Why Am I Being Singled Out?: Understanding Bullying and Its Impact on Mental Health

Bullying can take many forms, and these days, it seems to be even more ubiquitous. I am fortunate that I haven’t experienced too many instances of peer bullying myself. As a child, I was mainly able to blend in, and as a teen, I chose to lean into and really embrace being different. I was usually kind to others; they were generally kind to me. I recall one of the “mean girls” I went to middle school with, however, who took a different approach to me. 

I distinctly remember standing in my middle school hallway with a few friends when she loudly asked why I was always wearing clothes that were too big for me and why I would wear boy’s clothing. I have an older brother who is ten years my senior, and growing up, I idolized him. I was struggling with puberty and embracing my changing body. It was also the ’90s, and the grunge look was in, so I would wear his giant oversized button-downs with his jeans (that were comically big for me). I never questioned how I looked to others and felt pretty cool until that moment. I wish I could tell you that I stood up for myself or said something quick-witted, but my memory of what comes next has faltered. I imagine that I mumbled something under my breath about liking these clothes. I do remember wanting to disappear. That night, I promptly asked my parents to take me shopping and to buy me the tight-fitting jeans that were “in” (which I paired with oversized, inside-out sweaters instead).  

I certainly wasn’t the only person this classmate targeted, and after a few other quips, she moved on to someone else. I was generally successful at staying off her radar; even her closest friends knew to stay on her good side. At the time, I questioned why she had commented on my clothing but assumed that she just didn’t like that I wasn’t following the rules about what was acceptable and cool. I also wondered if she was being cruel for a laugh. In researching this article, I have come to comprehend more about bullying and have even come to reflect on this experience with a greater understanding. All of the reasons outlined likely contributed to my classmates’ behaviors, as well as other factors that I hadn’t thought of. My classmate was relatively new to the school, and while she had made friends, she needed to continually establish her place in the social order. And, just like in the movie, we both had a crush on the same boy. The mean girl at my school was accustomed to having power and admiration, and bullying me was one way to keep it.

How Is Bullying Defined?

Despite the alarming prevalence in society, bullying can be challenging to define. It can be tricky because it can cover such a broad spectrum of behaviors and actions. However, if we look at this term solely from the perspective of the potential impact, it becomes much easier to describe. Put simply, bullying can include any action or behavior that results in demeaning, dehumanizing, humiliating, intimidating, and physically or mentally harming another person. Usually, this occurs repeatedly over extended periods. Another important aspect of bullying is the implicit power imbalance between those involved: the aggressors are those who have some form of power over their victim. These imbalances could be attributed to anything from differences in physical strength to disparities in social status to superiority in a workplace hierarchy. 

Anthony Volk, a developmental scientist who researches bullying, defined bullying as “a deliberate, aggressive attempt against a weaker individual that causes harm.” He explains that bullying has to be goal-directed, it has to cause harm, and most importantly, it has to happen in a context where the victim has a hard time defending themselves due to the power imbalance. 

Why Do People Bully Others?

Most of us would agree that bullying of any kind is unacceptable. It’s cruel and can cause significant physical and emotional harm. It’s often a function of a person’s worst instincts and impulses impacting an undeserving target. And yet, we see it everywhere. Children bully each other, teens do, and bullying is also present in many adult relationships. We observe instances of bullying across cultures and animals, and researchers even suggest that trees might “bully” other trees (Tony Volk references it here; check it out!). 

Many studies endorse the idea that from an evolutionary standpoint, bullying is used to gain power and resources and secure a genetic advantage. While for years, it was considered both maladaptive and dysfunctional, that did little to explain why bullying behaviors continued to show up and weren’t going away. 

There are “bully-victims,” who psychologists describe as individuals who were victimized by a bully and then turned around and bullied someone else in turn, and then simply bullies who seemingly have no history of being bullied or harmed. These bullies don’t necessarily have poor self-esteem or social skills and, surprisingly, may be well-liked and understand that their behaviors are wrong. They believe that they deserve more than others and are better than others. What the different types of bullies share is the desire to have or maintain power, which can look different in different settings.

What Does Bullying Look Like Today and What is Cyberbullying?

