Bullying is a very real and damaging part of our society. Bullying is a form of aggressive behaviour that is both intentional and repeated, experienced by children, adolescents and adults; in the home, schools, the workplace and within many institutions. Bullying can have a lasting harmful effect on victims resulting, for example, in the loss of confidence and self-esteem, depression and stress-related illness. In addition, those who witness others being bullied risk suffering from anxiety as a result of the guilt and shame at not being able to intervene or defend a victim. Those who bully are also at risk of depression and anxiety.
Different types of bullying include verbal bullying such as teasing and name-calling, physical bullying such as pushing and tripping someone up, gesture bullying such as a ‘dirty look’ and exclusion bullying such as being left out by the social group. In addition, the increase in the variety and availability of electronic devices has led to an increase in cyber-bullying via phone messages, e-mails and websites which can result in rumour-spreading and online exclusion.
One prominent feature of bullying is the imbalance of strength and power, whether physical or psychological, between the bully and the victim. The bully has a strong need for power and dominance which, when aggressively asserted, leaves the victim feeling unable to defend himself effectively against the negative behaviour.
To seek counselling is a courageous step for anyone and not least for the victim of bullying. Once this step is taken, victims of bullying will benefit from the counsellor’s provision of a safe and empathetic space where they can become aware of and process painful feelings such as anxiety, anger, shame and/or failure and explore questions such as ‘why is this happening to me?’
The therapeutic environment will assist the victim of bullying in finding ways to cope and move forward, in understanding that they are not diminished as a person because of this experience and in building up their self-esteem. In some cases, those who experience bullying can take on the role of victim which may cause difficulty in their relationships. The counsellor can assist them in understanding this role and how it affects their lives and relationships.
Of course, the counsellor may also find herself with a bully as a client. Therapy can be of benefit to those who bully; to those who are prepared to acknowledge their bullying behaviour openly but in a safe space. They will begin to understand the effect of their behaviour on others, explore the reasons for their behaviour and learn how to communicate and interact more positively with others. By understanding the roots of bullying behaviour, the counsellor will be able to help the bully explore the reasons for his bullying behaviour and aggressive tendencies and assist him in addressing personal, family and social experiences that may have contributed to this behaviour.
The encounter between the counsellor and the client, whether the victim of bullying or the bully, provides a space in which healing can take place; the healing of damaged relationships, broken trust and wounded self-worth and wherein behaviour and reactions towards self and others can be explored safely.