Ever get picked on as a kid? Chances are you have at least one memory of feeling bullied. And what advice did your sage mother/ father/ teacher/ camp counselor offer you? Just ignore it.

This is terrible advice. You knew that as a kid – – and as an adult you would never say it to a friend. And that’s not because there’s not truth in it, but because it feels impossible. If we were able to ignore it, we would- duh! The reason why bullying is so upsetting is because it gets under our skin, sits there, and festers. This is the difference between someone being rude and being bullied (or in adult talk- being emotionally abused, but same diff). We can walk away from an insult and be annoyed, and then let it go. Bulling stays with us, and it makes us feel a little bit crazy. Being told just ignore it only adds to that feeling. We’ll come back to this…

why bullying bothers us

So, why can’t we walk away from bullying the same way we do from an insult? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. Why is that that I can brush off being silently yelled at through a windshield in carpool line, but a snide comment from another mom on the playground makes me want to run and hide (or punch the other mom in the nose)?

This is how bullying works. It isn’t about the insult- it’s about undoing the other person’s sense of self. An insult is “That’s an ugly coat.” Bullying is “Oh, that coat is exactly something you would wear,” with a sneer added at the end. The first is offensive. The second? Crazy-making.I think what it comes down to is that we feel most hurt when we feel misunderstood or misrepresented. I talked this over with a friend, who contended that the reason bullies are so powerful is because they pick up on our insecurities and instinctually know how to use them against us. I think there’s a lot of truth in this – – but I think it goes beyond that. The experience of being bullied feels like the world is out of order. If someone insults me, I can be hurt, but I can move on. That’s not what a bully does, though. A bully engages in an on-going attack that takes away your sense of personhood. A bully makes you feel like what you think is completely wrong. You think you look okay in those pants? Wrong. You think your child is pretty normal and okay? Wrong. You think you are reasonably intelligent? Wrong. You think you’re menu choice for lunch is a good one? Wrong. A bully cuts us to our core (often using our insecurities) and makes us feel like we are delusional in the way we see ourselves.

It reminds me of that blue/black/white/gold dress that blew up the internet. When I first saw it, I got the same sick feeling of being bullied- as if maybe there was some sort of joke going on that I didn’t understand. I saw white and gold, and was so confused by people who were doing the internet version of screaming “IT’S BLACK AND BLUE.” What was I missing? How could someone see something totally different from me? And how dare that person act like I’m an idiot, when obviously they are wrong? Feeling like another person is unable to see your truth is completely unsettling. I don’t mind someone disagreeing with me, as long as I feel like they understand what I’m saying. What puts me through the roof is feeling like my version of how the world works is seen as stupid and wrong.

In its most insidious form, this becomes gaslighting and can become totally overwhelming, but we can have this same feeling in small doses anytime and by anyone. This is how bullying works. It isn’t about the insult- it’s about undoing the other person’s sense of self. An insult is “That’s an ugly coat.” Bullying is “Oh, that coat is exactly something you would wear,” with a sneer added at the end. The first is offensive. The second? Crazy-making.

how to deal with mom bullies

So now to ask the age-old question, how do you actually handle a bully? If there was an easy answer, we wouldn’t have to still be asking the question. The truth is, there is an answer, but it takes two steps, and it’s not easy.

step one: find compassion

I know, I know- that’s not at all what you want to hear. But, the compassion for a bully is going to end up looking really different that the compassion you feel for other people in your life. In finding compassion for a bully, you bring your world back into equilibrium. Bullies make us crazy by distorting our view of ourselves and the world around u, and we can’t understand why. It doesn’t make sense, and we feel incredibly vulnerable.

Now, what would your mother say you were being picked on? “Oh, she’s just jealous of you” right?   Did that make any sense at the time? Probably not. I’ll tell you why people bully, for real. It’s to make themselves feel better. It has nothing to do with you. You are just a victim in an endless stream of the bullied. You’ll probably never fully understand the exact reason for how and why bullying makes any one person feel better; just understand that this is the dynamic. Maybe she needs to feel power, or maybe she’s trying to mask her own insecurities by creating flaws in others. There’s even research that shows that bulling can release dopamine in the brain, creating a sensation of pleasure for the bully. Whatever the reason, remember that it’s not about you, and if you think about it, it’s really pretty pathetic.

Here’s the compassion {{repeat after me}}: “It’s really sad that (fill in name here) need to make herself feel better by being cruel to others. That must be a horrible way to live.” That’s it. Compassion no more beyond this point- just allow yourself to get to the place where you can see that the pain being inflicted on you probably belongs to the bully. Let her keep it.

Step two: disengage

Remember earlier when I said the “just ignore it” is horrible advice? The part that makes it horrible is the word “just.” It’s really hard to simply let a bully’s comments and actions just roll off your back. One thing I find myself saying all the time to my clients is: you can’t control other people’s actions. The only thing you can control is your own reactions. It sounds simple, but it’s not. Disengaging from a bully takes a huge amount of effort, but ultimately it’s the only option you have and it does work. Sometimes disengaging is just something you have to do in your own mind. Forcing yourself to stop stewing about the snarky comment and learning to think of these comments of manifestation of the bully’s pain (cue the compassion mantra). Sometimes, it means you have to take a bolder action, by dropping out of a carpool or asking for a transfer at work.

Removing yourself from a bully isn’t weak and it’s not letting them win. It takes courage to know your own boundaries and respect them. However you have to do it, the way to end bulling is by not allowing the bully to upset your world anymore. This begins by you understanding that 1) you are not wrong, you are being bullied; 2) there is nothing wrong with you and there is no need for you to defend yourself; and 3) there is nothing you can do to get the other person to stop acting like there is something wrong with you. Knowing these three things is the path out of being bullied.

Easy? No. Possible? Absolutely!


Big Little Lies

This article is part of our Big Little Lies book discussion, part of the #coolmomsread series. Join us to discuss the book!