Given that bullying is happening across various age groups and within different environments, including schools, workplaces, and on social media, it is going to present differently but with commonalities. Across the board, bullying violates and harms the victim, and it does so regardless of where and how.

Historically, we came to expect some bullying in the schoolyard during recess, but bullying has extended well beyond the schoolyard and the school day. Bullying is being reported by adults in work settings and online, and while it is often experienced when we are with others, more acutely and more recently, it follows us when we are at home and on our phones. 

 While bullying can take on many different forms, one of the most insidious and ubiquitous methods is cyberbullying. Most Americans spend some of their day on smartphones, often using social media. Social media can be used as a tool for increased connection and understanding, but it can be and frequently is utilized to engage in cyberbullying as well. 

The fact that many of these platforms don’t require identity verification can allow people to take advantage of relative anonymity and act in ways they likely wouldn’t in person. From leaving unkind comments or ‘trolling’, to sending threatening messages, to outing someone’s personal information, photos, private conversations, and address/phone number, cyberbullying can take on many forms, and the overall lack of consequences for the perpetrator has seen this type of abuse only become more prevalent over the past 20 years. This is especially true for young people, with close to 50% of US teens reporting that they have been victims of cyberbullying, according to a 2022 study by the Pew Research Center. These experiences can leave deep mental and emotional scars on developing young minds. Social media puts young people today at a particularly increased risk of exposure to this type of trauma. Because we always have our phones with us, bullying can seem inescapable. Instead of being contained to a specific time and place, bullying can occur around the clock and in any setting.

How Do You Know When You’re Being Bullied?

One issue that many people face when they’re being bullied is that it can, unfortunately, often be seen as subjective. What some consider bullying behavior will not be viewed the same by others. This lack of consensus, among other things, has created the conditions for these acts to continue in our society. Entire generations of kids were told to ‘toughen up’ when being bullied at school or saw bullying as a right of passage, and this early misguided advice often went on to shape their worldview about what could be considered acceptable ways of engaging with others. 

Bullies also know how to conceal their behavior, presenting differently when adults or other higher-ups are present, and may excuse their bullying as a joke. While physical bullying can be easier to spot, emotional bullying may be difficult to assess, and cyberbullying has become so rampant it is often overlooked.

Gender norms also have a role to play in the prevalence of bullying and harassment that we currently face. Throughout history, women have been subject to all manner of gender-based bullying and told to get over it. This culture of abuse became so entrenched that many women still internalize messaging, which suggests that we are to blame for the ways we’re bullied, or worse, have been conditioned into believing that what they experienced wasn’t bullying at all. 

If you’re unsure if you’re experiencing bullying, taking the time to consider what you’re experiencing and the circumstances around it may help. Your assessment may include evaluating your experience in relation to the definition of bullying, your relationship with the bully, and how the behavior makes you feel. Ultimately, you’re the expert of your experience and can trust yourself.

Why Can It Be So Hard to Seek Help When You’re Being Bullied?

While many schools and workplaces now have anti-bullying policies in place, these mindsets persist, and reports of these forms of abuse often go ignored, if they get reported at all. Research has shown that as they age, young people are less likely to report instances of bullying to adults, which indicates that this problem is likely more pervasive than the data reflects. 

Being bullied is usually an isolating experience that can make it challenging to seek support. For many, there’s a component of shame and embarrassment associated with being the victim of bullying or harassment. It’s also not unusual for people who have been the targets of bullying to have a lack of strong social support, making it easier to alienate further. In fact, social isolation is one of the primary tactics of a bully because it helps to instill a sense of fear and hopelessness in their victim. The fact that bullies target those who are perceived to be less powerful means that their victims will be less likely to seek help. 

When it comes to cyberbullying, many children refrain from reporting to their parents for fear of losing digital access. For this generation’s youth, social media and access to devices are things they value tremendously, and they aren’t equipped to protect their mental and emotional well-being. Without necessarily understanding the potential impacts, they may keep the bullying a secret instead of risking losing internet access. While an adult may think that the best answer to cyberbullying is to restrict their child’s access, the reality is that social media, texting, and gaming are some of the significant ways that kids connect today, and taking that away can just further isolate them. It can also reinforce the idea that they did something wrong by reporting the bullying because they believe they are being punished by having their devices taken away. 

