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Part 2 of Unmasking bullying: A self guide to reclaim power

Words by Radhika Iyer.

Part 2: Recognise the symptoms of bullying

Bullying is about power — power that creates constant fear, anxiety and uncertainty in its victims. The symptoms of bullying can be observed in the gradual erosion of self-confidence, self-believe, self-worth of its victims, thereby leading to the victims’ inability to function in areas of work in which they once excelled. Victims of bullying can also manifest stress physically, through illnesses as well as marked changes to their appearance such as drastic weight loss or gain.

However, due to its deceptive nature, it can sometimes be difficult to pin the symptoms as a result of bullying per se. Victims themselves might question if what they are experiencing is a form of bullying- most likely because they may have been conditioned to believe that they are not a typical candidate for being a target for bullying or because they have become accustomed to a culture of bullying and consider it to be the norm. It is therefore important that we learn how to differentiate, within ourselves, what constitutes bullying and what does not.

For example, one of the symptoms of workplace bullying is absenteeism. It is common for many of us to not want to go to work. For some of us, we hate the job we are doing and would rather be someplace else. So, what are the possible reasons why we don’t want to go to work? Perhaps we are simply bored, we don’t feel a sense of fulfillment; we are caught up in the rat race, there is a sinking feeling, we feel trapped; we have a deadline looming and we don’t have the enthusiasm nor motivation to complete the project; or we anticipate being stuck with work we are not looking forward to doing, as we don’t feel so confident about it? Or perhaps we know that we are not going to like what the boss has to say with regards to our work performance or the lack of?

Would any one of these reasons set off alarm bells, of being bullied?

Now, consider this: We really don’t want to go to work and yes, the work is boring. But when we think of why we don’t want to go to work, it is not the job itself that comes to mind, but instead the image of a person or a certain group of people from work materialises in our mind’s eye. We get a sinking feeling in our stomach, we feel trapped. The thought of going to work fills us with intense fear and makes us physically (and sometimes violently) ill. We don’t know what to expect at work and start imagining a number of different scenarios of what they might have got planned for us. We want the day to end even before it has even begun. It is the weekly meeting, and we dread the thought of having to sit through it and listen to inane criticisms of yet another piece of work we felt was one of our better efforts. We feel defeated, nothing we do is right.

They might have a point after all that we are not good at our job. We might start to question: maybe it is us—maybe we are the problem as we might have said or done something wrong and that is why the others don’t want to include us in their activities? Would it be better to keep to ourselves, at least there will be less chance of being mocked? They always say it’s just a joke, but why is it solely at our expense? In the past, we overheard them talking about the new staff, they were gossiping and it made us wonder what false rumours they are spreading about us. We are not eating or sleeping well, we are too tired and have been crying non-stop. We are always worried— what is tomorrow going to bring?

Spot the alarm bells?

While the example itself is not at all subtle, the fact remains, the act of bullying can be very subtle. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind the symptoms of bullying- i.e. the way we feel, our frame of mind and how our body is reacting. The following is a summary of some of these symptoms:

  • Feeling powerless: The nature of bullying silences the people who are the targets. Most victims are made voiceless. They are too frightened to speak out, often feel as if they are walking on eggshells and are therefore not able to stand up for themselves. Bullies shut down the voice of their victims through humiliation, manipulation and concerted lies. By silencing their victims, the bullies are, in effect, destroying the very core of their human experience- the power of communication.

  • Feeling of isolation and marginalisation: Bullies wield power over their victims by playing mind games. While it is common for bullies to isolate their victims by excluding them from social groups, they also play the hot and cold game—whereby one day the victim is treated like a total outcast and the next, as a fully accepted member of the group. By vacillating between exclusion and inclusion, the bullies create confusion, thereby keeping the victims off balance as they don’t know what to expect or where they stand. However, the victims too can isolate themselves from the group as a protection mechanism. But this self-imposed isolation does not necessarily provide resolution. Instead, victims may still continue to feel disempowered and this could result in further erosion of their self-esteem.

  • Experiencing debilitating fears: The fears that targets of bullying endure can be overwhelming, as these fears are magnified x number of times more for the victims. They often feel as if they are under siege, they have a heightened sense of being unsafe and therefore are hyper vigilant. Some might feel the need to be fully prepared by mulling over the various possibilities of what the bully’s next step might be in order to find strategies to cope. Others are totally consumed by the fear which incapacitates them to the point they are not able to function and even making simple decisions can prove difficult.

  • Experiencing emotional upheaval: The underlying goal of bullying is to strip the victims’ sense of self by restricting the victims’ ability to move freely—whether physically or mentally—and planting the seed of self-doubt. Bullying begins with constantly humiliating or embarrassing the target. This is usually achieved, to start with, by basically making the victims the centre of unwanted attention. As an example, either through ‘harmless’ ‘pranks’ or making denigrating remarks about the victims’ physical appearance, personality traits or work, etc. As the bullying intensifies, it takes a toll on the victims’ emotions. In trying to cope with the bullying and the bullies, for that matter, victims find themselves mentally and physically exhausted; which could lead to an emotional breakdown. The signs may include uncontrollable crying, depression, inability to think coherently and paranoia.

The above highlights some of the symptoms of bullying. Just as the act of bullying can vary, so can the symptoms, as the experience is different for everyone. Regardless of differences in experiences, the endgame of bullying is about power that destroys another’s sense of self and self-esteem. The point to consider, now that we can differentiate between when it is bullying and when it is not bullying, is how do we make practical use of this knowledge when we come across bullying (unfortunately, the sad reality is we will still face a bully or a group of them, at some point along our journey)?

In Part 3 we will contemplate on the vital role of knowledge–of the self.


Radhika Iyer is a freelancer who has worked extensively in the community development and community services sector. She developed a professional interest in conflict resolution and management as a result of working with diverse groups with competing interests. Radhika’s first forays into the area of workplace bullying happened by accident. In the process of helping clients to resolve what seemed to be legitimate workplace issues, she instead discovered that in a number of cases, the clients were in fact experiencing forms of bullying. Having since observed the impact of bullying, Radhika supports a strong move to educate and eradicate the culture of bullying. She believes that sustainable change requires a whole-of, holistic approach. Her mission is to empower people to take ownership and feel confident to address conflict and the issue of bullying.

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