What doesn’t kill us can still break our bones

NPR had a piece on bullying a couple of days ago, starting from a British study published this week in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The unsurprising finding? Bullying is not beneficial.

What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger, right? Well, not when it comes to bullying.

Some may still consider bullying a harmless part of growing up, but mounting evidence suggests that the adverse effects of being bullied aren’t something kids can just shake off.

I can’t say I’ve ever considered bullying a harmless part of growing up. I didn’t have to think about it very hard when I was growing up, because there wasn’t any to speak of in my school. It was a tiny school, so it just wasn’t the kind of setting where bullying could go unnoticed. But I can’t recall ever thinking of it as some little thing that doesn’t matter, or is even healthy. It’s strange that anyone thinks of it that way. Bad things are bad.

People need to shift their thinking on bullying, Copeland says, from considering it a “harmless rite of passage” to “this kind of critical childhood experience that can really change one’s trajectory for decades and decades.”

Who thinks of it as a harmless rite of passage? What a callous idea.

Bullying is somewhat different today from what it was in the ’60s — cyberbullying on the Internet has extended its reach. Copeland says the concept remains the same: singling out a weaker person as the target for repeated intentional harm. It’s just that the abuse is no longer confined to schools and playgrounds, he says. It can happen in the no-longer-safe haven of a child’s home.

Or an adult’s.

Victims need some place where they can get away from the abuse and feel safe, Copeland tells Shots. “As you lose that, as you’re getting teased constantly, that can lead people to have much worse outcomes, and to feel like there’s really no way they can escape.

“As we see more and more studies like this,” Copeland says, “I think people are going to be more and more comfortable thinking of bullying in the same way we think of [other sorts of] maltreatment in childhood — as something that’s just not tolerated.”

Can we think of it that way for adults too? Starting right now?





  1. jrfdeux, mode d'emploi says

    I was bullied mercilessly for two stretches of time while I was in Grade 9 and Grade 10. To this day I have feelings of anxiety about the experiences, decades later. If bullying is a rite of passage, I’d argue that it isn’t worth making that passage.


  2. Omar Puhleez says

    As a species, we seem to have social organisation which has moved in a different direction from our biological makeup, and the process which produced it. For example, nature has equipped us well to survive for millennia in small ‘stone-age’ nomadic hunter-gatherer bands made up of people of all ages, or in pre-industrial villages of up to about 50 people: the size also of most religious congregations. Go above that size and the group tends to split of its own accord. In religious sects, some alpha male will likely find an issue on which to make a stand, and lead whatever followers he has mustered out.

    Bringing large numbers of young people (often of the same sex) together for education has certain advantages, economies of scale being the main one. But it creates a situation as artificial as a traditional poultry farm, where in each run a dominance hierarchy (pecking order) is established, frequently confirmed and re-confirmed among the individual birds involved. A lot of avian time and energy finishes up getting devoted to this ongoing process.

    But modern poultry farmers seem to have beaten it by isolating the birds as far as possible, and creating conditions difficult for them to express dominance behaviour: cramming them together into small cages, where about all they can do is eat, drink and lay eggs.

    Human analogues (eg as in prison populations) tend to evolve towards the wild west solution: arm yourself against the bullies or gangs thereof. This also seems to have been favoured by some modern high school students, and gets featured in the news from time to time..

  3. calgor says

    I was heavily bullied at school, even though I am in my 40s I have never gone to a school reunion as I still suffer from the effects and could not trust my actions if I had to face my tormentors again. I would have no regrets if they died horrible deaths even now…

  4. Kevin Kehres says

    Of all the wrong-headed notions Nietzsche ever penned, that surely is the most egregiously wrong.

    Cancer that doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger.

    A car accident that doesn’t kill you but leaves you paralyzed.

    A mild heart attack…

    I can’t think of a single thing that is powerful enough to kill you but makes you stronger if it doesn’t do so. It’s a stupid saying that has no thought behind it. Like a lot of Nietzsche.

    Sorry, pet peeve…

  5. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    I was relentlessly and brutally bullied from ages 10-15. Over 20 years later, I still have very little trust in anyone and have incredible anxiety all the time. And all it takes is one person being mildly rude to me to my face and I’m a mess for at least the rest of the day.

    Stronger? Ha.

  6. says

    Kevin, no, it’s a pet peeve of mine too – right up there with the one Dunc cites. The two are the foundational pillars of The Bullies’ Charter, and they stink.

  7. Omar Puhleez says

    That which does not kill us makes us more wary (defined in a very wide and inclusive sense): provided we emerge from it in sufficient shape to still be wary…..

