Sheila was raised in England in the 1960s by her grandparents, aunts and uncles. Her mother was on her own and didn’t think she could handle raising her daughter. However, after four years her mother was working, married and wanted to take her daughter back. Being a very happy four year old, Sheila was terrified about ripped away from the only home and family she knew. She was forced to move to a distant city with her mother who she never knew and a strange man. When her mother was away at work, the step-father turned into a monster. The abuse went on day after day for about a year – verbal, physical, emotional and sexual.

Her family eventually staged an intervention, sneaking Sheila away for a ‘vacation’ and never allowing her back after sensing what was going on. Sheila was clearly suffering from the effects of abuse, being very afraid, nervous and suffering from symptoms of PTSD (which was not a recognized condition back then).

Young kids sensed she was vulnerable

When Sheila started going to school, things got worse for her. It wasn’t evident at the time, but as a direct result of her abuse at home the kids at school were quick to pick up on her fears and insecurities. I’m sure the kids had no idea about her past, but they began teasing her for being ‘different’. It was little things like sucking her thumb, being shy and quiet, or perhaps other subtle signs that were showing as a result of her abuse. When kids learned that she didn’t have a father, and her mother wasn’t in the picture she was teased for that too.

One time a kid tricked her into stepping into a closet when the teacher was out of the room and she was locked in. It must have been terrifying considering her step-father had also locked her in rooms alone as well. The teacher’s response was it was her fault for going in the closet.

The bullying continued year after year since she was stuck with the same kids in school. As typically happens, a few of the kids lead the bullying behaviour while others go along with it, laugh and perpetuate the behaviour. These could be referred to as enabler and bystanders. Very few kids wanted to go against the rest – they were afraid to be the target.

Self-esteem and self-confidence gets destroyed

Being called ugly day after day, being made to feel worthless Sheila started to believe it. She said that after hearing this so often from so many people she internalized this almost as if it were a form of brainwashing. I think it sounds quite like brainwashing. It’s just a relentless message being repeated forever, being emphasized from many angles each day. There was no way to escape it. Sheila didn’t know how to change the course of what was happening to her and didn’t know how to deal with it. She was strong enough to endure it and keep going, but it was extremely hard.

Enablers and bystanders, not just bullies

In a multi-pronged approach to solving bullying issues, it’s very important to consider how to educate, support and reduce the effects of enablers and bystanders. These are important factors that affect how bad bullying can be for someone. The ‘bullies’ or instigators are a major part of it, but we should also learn to understand why kids become complicit in bullying even though they wouldn’t initiate it themselves. This increases the ‘volume’ of the bullying – making it a lot more relentless and hard to deal with.

People who are bullied often feel that ‘everyone is against them’ and eventually start to believe what all the voices are saying. As I often say, most of this behaviour is rooted in human nature and specifically how we deal with emotions related to fear. If kids were educated from a young age on how to better manage fear within themselves, they would also develop empathy for what others are feeling. It would give them internal strength to fight against the fear that they may become a target and reduce the chance they would become an enabler or bystander.

How do you teach empathy?

It sounds simple but teaching this in a way that a child will internalize is quite difficult and not intuitive. You can tell a kid that they ‘should put themselves in someone else’s shoes’ for example. Or they ‘should be kind’ but this is a very academic approach to teach something that is learned primarily through visceral and emotional ‘feeling’ rather than thinking. These lessons often don’t stick, and aren’t internalized because there’s no way to ‘feel’ what it’s like to be someone else by talking about it this way.

The teaching approach needs to be provocative enough to help children feel their way through these concepts rather than think their way through them. Kids often explore this kind of learning naturally – by play fighting and rough housing. It’s interesting that adults generally frown upon this. The problem is that kids can and do get injured sometimes, and also there are a lot of kids who don’t like to do this and aren’t able to handle it well. It doesn’t mean the kid is ‘weak’ and needs to ‘toughen up’ – it just means the kid needs a different approach to learning. Educators need to figure out a way to level the playing field and help all kids learn some of these important lessons.

Some Initiatives from “Through Bullying” 

To help achieve better education I’ve been working with the creator and artist BasselsJ to bring some of his lessons to life through an artistic video series called “Chicken Wing Ninjas”. I’ve also developed a fitness and mindfulness training program called “SparX Fitness Training” because fitness can be used to evoke feeling and connect the mind and body. I used traditional martial arts philosophy and lessons to inform the creation of the fitness program so it was more accessible to people, rather than saying everyone should do martial arts. That’s a tricky suggestion, because not all martial arts align well with these particular lessons. Some are more focused on competition and vanity rather than building up an individual’s internal strength, emotional management skills, tolerance, empathy etc. Personally, I train martial arts at the Dapo Dojo.

