Recently I’ve needed to reflect on how I feel and act when someone tries to intimidate me. Of course, not every experience of intimidation is the same, and I know that I can respond differently. In many situations, if a person is being unpleasant, I am able to stand up for myself. What interests me is what happens when I am not able to, and this is what I want to cover here.
Last night, while walking the dog, another dog flew at mine and got its mouth round her neck. Fortunately I was able to pull the dog off and she is unhurt. Having established who the owner was, I went to speak to him in his shop on my way home. People had seen what happened, as it was in a busy pub garden on the beach, and, by the time I arrived at this man’s premises, word had reached him that his dog had caused trouble. He saw my dog and greeted me with, ‘Oh, you’re the person who’s been complaining about my dog, are you?’ And his sneer prompted the thought, this is not going to go well. Part of what upset me about the subsequent interaction with him was that I felt disempowered. He was in the wrong, as his dog had been roaming, unsupervised, several hundred yards from his business, and had attacked another dog on the lead. He wasn’t interested in this. He dismissed my request to supervise his dog more closely, and invalidated the need to keep the dog on a lead. He spoke to me as if were a child, and a dim one. I was wrong. I didn’t understand dogs. It’s what dogs do, he told me. They roam and they fight. Rubbish. When I was walking along the beach to speak to him, I asked myself what I wanted to achieve. I had one objective: to get him to control his dog better. I failed. He wasn’t interested in taking any responsibility. He just wanted me to crawl back under a stone. I repeated my request, and he stuffed his face in mine and hissed at me to go away.
I have been wondering what I could have done differently. Had I taken someone with me, would he have been more apologetic and amenable? Perhaps. If I had taken a man with me, would he have behaved differently? I suspect, yes, but obviously have no proof. Did he see blondie girl in flip flops with a fluffy dog, and know that he could brush me off? Who knows? And this is why it can be difficult to challenge bullies. There is something in the power dynamic which disempowers the person being bullied. But it isn’t just that. People who behave like this are highly skilled at what they do. It is their modus operandi. They have a repertoire of practised behaviours which they know will silence you. Having told me he to go away, this man then turned and walked off into his premises. Had I wanted to continue the discussion, I would have had to follow him inside. I could have done, but I decided not to. Bullies are often cowards but it isn’t true that they don’t have power. It may not be authentic power in the form of genuine self-esteem but they know exactly what to do to shut you up and often their behaviours are passive-aggressive. It can be useful to analyse how you can handle situations differently but sometimes you have to make a snap decision, and act.
When people trot out, ‘Stand up to bullies’ and ‘Don’t let them see they’ve upset you’, while I agree with both sentiments, neither is helpful in some situations or possible. You can make your stand, but if it’s invalidated and ridiculed, that ‘stand’ falls flat. I do think that bullies choose their targets. I don’t take this man’s behaviour personally. It wasn’t me, Vicky Newham, he was reacting to. It was that he didn’t like being challenged on his negligence, and being asked to do something about it. I know that this man has received other complaints about his dog. It has form (requiring surgery) and so does he. Bullies accumulate confidence in the way that a snowball gathers snow.
Another factor in this situation is that there was no-one around in a position of authority to request help from. However, often, even when there is, not much happens. When I was teaching full-time, I would have to refer on reports of bullying. It was worst amongst the girls. Schools have bullying policies, and you have to follow them to the letter. I saw girls have their lives made miserable by bullying. If you can convince a bully to see that their behaviour is wrong, you might be onto something. Most derive satisfaction, power and identity from what they do. If they don’t have much else in their lives to nourish them, and role models to show them how to behave kindly, they are not going to give up what feeds them. My default mode with people is to try to invoke reason. Unfortunately there are some people in the world you cannot reason with.
I have reported this man to the police, and I will follow it up. I have heard this morning of another dog which this one has attacked. I was aware last night of feeling that he had got one up on me. That I had allowed him to wriggle out of taking responsibility. But then I realised that sometimes in life people do get ‘one up’ on us. But if it involves doing something shitty to another human being or animal, it is a hollow victory, and perhaps not even a victory at all. I am glad I spoke to him. And I said what I wanted to even though I was extremely anxious and he laughed at me.
The aspect of bullying which is just as difficult to bring under control is how it affects you. This was a one off so it is much easier to bounce back from. Where bullying is systematic, it is much harder. Just as the bully increases in confidence, the self-esteem, and sense of agency, of the person on the receiving end, decrease. What helped me last night was the support of people on Twitter and Facebook. Someone told me who to report the man to, others expressed concern and agreement that he had behaved badly. Also, I was able to decide in advance what I wanted to say to the man. It needs to be brief and to the point, I told myself. He still gained the advantage, but probably would have done more so if he had been with the dog when it attacked mine. And this brings me to something else which disempowers: when something takes you by surprise it is less easy to think what you want to do and say. If it’s vicious texts arriving on your mobile, or posts on the internet, the moment you click on them, DING. And you can wither.
Ultimately, then, what may be most helpful to people who are bullied is the opportunity to discuss and role play things to say and do. For children, it helps when parents can keep emphasising, ‘It isn’t you, it’s them’. That if you are bullied it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you, it means that, unfortunately, some people in life are not very nice. I suspect this helps prevent feeling victimised. It so often isn’t personal. It is about what a bully perceives you to represent or simply that they sense a vulnerability or are just trying their luck. And that deep down they feel unhappy on some level. It is worth trying to confront a bully, in my opinion, if you can, with the awareness that it may go wrong. It may not go as you wish, but occasionally something trickles through. And even just saying ‘Don’t do that’ can make you feel more empowered. It is also important to refer bullying on and report it when you can, a scatter gun approach.
But the hardest work is within yourself: not letting bullying ruin your confidence and make you doubt yourself.
For me it is about not letting it knock me off course, and prevent me from doing what is important to me. And that involves – at the moment – looking after myself, making sure my dog is happy, healthy and safe and getting my novel finished. With that in mind, I shall take the dog for a walk and then continue editing my book.
Vicky Newham © 2015