Over recent weeks Megan and I have had to help our youngest child deal with the pain of being bullied at school. You have a heavy heart when your child is distressed about going to school, when you know she usually loves it so much!
From the school playground to the workplace, from the sporting club to tragically the church, bullying is such a terrible thing. And the emotional scars of bullying last a long time.
I was chatting with a trusted friend recently and he shared with me about his need for professional counselling, 40 years on from persistent bullying when he was a child. They are deep scars. He was happy for me to mention this, without his name, because he said we need to understand more about the impact of bullying across all of life.
In my case, bullying had always been someone else’s story.
Yes, I got picked on a bit in my younger years, but I didn’t carry childhood scars into adulthood like my friend above. I’ve heard many painful stories as a pastor and have sought to advocate for several people who experienced bullying in workplace settings.
But in more recent years, when I never expected it, I experienced adult bullying first hand. And suddenly, despite my age, I was just like my beautiful little girl in the school playground. Hurting. Questioning. Frightened. Lacking confidence. Wondering what to do.
Writing this post is a step for me in experiencing renewed freedom in my life. I feel vulnerable in writing as I know my own inadequacies, but I feel this is an issue that we need to speak more about. The freedom I experience sees me committed to calling out bullying behaviour, but also not letting the bully have power over me. And I hope this post might help some others who may be experiencing bullying or a loss of confidence and self-worth today.
At a vulnerable time in my life, a person I trusted, turned on me. It was as simple as that. They used their power to get their own way. When I look back, I see established bullying patterns were entrenched, but no one in authority had seemingly challenged them, or at least not in a way that resulted in any behavioural change.
Perhaps I could have handled the situation differently. But I chose to stand my ground. I called out what I and others saw was an abuse of power. But things only got worse. And I was suddenly struck by how frightened others can be of bullies – understandably for self-protection – emotionally and in terms of employment.
As I sat chatting with my beautiful little girl about the pain bullies inflict, I thought about this person again this week. “Do they know what they’re doing?” my daughter asked. That’s a very good question.
So often bullies – particularly adult ones – present to the world around them with a shiny veneer. Yet when their power feels threatened, it’s all about their own self-interests, whatever the cost to others. In workplace contexts, it seems to me that bullying, power and ego are often wrapped up together. With male bullies I have observed, sadly gender bias can also play a part, when you see the way they treat women. And my guess is so often there are issues from childhood that haven’t been addressed.
That’s not a judgement call, as I know very well the need to address personal childhood and family of origin issues that can impact my adult relationships.
In church circles, I also see examples of what we could call positional bullying – where people with power seek to push their views and agenda on to others – with little scope for opposing voices to be heard. Sadly, people can be trodden on for the views of the power player.
I’ve needed help to deal with my personal experience and pain. And I’m fortunate – as I am surrounded by such a loving family and a great tribe of friends and colleagues. Some face this battle with few in their corner and they need our support.
I’m also reading a good book on the importance and power of forgiveness, particularly when that seems hard. The old cliche is right – a lack of forgiveness impacts me more than the other, no matter the injustice.
And so yes, I need to continue to navigate the forgiveness journey. And I’ve been challenged to scrutinise my own leadership style and behaviours more and more, so that with God’s help, I don’t embrace bullying attitudes and actions. We can all fall in this trap. And I know I need to keep humbly coming back to this goal as I am imperfect in many ways.
While forgiveness and self-examination are important works in progress, a mentor reminded me that we still need to be willing to courageously call out bullying in all its forms. We need to stand with others. We need to protect ourselves. We should advocate for a zero tolerance to bullying in all places – in school playgrounds, corporate office, sports centres, social clubs and churches.
Leadership demands that bullies be called out. And when the bullies are in senior leadership roles, we need boards with the courage to say, such behaviour won’t be tolerated. When this fails to happen – as I have seen – one thing is for sure. More people get hurt!
Calling it out can be very hard. As my beautiful little girl is learning. But we must call out bullies – wherever they are. Particularly on church platforms and Christian teams, because bullies lead nothing like Jesus.
And in a world where we have so many bad bully stories, we should expect that governance bodies will not turn a blind eye to bullying behaviour. Where they do, they become complicit to the bully’s inappropriate behaviour. They enable, by their lack of action, a bullying culture, which fosters hidden, toxic attitudes and actions.
I’m very mindful that I have more to do where I lead, in fostering a zero-tolerance to bullying. But I am so thankful for my leadership team and Board being absolutely committed to this journey.
I’ve also got to keep a check on my pride and any relationship where I hold “power”. And I certainly have some scars that still need attending to in my own life.
As I have grappled with the challenge of speaking out but also forgiving, I am thankful for a friend who shared with me the idea of loving and forgiving from a distance. That’s where I am right now – I am seeking to love and forgive – but from a place where I won’t let the bully set my mental agenda again. And as I do that, I am experiencing a new sense of freedom.
Maybe today, you also need to do the same – to love and forgive from a distance – and allow yourself to be experience a new freedom in your life.
And if you’re the subject of bullying – and you need someone to talk to – please reach out today. There will be plenty of people who want to help you.
Or you can call: Lifeline – 131114, Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636