I lived with who teased and taunted me and were quick to point out how lacking my athletic skills were in comparison to theirs and chose instead to focus my attention on the roommates with whom I got along well and on the fundamental purpose as to why I was at this camp: to up my game. When I spoke to my Mom about what I was dealing with, she gave me the choice of either leaving the athletic camp early or staying until the end and fighting through. Thankfully, I chose the latter. I wasn’t going to let the bullies derail what I chose to do for Spring break that year. Doing so would have let them win. Never let the bully win! Rise above, live your life, and don’t let anybody get in the way of your plans and goals.

While in college, I knew two people in my dorm who verbally bullied me in a relatively mild fashion, or perhaps not at all. This one’s a tough call, because on the one hand, looking back in hindsight, they may have thought that they were doing me a favor by trying to open my eyes to how they felt I was coming across to other people and to what they either knew or assumed regarding what other people thought of me. On the other hand, they approached me more than once, told me to come with them to one of their dorm rooms, sat me down, and calmly but condescendingly talked down to me by telling me things like “Sam, people are critical” or “people will judge you”, “what are you doing”, etc. These episodes never got at all physical, unlike the bullying incidents on the 5th Grade playground and during Summer camp. And, they were not nearly as verbally intense as what I endured at the Spring break athletic camp. Nonetheless, they were seared into my memory just the same because of how strange they were and how remarkable it is to me that I let them treat me this way.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have walked away from these folks whenever they approached me, and that would have been that! After all, I had better things to do with my time in college than to be lectured by them. But at the time, I didn’t have the resolve or self-confidence to just say no, and so I continued to go with them and hear them out. Despite subjecting myself to this sort of bullying, if it can be called that, once again, I continued to conduct myself as I saw fit to do so afterwards, and I never let them get under my skin. Though my inner strength at the time did not enable me to walk away, it did enable me to come out of these episodes unshaken and 100% emotionally and physically intact.

I am not suggesting that rising above bullying is an easy task. I have been relatively lucky in that I did not have to work hard to become strong inside, I had access to a robust support system, and I was never bullied repeatedly by the same person or group of people over a stretch of time. I acknowledge that more often than not, learning to not let bullies get the best of you involves hard work and patience and will not always be achieved. That said, if you tell yourself “I’m done letting bullies keep me down”, if you invest time and effort towards this goal, if you seek help from others, and if you remain committed to attaining the goal, it can be achieved despite how difficult it may be to do so. It wouldn’t be the first time somebody accomplished something difficult.