It is also common for victims of bullying to fear that others won’t believe them. This assumption, along with the fear of possible retaliation for reporting their abuse, leads many to stay silent. Sadly, these fears are not always unfounded. There are, unfortunately, plenty of examples of people (adults and children) being punished and retaliated against for reporting instances of bullying. Sometimes, this comes from the bullies themselves, but far too frequently, those whom the victims reach out to for support are ill-equipped to offer any. 

Parents tend to react emotionally when their child tells them they’re being bullied, and they take action without considering the potential ramifications their child may face due to their intervention. School administrators seek to operate from a place of neutrality or ‘fairness’ so they may punish both parties involved. In the context of workplace harassment, HR departments have evolved to broadly prioritize concerns of legal liability any time they receive a report of bullying, which often leaves the victim without support or recourse. Some have even lost employment for speaking up about the treatment they received from a superior. 

How Does Bullying Impact Physical Health and Brain Development?

Long-term exposure to bullying can be incredibly stressful, and like any experience of prolonged stress, it can have detrimental impacts on an individual’s health. Extreme stress has been shown to weaken the immune system, lead to the development of gastrointestinal disorders, result in debilitating headaches and migraines, and create muscle tension, which can lead to increased susceptibility to injury. Sleep disturbances like nightmares and insomnia are also common experiences of those suffering from chronic stress. 

Adolescents who were involved in bullying, either as a victim or a bully (or both), were found to experience more sleep disturbances than those who reported no involvement in bullying, and the research on the link between brain development and lack of sleep has long found that lack of sleep is directly linked to impaired brain functioning. For example, a 2022 study used data from the NIH’s Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study to assess children’s sleep and brain development patterns. They found that the brains of the children who got less than 9 hours at the start of the study had more mental and behavioral health challenges than those who got sufficient sleep. Brain imaging of these subjects also revealed less gray matter in the areas of the brain responsible for inhibition control, memory, and attention. These findings persisted after two years, suggesting that lack of sleep has long-lasting impacts on the development and functioning of the brain.  

Further, there is evidence to suggest that the experience of being bullied can impact the brain more directly, too. A long-term study found that teens who were victims of bullying had abnormally high levels of cortisol, a common stress hormone, as compared to their non-bullied peers. High cortisol levels have been shown to affect the area of the brain associated with memory negatively. Vaillancourt confirmed that the bullied teens’ high cortisol levels had resulted in some amount of impairment after they performed more poorly on memory tests than their peers who had not experienced bullying. 

Researchers at Tufts University were also able to find evidence that supports the long-suspected connection between the impact of bullying on the brain and substance misuse. Using mice to model the effect of bullying, they found that adolescent mice subjected to four, five-minute exposures of aggressive behavior by a bigger, older mouse had higher levels of stress hormones in areas of the brain associated with processing rewarding stimuli and that high levels of the hormone remained in the brain long after the stressful event had ended. When the mice were subsequently given access to cocaine and alcohol, they consumed more than their non-bullied peers, and this trend persisted into their adulthood. It seems they were still suffering from the impact of the abuse they suffered in childhood and that it had made them susceptible to substance misuse. These findings indicate that the effect of bullying on the brain can ultimately create lasting chemical and structural damage. 

What Effect Does Bullying Have on Mental Health? 

It is important to note that bullying is a form of trauma. Not only does it affect the literal structure and functioning of the brain in the same way that traumatic experiences can, but it can also have the same effects on a person’s overall mental health. Many victims of bullying report symptoms of depression and anxiety, persistent feelings of hopelessness, despair, and worry, and an overall sense of ostracization. 

Research has found that bullied children are consistently at higher risk of developing anxiety and depression disorders that can persist into adulthood. They often have very low self-esteem, are prone to internalizing their problems, and are at increased risk of suicide. In some cases of bullying, victims have shown signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. And some individuals who have been bullied react by engaging in forms of violence or aggression themselves, becoming bully-victims. 

What Can We Do About Bullying?

Given that there are clear advantages to bullying, as much as we may wish there weren’t, if we can present these advantages to those inclined to bully, we may remove their motivation. Often, those bullying are seeking attention and power, and if they can access attention and power without harming others, they may learn to do so. Research also suggests that preventative programs can be effective in reducing the frequency of bullying.

