Understanding Bullying

What it is that makes bullying possible? Who becomes a victim and how does someone get away with using physical and emotional harassment? My understandings are based upon life experience and my therapeutic work with clients.

Who is bullied?

People are more prone to being bullied in situations where they stand out as being different from the majority. There might be an obvious physical, cultural, gender or ability difference. There can also be something more subtle, a sense of this person’s vulnerability which is associated with their level of confidence, self esteem, mental and emotional health.

For example a person with dyspraxia tends to be physically clumsy and may struggle with everyday tasks. They might also feel awkward in social situations and take what others say more literally than intended. Clumsiness provides bullies with a focus whilst physical and social awkwardness makes it very difficult to defend oneself.

Bullying can also be directed towards someone who appears to be a threat, whether to an individual or to a group. The power of the group over a minority can be enormous, and arguably impossible to withstand.

Bullies have power

Bullies’ understandings of their own choices and reactions can vary. Perhaps their victim triggers something in them which is beyond their awareness. Or there can be a deliberate intent to gain something, such as status in a group and job promotion. It might be that the bully’s own insecurity and vulnerability is at the route of their behaviour.  

Whatever the bully/s reasons and underlying issues, within the actual situation they have enough power to victimize others. Furthermore, the effects of bullying can allow perpetrators to conceal their actions as victims might be too afraid and too ashamed to seek help. Bullies sometimes deny or play down their jeering, taunting and ostracising, particularly when there are no outside witnesses. Finding the courage to tell and then not being taken seriously can add to the victim's suffering.


I use the term victim to describe someone who is a target of bullying because they are the injured party in this situation. At the same time I want to acknowledge that I also counsel people who harm others and they too can be a victim of their own personal circumstances.

There is the view that by seeing oneself as a victim the bullied person is accepting this as their position rather than finding their own power and resilience. At the same time, blaming the victim is an important source of the bully’s power and I do not want to add to this by inferring that it is the sufferer’s responsibility to stand strong and deal with their perpetrators. Whether or not this is possible can depend upon the amount of understanding, help and support available to them.

Blaming the victim

Blaming a person for their differences can be a deliberate strategy, used to justify the bully’s actions to themselves and any witnesses. It can also occur with the bully having little or no awareness of their own inner processes and motivations.

Importantly, blaming appears to work in the bully’s favour.

Blaming can allow a group of school girls to corner their victim at break time, drag her to the cloak room and shove her head in the toilet. Because ‘We don’t like the way she looks at us/ there’s something about her/ she makes us do it’.

It can allow the young woman joining her new husband’s family to be excluded and treated as a stranger because her background and ways are different.

Elderly people can be treated roughly by carers who are frustrated by having to deal with their incontinence, forgetfulness and so on.

I find that blame has a contaminating quality. It can affect onlookers’ perceptions, disguising the actual situation and instigating disgust and mistrust towards the victim. Blame can draw onlookers into the bullying. It can also soothe the conscience of someone who decides to turn away.

Self protection and fears of being bullied oneself can also influence such reactions. Onlookers might recognise personal characteristics similar to those of the person being bullied. By joining against that person they are diverting attention away from them self.

Blame and shame

Bullying attacks a person’s self worth. The implication is that this is the victim’s fault because there is something wrong with them. Shame is very significant and keeps bullied people in an isolated position, making it easy to control them and to continue having authority over them, without fear of outside intervention. 

The victim can feel too embarrassed about their appearance, personality, intellect and lack of friends to expose themselves further by seeking help. In a state of inner shame and low self worth the victim often believes that other people will not take them seriously, blaming them instead.

Counselling People who have been bullied

Bullying can crush a person’s confidence and sense of self. Being humiliated and manoeuvred into compromising situations against one’s will is extremely disempowering.

How can I challenge bullying therapeutically? If I were to take on a position of authority, trying to substitute my own views for those of the bullies, this would be a form of disempowerment that ignores the client’s personal experiences and perceptions. Instead I want to accompany clients as they find their own direction, and meanings, working at their own pace.

Clients who have been bullied are often torn between their inner wisdom which knows that they are not responsible for the bullying actions of others, and the blaming messages which they have received whilst in a state of great distress and vulnerability.  Genuinely trusting and valuing clients is my way of affirming their self belief.

Useful Organisations

www.childline.org.uk › ChildLine



ngcounselling said...

Really interesting points about bullying Paula. Your post has focussed my mind on what bullying is really all about. Thank you. I will be sharing on Twitter and FB. You can see my (fledgling) blog Perspective at http://ngcounselling.blogspot.co.uk if you're so minded ... Nicola

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this post. One area that seems almost universally overlooked is bullying in academia. The power structure, vulnerability of students, and excuse of the victim "needing to learn" some lesson is ripe for the free reign of bullying.