It’s normal to want to be liked at school or in the workplace, to enjoy yourself, have fun with your friends, and to expect a safe environment where people are equally valued and respected. Bullies can stop people from fitting in and feeling safe, and leave victims lacking confidence and feeling very much alone.

I was bullied at secondary school for three years because I wasn’t like the other boys. I didn’t like football, preferred the company of girls, and was softly spoken. I was gay. Although not open about it then, a group of pupils knew I was different and used it as justification to bully me.

Why do people bully each other?

Bullies are people who enjoy, for one reason or another, abusing and undermining another person or people. Often bullies target those who they notice as different. Examples of difference include being gay, being from a different racial background, or looking different in some way. The bully may also feel that their victim is weaker than they are: physically, emotionally or both. Bullying based on the victim being gay is known as homophobic bullying.

Bullies exist for many different reasons. A popular and overused explanation is that bullies are insecure people who work out their problems – gaining the power and confidence they lack – by making victims of others. The bully may feel he or she has to act tough to impress his or her friends, who may be bullies too. Maybe the bully has aggressive and unsympathetic parents: growing up in a house where there is violence, a lack of love and positive attension, can produce a very angry and aggressive person who communicates in the only way he or she knows how. Sometimes the bullies are victims of bullying themselves and have a lot of anger and hurt to deal with. It is also true – and seldom admitted – that some people simply get a kick out of humiliating and tormenting other people and this is all the justification they need. Some people just aren’t very nice but that doesn’t mean they can’t change.

Whatever the bully’s background may be, nobody deserves to be their victim and it’s not your fault if you are.

Am I being bullied?

Bullying comes in many forms. It can range from name calling and verbal abuse to being physically attacked. Other forms of bullying include:

  • Being deliberately excluded from a group
  • Having rumours spread about you
  • Having your possessions tampered with or stolen
  • Pranks performed on you that others find amusing but make you feel uncomfortable
  • Being pushed or intimidated into doing something you don’t want to do
  • Being undermined and made to feel less valued than others
  • Constant criticism

What can I do to stop the bullying?

It’s a good idea to keep a record of the things that the bully does to you. This will be useful if you need to ask for help. Remember to save nasty emails and texts for the same reason. Stay in a group if you can and lean on the support of your friends. You could try talking to the person who is bullying you if he or she is approachable and you feel comfortable doing so. Tell them that their behaviour makes you unhappy and scared. They may not realise how their actions are affecting you. If the person is receptive, a talk might be all that’s needed to put an end to the bullying. If this doesn’t work or if the bullying is more serious or you are being targeted by more than one person, then you need to seek outside help. Speak to a teacher or parent about what is happening to you. It may be a scary step to take but telling someone about the bullying signifies a shift in power and control: you’re taking it away from the bullies and claiming it back for yourself. Why should someone else get to decide whether you are happy or not or how much you do or don’t enjoy your daily life? That’s your job.

What will happen after I speak up?

The bullies will be spoken to by a teacher and told that their behaviour is unacceptable. They will be told to stop bullying you and may be punished. They will likely be told that worse punishment will follow if they don’t behave. Sometimes the bully won’t have realised how much he or she was hurting their victim and may feel embarrassed and ashamed. Having adult intervention is a real wake-up call and can bring the bullies to their senses and stop things getting worse.

In my case, my Dad called a teacher and the three pupils who were bullying me were spoken to, though not actually punished. I was so scared at the time. I thought the boys would give me a harder time for having spoken up. What actually happened though was that they left me alone after that. One of them even apologised to me. I was able to enjoy my final year in school without torment. Sadly, I’d spent the previous two years being very unhappy and I wish I’d spoken up sooner.

I want to get help, but don’t want to come out

The fact that you are being bullied is the only relevant thing here, not the reason the bullies use to justify it. Remember, there is no justification for bullying anyone. A large percentage of homophobically bullied pupils will never tell because they are scared that their sexuality will be revealed in the process. You don’t have to tell your teachers or parents that the bullies are using homophobic language or motives if you don’t want to, but choosing to be more specific isn’t an admission of being gay. Bullies use homophobic language on straight people too. Speaking up about homophobic bullying does not necessarily mean coming out at the same time. I didn’t. They were verbally abusing me, calling me names and hitting me, which is as much detail as any decent teacher needs. It’s okay to say “I’d rather not repreat the words they use”.

It’s your wellbeing that’s relevant here, not your sexuality.

Bullying at work

The same principles can be applied if you’re being bullied in the workplace.

Remember, your employer is responsible for preventing the bullying of its staff and there are various equality and discrimination acts to protect you. Initially, try to resolve the matter by speaking to the bully if you feel comfortable doing so. You might also consider writing to them via email if that’s easier for you or if the bully isn’t reasonable when directly approached. Explain how they’re affecting your life and ask them to stop. Stick to the facts and avoid aggressive or overly emotional language. If they aren’t receptive, the next stage is to take the matter to your manager or supervisor. If this doesn’t yield results take the matter up with your union representative or HR department at your place of work. Beyond this you can seek advice from Citizens Advice Bureaux or ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). You may ultimately decide to make a formal complaint against the company if the problem is not addressed but this should be a last resort.

