One thing I have learned about bullies: they want a reaction from you.
Many of us were bullied in school at some point. Perhaps we were singled out because of our size, our looks, or our personalities. I’m sure I was an easy target because of all three. Back in school I was short, fat, and the shiest kid you could meet. I remember sitting at a table in my art class freshman year with three other fellow freshmen who made my life hell. I used to dread coming to class because all they would do is attack me. Now, it has been a long time since this happened and I am open to the idea that things were worse in my memory than they were in real life. Regardless, this is how I remember it.
This continued to other classes, especially gym. I even remember seeing a friend from grade school in my class and feeling relieved, only to find that he treated me worse than anyone else.
I share these not to garner sympathy. I know that many of you have had worse experiences that I could imagine. What I do want to share is what I learned about bullies from this experience.
Bullies are people who feel powerless. Looking back, I understand why most of the people who picked on me were fellow freshmen. When you feel like you are the bottom of the pecking order, you find someone lower than you. It’s like a drowning person trying push down another drowning person just to stay above water. As a teacher, I’ve seen this play out in the school. The students who attack others are either the most insecure or the ones who feel powerless in their own lives.
Sometimes teachers and coaches bully their students because they don’t feel like they have any power the fellow adults in their lives. I’ve also seen students bully teachers. I remember that a fellow teacher once asked me about this. There were students in this teacher’s class who would constantly try to push the teacher’s buttons until this teacher started screaming. My fellow teacher did not understand why this happened, since the students would be punished with detentions, suspensions, and things of this nature. I explained that the students were trying to exert the only power they could: getting the teacher to explode.
This is the truth about bullies that I mentioned at the beginning: bullies want a reaction from you.
This reaction doesn’t need to be one of defeat. They can glorify themselves in the triumph of your tears. But they also take pleasure when you hit back. I remember once I lashed out at my bullies in anger. I was not prepared for the wave of elation that washed over them. This outburst was much more preferable to them than my sullen silence. Now they knew that they had the power to make me explode and they tried to exploit that power whenever they could.
Getting bullied is not something that ends with school. It is sad that people in this world still behave like the characters from Mean Girls, even as adults. At our jobs, people like bully, intimidated, and exercise power over others. Online, people like to whip up mobs of anger and hatred against people who don’t share their opinions. So many powerless people taking vengeance for their weakness on those they see as weaker.
So what are we to do?
First, do not give the bullies what they want: a negative emotional response. (I am not here talking about serious issues of abuse or assault where self-defense or contacting the authorities would be the proper course of action).
In many cases, silence is the best response. Discernment is needed here as well as wisdom. You will have to decide for yourself when you are called to stand up for yourself or for others. Often, I police my response because I know my reaction is more emotional than it is rational. Also, a bully wants your response. They want you to have some kind of outburst. They want you to yell back and then revel in their power over you. They will go out of their way to find ways to insult you just to see you become upset.
When they bring the woman caught in adultery to Jesus, they ask Him what they should do. They actually don’t care about this woman’s life at all. His enemies were hungry to get some kind of reaction from Him that they could use against Him. Instead, Jesus is silent and He writes on the ground (John 8:6). The Scriptures never tell us what Jesus was writing or why. There are several possibilities, but one of them that I like is that He was playing it cool. These bullies were trying push His buttons. Instead, He took His time and responded in His own way and in His own time.
Second, if there must be a reaction (again use your own discernment here regarding your own safety and dignity) often the reaction of kindness is the best.
Remember to take pity on a bully. There is an emptiness in the center of their being that they are trying to fill with external validation of their power. They want your pain and your resentment. But if they see that their evil has no power over you, it can defeat and deflate them. To be sure, it can also cause them to redouble their efforts, but they are still seeking their victory in your negative reaction.
To book of Proverbs says, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head…” (Proverbs 25:21-22). This means two things: first it means that the bully will be frustrated that they are not getting the reaction that they want. Second, it means that the bully will have to confront their own wickedness. If they understand that they are the enemy of a kind person, it will burn their conscience. This will give them the opportunity to repent. Whether they make that choice is in their hands.