I was probably around the age of four the first time I remember being bullied. While my memories at that age are mostly vague, I remember that bad incident very clearly.
My parents had one of the only swing sets in the neighborhood. It was nothing fancy. Two swings. A couple of bars on the side. And a small slide. It was blue and white and made of metal. The neighborhood where we lived had kids of all ages. And they all used to come over and play on our swing set. From the time I was young, I had an inherent fear of doing anything dangerous - which included “tricky” moves on my swing set. And so while all of the neighborhood kids would flip around on the bars, I just stood to the side and stared.
I was a starer. A nicer description would be to say that I was an observer. But honestly, I was one of those kids who would look fixedly upon anything that caught my attention. And so, in my superhero underoos with my tommee tippee sippy cup (I remember this fact, which is why I’m guessing that I was four years old), I just stared while the other kids laughed and screamed with pleasure as they performed uncoordinated gymnastics moves on my 1980’s swing set. While I was enjoying my grape Kool-Aid (or whatever beverage my mom gave me - that’s one fact I’m fuzzy on), one of the older girls (let’s say she was around nine years old), came over to me with a nasty proposition. She said, “I want you to do a flip on the lower bar.” I shook my head, indicating that I didn’t want to. I was afraid that I couldn’t do a flip and would get hurt in the process. After I responded with a hesitant, but fearful “no,” she replied, “If you don’t do a flip on that bar, I will turn your skin inside out and it will really hurt.” Yes, she said those exact words! I still remember it verbatim to this day. I wasn’t sure how she was going to do it, but it sounded painful. I didn’t cry. But I was scared. I really thought she was going to turn my skin inside out. And so I left my own backyard and went inside my house, watching all of the kids (including the mean girl) play and have fun on my swing set. I was only four years old, maybe five. And for whatever reason, I didn’t tell my mom or dad. Not until decades later when I was with my family reminiscing about the old days in our neighborhood and all of the great families we got to know. I slipped in the story of the mean girl. I still remember her name (first and last). But I wouldn’t know her face if I saw it again.
That exchange clearly left an impression on me because I still remember it, even as I’m nearing forty. The word “bullying” is used a lot today. I don’t remember using it back when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure it was only reserved for boys on the playground who got rough with other boys their age. In the fifth grade, I remember one of the boys in my school punched a nun in the stomach. He then crawled out of the classroom window and ran away from school. He was definitely labeled a “classroom bully.” I remember his name too. I won’t write it down because I’m sure today, he’d be ashamed of acting like Mike Tyson in the ring with Sister Marcella. That sweet, old lady didn’t stand a chance.
Some people would say that I was bullied a few times as I got older. In high school, a girl threw spaghetti sauce on my sweater. When I confronted her about it, she punched me in the face. Her arm came up short, so it didn’t hurt that bad, but it was still a punch. When I started working as a television talk show host, I would received nasty emails from time to time. These messages were filled with unkind comments about my body, my face, and sometimes my clothes. And even the other day, as I was pulling into a metered parking spot at an outdoor mall, I came across an angry shopper. This woman was standing by the meter and tried to wave me away. She said that she was saving the spot for her husband. I can be generous, but when it comes to first come, first serve parking, the spot is mine! Well, this lady wasn’t subscribing to my “I got here first” theory. She said some nasty things to me. And for a moment, it kind of shook me up. You might say that all of these incidences were a form of bullying. But, I never categorized them that way. I always figured that they were either mean people with issues, or just having a bad day. And I, unfortunately, became the punching bag. Yes, some people are just assholes. But sometimes, you never know what that person might be going through on any given day.
Many years ago, I worked with someone whom others considered a bully. This person would yell, threaten, and use foul language at co-workers. It was unsettling to watch. And ever worse to experience. But then, over time, the observer in me witnessed something. I saw that other people in this person’s life spoke to that person in the same disrespectful and volatile tone. And that’s when I realized that this co-worker became a victim of someone else’s issues. By choice. And I’m sure it’s not uncommon. Nasty people often treat others the way that they’re treated. It’s easy to do. But with some conscious effort, we can try to not be affected by other people’s bad behavior.
I was threatened on my swing set. But I don’t have a swing set phobia. And I even learned to flip on the uneven bars in gymnastics class (although I was never very good at it). I was punched in the face. But I never became a fighter (although I can spar with words if need be). And I was anonymously told that I was ugly and fat. But I know that neither one of those descriptions of me is true (although I have felt that way after I knock out a bag of Doritos all by myself).
Words and actions can be powerful. And sometimes, they may feel like our kryptonite. But our reactions can override any negative storyline that comes our way. There are times when we’ll fall short. And maybe we’ll even punch back.
But when that moments comes...
When you have to decide IF you’re going to let someone else’s actions hinder your growth...
Do you want to become a victim of another person's issues?