Ultimately, an efficient, productive and profitable company is one whose employees are happy and work well with each other. It’s in your employer’s interests to resolve bullying issues so that this can be achieved.

Coping with life after being bullying

Some people are bullied for so long and so badly that even when the bullying stops the negative messages linger on inside the mind and affect their ability to enjoy life. Ex-bullied people can have problems with nervousness, shyness, low self-worth and a lack of confidence. In more extreme cases, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, self-harm and even suicidal urges can follow a time of bullying.

People who have experienced bullying might:

  • have problems trusting people
  • avoid relationships
  • avoid career opportunities because they assume they aren’t good enough
  • avoid socialising because they fear what other people think of them
  • criticise themselves harshly and constantly, even for small mistakes they might make
  • often imagine the worst case scenario and tend to expect the worst from people and situations
  • find it hard to enjoy the things they like, convincing themselves that it won’t last, or deliberately tainting it in some way
  • have problems speaking to people
  • lack assertiveness
  • spend time worrying about what strangers in the street think
  • experience strong emotions that they feel they can’t deal with
  • default to the role of ‘victim’ in various situations

As a once-bullied person the worst thing you can do is shut yourself away. Staying at home and avoiding people will allow your fears to go unchallenged and for your confidence to stay low. How do you find out if peoples’ intensions are good toward you if you don’t go out and give them a chance? Even going for a walk on your own can lighten your mood and help you feel more in touch with the outside world. Phone a friend you haven’t seen for a while, go out for a meal, see a film, plan a weekend away, join a local group that’s based around a hobby or interest you might have etc. Interacting with people will build your confidence and take your mind off your worries. It will also give you a more healthy and balanced outlook on the world. It’s not as scary as you might think and there are a lot of positive activities to get involved in.

Write a letter to your old school saying what happened to you and how the bullying affected your life. Lay some demons to rest. You might not get a reply but you will have been heard and you’ll have faced your painful memories head-on. I did this and got a phone call from my old headmaster who apologised for my bad experiences in his school. He asked for my ideas around preventing homophobic bullying. It was a very positive experience.

The bullies might have said awful things to you and made you question your worth. Perhaps you’re avoiding furthering your education or pushing your career forward because of the things the bullies made you believe about yourself. Try to focus on facts about yourself instead. Think about your abilities and the things you do well. Think about your interests, hobbies and passions. Pursue them. The bullies didn’t truly know you. Nothing they said was positive or helpful or worth listening to. There’s no real reason why you can’t do the things you’d like to do with your life.

Counselling may help if you feel you aren’t coping well. I’ve had counselling in the past and it’s taught me techniques for challenging negative thought patterns and behavioural habits that were holding me back from enjoying life. You might find it beneficial to talk about the bullying you once experienced, especially if you haven’t opened up about it before. This can be a painful but is followed by a sense of released pressure that you may have been holding onto for a long time. Think of it as cleaning out the pipes in your head so that good things can start to get in. Some counsellors focus on the present and helping you to get more out of life, without digging at the past. They can teach you techniques that challenge negative thinking patterns and eventually break the hold these thoughts have on your life. This is called cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT.

Sometimes those who were once bullied keep their old bully alive in the mind, almost as a comfortable and familiar companion who’s always quick to critisise and degrade. This prevents people from liking themselves and being happy. Counselling can help you to be kinder to yourself and see things in a more balanced, logical and positive way – to rid yourself of the bully in your mind.

Your doctor can refer you to counselling, but expect a waiting list on the NHS. The waiting times vary depending on the services in your area. Private counselling is also an option if you can afford it, though it can be expensive. The best way to find a good private counsellor or therapist is to ask around. You may be surprised by how many people have had therapies of different kinds, for things like giving up smoking and tackling phobias, to coping with grief and long-term emotional problems. For more about counselling see my mental health pages, and the NHS’s counselling information.

Your doctor may prescribe medication for depression or anxiety problems. Try not to be scared of this or to see it as some kind of defeat. Acknowledging your problems and taking steps to solve them is a very positive thing to do. Medication is a personal choice. Some prefer not to use it, while others swear by it. It can help you cope in the short term, to feel more balanced, relaxed and in control of life. Medication can help you to be more receptive to longer term treatment like counselling and other therapies.

You don’t have to be a victim, during or after the bullying. You can take control back.

I would also urge anyone suffering from depression and anxiety to look into nutrition. A good diet plays an important role in helping those affected feel better. Junk foods, sugary caffeine drinks and alcohol will only keep you low, even if they make you feel fleetingly better while consuming them. Trust me, I’ve been there. Five doughnuts in a row might make you feel amazing for the two minutes it takes to eat them… but soon just as unhappy, plus angry with yourself for eating badly. Have an apple instead! Exercise is a powerful mood booster too, but you don’t have to go near a gym to benefit. I’ve often left my home feeling awful, to return from a thirty-minute walk feeling calmer and happier. As well as releasing feel-good chemicals in your brain, exercise gives the mind some space to work creatively through problems and generate helpful ideas. I’ve found yoga to be very calming and helpful in tackling depression and anxiety. It’s also a perfect exercise for those who aren’t interested in higher impact activities, though I’ve found running to be life-changing if you have the urge. Many people recommend meditation as a way to handle stress and negative emotions.