A new school, the same bullying

When Sheila was around 15 she was ready to leave school as she couldn’t take it anymore. She actually moved back in with her mother around that time after having slowly started communicating with her again. The mother had also remarried and had a couple kids. Sheila went to an all-girls private school and had high hopes to leave her problems behind. Nothing changed – the bullying started again. By this point Sheila was entirely convinced there was something very wrong with her and she was just a pathetic loser. She had lost all confidence in herself. What she realizes now looking back is that she was showing signs of being nervous, scared, and lacking confidence. That can make a person a target for bullying as bullies will often pick up on and target those they perceive as weaker than themselves.

Fault and blame

Even though the bullying can be explained in part based on how Sheila was behaving, the very important message is that it wasn’t her fault (something she didn’t learn until much later). There’s a difference between blame, and simply understanding the truth or facts of a matter. Once a truth is identified, it becomes easier to address and deal with it. It would have been a lot easier if Sheila had help, but she really didn’t and had to endure decades of depression, anxiety and feelings of despair before she was able to pull herself out of it.

Like many people who have experienced bullying, Sheila seems like a sensitive person who really does not like violence. This was evident when she started talking about fighting back. She did fight back on occasion but it was only when she was pushed way too far too fast. One time, a girl assaulted her physically apparently thinking this was funny, and Sheila instinctively clubbed her in the head with a bucket she was carrying. That put an end to the physical bullying by that girl, but not the verbal abuse. The reasons she didn’t fight back much is because of fear, and the fact she thought she deserved it having been convinced that she’s just a horrible person.

The next stage of Sheila’s life – travelling the world

After school she went travelling around the world, working odd jobs. This was the first time she started to realize her life could be different. She met friends on the road and started having boys take interest in her. This was definitely a positive thing because suddenly she had some evidence that she couldn’t be as horrible as everyone before had been saying. However, she admitted this only helped her to a point. Still, deep down the voice inside her was still saying “you’re ugly, you’re stupid, you’re worthless”. From listening to Sheila, you can clearly see this internal battle was raging.

Workplace drama and bullying

In the workplace, Sheila found herself feeling insecure again. At school it was always larger groups of people bullying her so she really didn’t like working in larger groups. She was much more comfortable one on one. Similar to school, there were cliques of women who would gossip and make fun of her. It was the same pattern. The same vicious cycle. People were picking up on the insecurity and banding together to target her.

Revisiting old memories, feeling familiar feelings

Many years after her days at school, she happened upon an old box of memories from her childhood. This brought back a flood of memories and she realized that she felt compelled to write a book about her past and experiences. She began to write, but very soon realized that it was starting to have major effects on her mood and well-being. She was forced to relive all the trauma as she would write. Thoughts would creep into her days at work, she couldn’t concentrate, she broke down crying randomly. She felt like she was a mess.

Writing a book, seeing a therapist

At this point she realized she really needed help. She finally went to find a therapist, which she says saved her life. It only took two times a month for about a year to make a huge difference. She said that ‘he helped her see’ through the emotions she was feeling. She worked with him through the guilt and self-hatred by facing it head on and working through it.

The therapy, in combination with writing her book was the way that she finally was able to liberate herself from her past. Writing the book forced her to face her trauma, and the therapist was the guide to help her put things in context. This allowed her brain to form new connections and rewire old ones, giving her an ability to manage her feelings effectively. The process was not easy – it was very painful.

It took Sheila a long time to finally seek help, and she wishes she did it a lot sooner. By going through this painful recovery process, she was able to feel confident and love herself. Then, it was so much easier to find joy day to day in even the little things. Life became a lot more bright and enjoyable. She’s become more open, confident, and even started a poetry group where she’s even able to stand up in front of a group of 30 people and talk. This is something she never thought possible. She feels like she’s actually finally living her life.

Advice and resources

Sheila’s advice, especially for older people who experienced trauma: “this sort of stuff can literally ruin your life, don’t let it, get help and do something”.

Check out Sheila’s book called “Rag Dolls and Rage” – she donates the earnings to charity.

Other resources mentioned in the podcast:

Chicken Wing Ninjas YouTube Lessons for kids:

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