While personality traits and genetic factors seem to influence bullying, bullying is also a behavior that is modeled and practiced. Bullies learn by observing others, and this is also true online. As we become more conscious of this, we can be more intentional about what we model and expose ourselves and our children to. Moving towards behaviors that allow us to feel empowered without harming others can benefit everyone. Bystanders also have tremendous power when it comes to bullying. Studies support that bystanders can effectively interrupt and combat bullying, and a study published by the Canadian Journal of Psychology found that once a bystander stepped in to help the target of bullying, the behavior stopped within 10 seconds. Bystanders are also affected by bullying, often experiencing similar mental health challenges as the victims themselves. While intervening can be tough, it can have positive byproducts for both the victim of bullying and the bystander.

Given the frequency and unbridled nature of cyberbullying, becoming more thoughtful about how we engage with our screens and how we have children engage with phones and social media may also have benefits. While being the only child without a smartphone may have its own negative consequences, if whole grades or schools agree to hold off on introducing these variables to their children’s lives, this can have many long-term advantages. Researchers have encouraged parents to wait as long as possible before providing their children with smartphones, and cyberbullying is one additional factor to consider. For adults experiencing cyberbullying, spending less time online can also have its benefits. 

What Can You Do If You’re Being Bullied?

This is the most challenging part to investigate because being bullied is never the victim’s fault, yet we expect them to have to find ways to manage it. Being bullied can make it incredibly difficult to navigate the world on a daily basis, but there are still ways to protect yourself and mitigate the impact of bullying. 

Recognize the bullying:

It can be hard to know if you’re experiencing bullying, especially if the bully is a friend, employer, or someone else you wouldn’t expect this behavior from. It can also be challenging to acknowledge that you’re being bullied because it can feel so lonely and personal. You can’t address bullying if you don’t name it, though, so start by examining your experience and being honest with yourself about whether what you’re experiencing is bullying.

Put the bullying in perspective:

First and foremost, it can help to remember that the bullying often has nothing to do with you. You happen to be the person caught in their crosshairs, but it could have been anyone else they chose to fixate on, and being the target of a bully is in no way a reflection of your value and worth. If you’re being bullied, it’s not your fault. 

Respond instead of reacting:

When dealing with a bully, it can help to try to present as neutral. Bullies often target individuals who appear vulnerable or react strongly to their behavior. Proceeding this way will also likely disarm them and could even make them reassess whether you’re a suitable target. Anthony Volk shares that fighting back has the potential of either stopping the bullying or exacerbating it, which can make it even more difficult to navigate this impossible situation. 

Keep records and report the bullying:

If a bully continues to intimidate you and cause harm, make a point of keeping a record of each incident so that you can have evidence when you choose to report this abuse. As scary and unhelpful as it may seem, it is crucially important to report what’s going on immediately. Research continues to support the idea that reporting bullying is necessary so that there are negative consequences for the bully and the victim of bullying can be further protected. 

Access support:

Having support if you’re being bullied has many benefits, including reminding you that you are not alone, that you are worthwhile, and that people care about you. Social support in the form of friends can reduce the risk of being targeted by bullies, and while it doesn’t eliminate the risk, it also serves to mitigate the impact of bullying. Talking to people you trust can also help you navigate the situation with the bully. Support sometimes means talking to a licensed therapist, who can help you understand and respond to the situation when it’s unclear how to. 

Take care of you:

Given the many ways that bullying can and does cause harm, including to your physical and mental well-being, doing whatever you can to care for yourself will be essential. Do what feels good and what allows you to feel confident. Connect with hobbies or activities where you can experience mastery and engage in nourishing relationships. You don’t deserve to be bullied; no one does. What you deserve is care and connection. Do what you can to ensure you get as much as possible. 

Being bullied is an incredibly taxing and painful experience, no matter how you respond to it. While there are ways to advocate for yourself and to access resilience, that doesn’t mean doing so is easy. And given the power imbalance in bullying relationships, generally, fighting back doesn’t seem like or isn’t an option, as much as we may want it to be. If you are still unsure if what you’re experiencing is bullying, or if you know that you’re being bullied and need additional support, we do hope that you will reach out to us. There is hope and a way through, and you don’t need to find it alone. 

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