Dear Therapist:

I am a 15-year-old...[boy]...in what many consider a...[prominent high school]...I consider myself a nice person. Perhaps I am a bit shy. I am often the subject of...[sharp]...lines by the...[guys]...in...[school]...There is a...[tendency]...of everyone trying to show how...quick and smart they are, and for whatever reason I am the punching bag. Maybe cuz I’m an out of towner? I can’t usually think of a good response...and wind up just walking away. My parents say I have become much quieter and to myself. I don’t have a great idea as to how to respond to this. Do you have any suggestions? 

 

Response:

Obviously, being bullied is a problem. Bullying can take many forms. These include physical, mental, and emotional abuse. As with any abuse, the emotional impact is the problem. If someone were “abused,” (as per common definition), but it didn’t bother them in the slightest—is this considered abuse?

The old, standard advice to someone being bullied was, “Ignore them and they’ll go away.” Regardless of whether this actually works, the ability to ignore long enough for this make a difference is at issue. If a person is not bothered by the bullying, they will find it very easy to ignore, but have little need for it to stop. If a person is bothered by the bullying, they need it to stop, but it can be very difficult to ignore.

Clearly, when others make sharp comments at your expense this bothers you. The question is what specifically upsets you. Is it the specific comments that poke fun at particular aspects of your characteristics or personality? Is it the sense of being isolated from the other boys? Do these comments make you feel inferior? Are you buying in to the idea that being quick with sharp retorts somehow makes you better or smarter? Does your trouble responding therefore cause you to decline in your self-estimation?

If you can identify the reasons that others’ comments bother you, this can help you to begin questioning the veracity of your feelings. This can, in turn, decrease the severity of these feelings. Typically, the better that you understand your emotions, the easier it is for you to feel and react differently.

You have wondered at the reasons that you are being singled out. Even if others are being treated in a similar manner, you may not be cognizant of this. It sounds as if others are teased as well, but that some of them are able to respond in kind. This does two things from your perspective. It may cause the initiator to feel negatively toward himself, thereby forcing him to look for victims who do not respond. Also, to the extent that being unable to sharply respond is what bothers you, these reciprocal exchanges may not even be on your radar. Although one or both of the participants may be hurt in some way, it likely doesn’t appear that way to you. Therefore, it can seem that the only person being hurt is you.

Each person has slightly (sometimes wildly different) reasons for their actions. Some boys may act this way for fun. Others may do it maliciously. To some extent, for many there is likely some self-esteem component. In this vein, their actions relate to how they feel about themselves—and have nothing to do with you. How many of these boys truly want to put you down so that you feel badly toward yourself? How many of them completely forget the incident immediately upon receiving no response? And how many (perpetrators and spectators alike) actually view you in a positive light because of your apparent ability to ignore this juvenile need for sharp retorts?

The better that you understand your feelings, the easier it will be for you ignore others’ comments. Getting a sense of others’ perspectives can help you to view the situation more objectively. The more objective that you are, the easier it will be for you to acknowledge your emotions and the reality of the situation. As you do this, your objective understanding begins seeping into your emotional reactions, thus helping you to continually temper those reactions.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer

 www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317