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Bullying - what is it and how to deal with it?

It is no secret that we all need a sense of acceptance and belonging. This desire to belong somewhere, to have ‘one’s own tribe’, to be accepted by others is one of the fundamental elements of identity building.

Our self-confidence, agency and sense of security are shaped and strengthened from an early age by being accepted by parents, family and peers. As we grow up, the group becomes one of the most important domains of functioning - it is our point of reference. It can be said that the need of acceptance accompanies us throughout our lives and its importance does not diminish over the years. However, acceptance and belonging are also followed by their opposites: rejection, exclusion, lack of acceptance, feeling different, other or alien. There are as many synonyms for it as there is pain in being excluded and rejected. We experience them in a particularly painful way when we try to be part of a group that, for some unknown reason, does not accept us. Let us take a closer look at the issue of exclusion from a group.

Bullying is nothing but harassment or persecution with an aim to deliberately hurt or harm someone. Furthermore, it is a repetitive behaviour that takes into account the imbalance of power, that is, the victim is weaker than the group or the individual that bullies him or her. It is an aggressive behaviour, some form of violence that can be observed in all those situations when a group ‘picks on’ one person. It can be verbal, emotional, relational or physical. While the first and last forms are clear and manifest themselves in direct contact, the emotional and relational aspects can be much more complicated and therefore often underestimated. These are all those situations when a person is excluded by being ignored, treated with emotional coldness and distance. These are all the moments when someone in the group is treated as if they did not exist and they are not allowed to have contact with individual members in the team.

It is also common to manipulate friends and prohibit them to talk to such a person. All forms of bullying lead to rejection, which is isolation and social marginalisation. It is worth mentioning that exclusion is also followed by branding, stigmatisation, stereotyping and discrimination. What all these concepts have in common is the treatment of someone as inferior, depriving them of their worth and judging them as different.

People affected by bullying suffer, regardless of whether it is at school, university or already at the workplace. The feeling of rejection hits one’s identity, coherence, confidence and sense of security. It affects self-perception by activating feelings of helplessness, shame, fear or worthlessness. It increases the sense of alienation and, consequently, loneliness. What is more, the effects of being treated in this way can be long-lasting and include lower self-esteem, social anxiety or feelings of guilt which can persist long after bullying stopped. Most of us, at some stage in our lives, face the feeling of being different, inferior or not fitting in. The need to be accepted is a sensitive tissue, hidden within each of us, which is very easy to be hurt. Why? Because we have all experienced what it is like not to be good enough, not to be what others expect of us, to fail and, above all, to be rejected.

Who uses bullying? Generally speaking, these are people who are acting out their own problems. Who is affected by exclusion? In fact, it can affect anyone. Anything can be a reason for rejection for someone who uses this type of violence, e.g. what we have or lack or what we are or are not like. There is also a group of people who are not bullies themselves, but who take part in it by not reacting, by remaining silent, by standing aside. They are often those who feel an inner opposition or anger at what is happening, but are not able to oppose it out of fear. It should be noted that exclusion is a dynamic process in which more people are directly or indirectly involved.

What should you do if you are treated in this way? First of all, tell someone about it. The major consequence of bullying is the feeling of isolation and loneliness. Being able to turn to someone, to share your feelings, gives you an opportunity to be seen and heard, and therefore allows you to be noticed and cared for. Also those who remain silent and stand aside in situations of group isolation play an important role. It is they who can become the persons breaking the circle of violence. React. Let the person who is being abused know that they can count on you. Support, talk and spend time with them. Stand up for the person being excluded, thus confronting the perpetrator. If you do not have the courage to act on your own, you can turn to someone that, in your opinion, can help.

Bullying is a phenomenon that works best when it remains ‘in the underground’, unnamed and hidden. By revealing the mechanism of exclusion from the group, more people can get involved and stop the situation. Moreover, it is a signal to the victim that he or she is not alone - isolated from everything and everyone.

Reference literature:

Amnesty International, Jak radzić sobie z bullyingiem i dyskryminacją w szkole?, 2016, [online access 23 September 2020]:

Pilecka W., Psychologia zdrowia dzieci i młodzieży, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Kraków, 2011.

Wojciszke B., Psychologia społeczna, Wydawnictwo Naukowe SCHOLAR, Warszawa, 2011.

Woynarowska B., Edukacja Zdrowotna, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa, 2012.

About the author

Marta Kogut-Lechowicz – psychologist and psychotherapist. She is a graduate of Psychology at the Jagiellonian University and a psychotherapy training at the Systemic Psychotherapy Centre in Krakow. She has participated in internships offered by a variety of institutions, including the Department of Family Therapy and Psychosomatic Medicine at the Faculty of Psychotherapy of the Jagiellonian University Medical College and worked at the Crisis Intervention and Counselling Centre in Myślenice as well as the Family Counselling and Therapy Centre in Krakow. On a regular basis, she works with individual patients, families and couples at the private out-patient clinic Mind Centre and additionally with students within the Student Support and Adaptation Centre at the Jagiellonian University.