This is the hope that I would like to give to bullied girls and their parents: You can emerge better, or heal to better. Here are seven hard-earned qualities that can serve you well if you can become aware of them, consciously cultivate them, and forgive.
By Marcy Van Fossen, Ph.D., L.P.
Many parents deal with the heartache of watching their girls recover from being bullied. Often they see their child’s pain but feel helpless to do anything about it.
Likewise, a girl who has experienced bullying often feels angry and wounded from the experience and fearful of encountering it again. The prospect that the bullying experience can make one stronger—even better in important ways—is often lost in the pain.
From the viewpoint of a therapist, though, this silver lining is very real. I have seen girls survive bullying to become deeper, more compassionate, stronger people than they might have otherwise been. Some kinds of growth are hard-earned. And this is the hope that I would like to give to bullied girls and their parents. You can emerge better, or heal to better. I’d like to share with you how.
First a note about what this article is NOT. It is not in any way an endorsement of or a prescription for bullying. It is also not a guide for how to stop the bullying, about which much has already been written. If your child is experiencing bullying, use all resources at your disposal to stop the bullying or remove your child from the bullying situation, if possible.
I have come to view these girls as veterans—veterans of a difficult life experience that taught them a lot and likely helped them earn qualities that will serve them well if they can become aware of them, consciously cultivate them, and forgive.
This is an attempt to meet our girls in the aftermath of “mean-girl” bullying, shore them up, and point them in the right direction. Pretending that the bullying wasn’t a big deal, or conversely, viewing our bullied girls as victims, forever wounded, are both unhelpful responses. I have come to view these girls as veterans—veterans of a difficult life experience that taught them a lot and likely helped them earn qualities that will serve them well if they can become aware of them, consciously cultivate them, and forgive.
Here are the seven hard-earned qualities:
Compassion. She knows what it feels like to be targeted, outcast or different. She is no stranger to suffering and will see it more readily in others. It will be harder for her to overlook the person who has no one, and she will be gentle with the socially unlucky. Her humanity will cry out at injustices, as everyone’s should, because she can’t pretend they don’t really hurt real people. In other words, the experience of a hurting person is no longer the experience of an “other.”
Identity. She has been forced to form her own sense of self apart from what others think of her, because, in the case of bullying, the external messages are too negative. This means that her identity becomes defined in opposition to the social forces that surround her—rather than by them—and this is a strength. During years when her peers are overly dependent on peer judgement for their self esteem, she is developing an internal metric on which to base her sense of self. It is an identity in contrast to the mirror others hold up to her. She has learned to look inside herself to determine who she is.
Strength. She is becoming stronger than she probably realizes. First, she knows that she can survive the cruelty/disapproval of others. Through this realization, she has earned a kind of freedom many never have-the freedom to live according to her inner compass–even if that means upsetting people when necessary. In addition, she encounters the mystery that there is something inside herself that can not be taken from her. Even disrespect and humiliation can’t touch her God-given dignity. Her value in God’s eyes is not less (or more) than any other person’s.
Understanding complex social situations. She has been forced to think about why people act the way that they do at a much deeper level than most of her peers. Bullying, like many traumas, is an intense learning experience, though a painful one. Countless hours are devoted to making sense of another’s hurtful behavior, anticipating danger situations, and ruminating. The complexity of people’s personalities (e.g., how someone can be liked by teachers and cruel to peers, or a friend one minute and betrayer the next) gets processed at a deep level in a desperate attempt to understand and protect oneself. For survival, bullied girls often get good at reading complex social situations.
Discernment of friends. She VALUES the precious friend who saw her through and his/her loyalty will never be forgotten. Sometimes these friendships have almost veterans-of-war-like bonds. Some people never know friendship like that. Additionally, she may also have developed a “sixth sense” about people. She can spot a “mean-girl” a mile away and has a gut sense that directs her to kinder people. This will save her some unhealthy friendships in the future. She will simply KNOW that she doesn’t want to be around certain people. She should listen to this when she feels it although it may puzzle many around her.
And if she can feel good about nothing that has happened to her, she can at least feel good about her response to it. Choosing to behave well, even when others mistreat us, honors God.
Character. She has had made hard decisions about how to respond to the bullying–and how she keeps responding to it, whether it continues or not. When choosing right behavior becomes a habit that is stronger than her circumstances, she has developed strength of character. And if she can feel good about nothing that has happened to her, she can at least feel good about her response to it. Choosing to behave well, even when others mistreat us, honors God. This does not mean submitting to victimization. It means that God sees the injustice, and He sees her response to it. It means that she has decided to serve God rather than her own anger and vengeance. Choosing Christian standards for her own behavior also assures that she is not simply reduced to being hostile and revengeful herself—hardly a springboard to growth. Character forged in the fire of persecution will shine easily in more peaceful times. Again, this is not a recipe for getting out of bullying—but rather how to thrive despite it.
The skill of forgiveness. People who have earnestly wrestled with what it means to forgive a bully can testify to the power of it. In this circumstance, definitions of forgiveness such as “surrendering the right to revenge,” or “giving up the wish of having had a different past,” can sometimes be helpful. If she has fought to cultivate a heart that can pray for it’s enemies, she has taken a major leap down the road of Christian wisdom. Priceless.
As you can see, our veterans of bullying can grow from their painful experiences. And our ability to see that possible outcome can help our daughters to see it as well.
Marcy Van Fossen is a licensed Clinical Psychologist who worked as an adult and child psychologist, and also as a professor of psychology at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, before staying home with her children.
This article originally appeared at JillSavage.org and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.
The photo at the top of this page is courtesy of Shawn Fisher, and used here under a CC-Attribution license.