The Past Doesn’t Matter Unless You Let It

I received an email from a website visitor on the subject of bullying. He’s in his thirties, and tells me that schoolyard bullying has had a profound effect on him since his childhood; causing him great distress in many areas of his life such as health, sleeping and social awkwardness. This distress makes it difficult for him to function or form relationships. He emphasizes that he has great sadness because of these childhood experiences and that his physical health has suffered due to this psychological trauma.

I’ll start things out with an old saying: ‘It’s OK to look back, but just don’t stare.’ The whole point of looking back is to learn from our experiences. If we don’t learn from our past errors, we will likely (in ignorance) repeat them.

I doubt that the writer made any errors that led to his being bullied. I’m sure he was genuinely and authentically a victim. Children are sometimes cruel to each other, and the majority who aren’t cruel usually don’t stand up for the innocent. Unfortunately, it’s not all that different with many adults.

However, what happened back then truly doesn’t have any impact on what he does now. It’s obvious he feels that way, and that’s the problem.

I would say to this person, ‘You were bullied for no reason. It was not anything you did wrong or anything that was bad about you. We can be sure that the bullies’ motives included a desperate need to feel better about themselves by putting others down. Think of how pathetic these bullies must have been. Instead of feeling good about themselves through academics, sports or other constructive activities, they had to put you down. Wherever those bullies are now, it’s not likely they’re especially successful or happy.

‘Yet you’re still stuck in the past. You attribute stress, mental and physical maladies in the present to the past behaviors of moral and psychological weaklings. The difference is that they’re no longer around. You’re the one blocking your own way now, not the bullies.

‘Being bullied throughout your childhood was, I’m sure, a trauma. But you’re talking about the trauma as if it’s still going on today. Those bullies are gone. So long as you grant them that much power in your mind, it’s as if they’re still here. But they’re not.

‘It’s tempting to suggest you engage in therapy. Unfortunately, many therapists will encourage you to relive, in excruciating detail, every last memory and incident of your painful past. That will only make things worse. Maybe you’ve already been attempting such therapy, and that’s why you’re in your present mental condition.

‘Tell yourself that you’re truly not the same person you were as a child. Tell yourself that the people who bullied you were the real weaklings, not you. They probably sensed you were vulnerable or sensitive in some way, and for that reason chose you as their victim. Remember that bullies — children or adults — are generally attacking those they consider stronger or superior in some way. Why do you think the brightest kids, the ‘geeks,’ are usually most subject to bullying? They’re not being attacked or mocked for their weaknesses, but because of their strengths.’

The bizarre thing about bullying is that it’s usually a backhanded compliment, delivered in the form of an attack. But whether that’s the case here, the bullying is long since over. If its impact is still alive in his mind, it’s because the writer has kept it that way.

Any therapy he does should focus on recognizing and capitalizing on his strengths in the present and the future.


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