  8. leni says

    I survived attempts to bully me by being a dirty fighter and a loudmouth with a slightly above average vocabulary and a very bad attitude. (Some things never change!)

    But I don’t really feel stronger for it. I don’t really regret it (there is only so much end-game thinking I can expect from my teenage self), but I don’t feel like it made me a better person either.

    Mostly it seems like I just let the assholes dictate the terms. I might have beat them at their own shitty game, but I still let them dictate. And that definitely does not make me feel stronger or better, nor is it something that I would want anyone else to go through just because I got it through it mostly unscathed. Especially someone who doesn’t find being an asshole quite as easy as I do.

    The whole thing is so Lord of Flies and stupid. Except with adults watching bemusedly. We let the worst among us dictate even when we have the power to stop it, which lowers the bar for everyone, and then we castigate those of us who don’t have the power stop it. Or who don’t, unlike me, dive right the fuck under that bar without a second thought, except to maybe pause a moment to lower it a little bit more. It’s such absolute bullshit.

    @calgore, that really sucks. I’m 40 and I’ve never been to a reunion either. I hit the bullies back and I still don’t want to see those fuckers to re-live the “good old days”, so I think your reaction is pretty understandable. I’m sorry that happened to you and I hope you can someday make peace with that chapter of your life.

    Also if you ever want to go to go to a reunion, I could probably humiliate them into apologizing to you >:D

  9. leni says

    Oh, I forgot to mention that the only reason going through bullying is supposed to be a rite of passage is that we all expect it to get worse as adults.

    It’s supposed to prepare us for a world that steals not just your lunch money, but your rent money and your child’s food money. That’s true, that definitely happens (and as an American I can count myself among the world’s worst offenders), but why defend it?

  10. A. Noyd says

    If anyone really believes that getting bullied is so beneficial, why aren’t they concerned that bullies are missing out because they’re not on the receiving end?

  11. leni says

    Partial takeback: now that I think about it, it’s probably because they think they bullies were never stupid and weak enough to need the lesson in the first place. Bullies just “get it”.

  12. A. Noyd says

    leni (#13)

    Partial takeback: now that I think about it, it’s probably because they think they bullies were never stupid and weak enough to need the lesson in the first place. Bullies just “get it”.

    Yeah, I realize they would probably try to excuse it that way. Except the same people like to bring up all these supposed cases of Christians being “persecuted” by atheists, conservatives being “bullied” by the liberal media, whites enduring “reverse racism” from people of color, men subjected to “misandry” from feminists, football players having their “lives ruined” by their rape victims, etc. They don’t get to have it both ways.

    (Actually, they shouldn’t have it either way. The privileged aren’t being bullied and bullying is not a boon to the victims.)

  13. says

    I am somewhat grateful for the experience of being bullied for being gay (despite not being gay) for 6-7 years in high school, because it gave me sort of first-hand understanding of what kind of harassment gay people face just for being gay. But it also exacerbated my social anxieties and now that I think about it, it’s probably a contributing factor to how messed up my late teens/early 20s were in terms of relationships especially. Lucky for me I had a genuinely supportive family so that going home really felt like a safe haven for me, most of the time.

  14. calgor says

    @Leni, thanks for the offer but like you I learnt to fight dirty both mentally and physically. My issue is that I have tried to remain a relatively moral person. But the effects of the bullying are so strongly rooted that even now just thinking about the scenario of meeting my tormentors is raising my anxiety and anger to the point of just lashing out for the sake of it. I have always considered my self a relatively peaceful person and I really hate how my experience of bullying seems to have hard wired a response that I find deeply regretful.

  15. Dunc says

    If anyone really believes that getting bullied is so beneficial, why aren’t they concerned that bullies are missing out because they’re not on the receiving end?

    I know what you’re getting at here, but it does bring up a serious point… It’s not “getting bullied” that they think is beneficial, it’s participating “appropriately” in the social dominance hierarchy. This is why victims who fight back get more pushback from the relevant authorities than the bullies do – because, no matter what they may say, they mostly regard bullying as a normal and acceptable means of establishing and maintaining social hierarchies, which they are at the apex of. Bullies are playing their assigned roles just fine, and so are tolerated. What is not tolerated is threatening the social order, either by refusing to participate, or refusing to behave according to your assigned role. If you’re assigned the role of victim, you’re supposed to accept that and suck it up, rather than complain or fight back.

  16. says

    I was bullied pretty terribly and found that living in a small town and going to a small school made that even worse. I feel like a being a nameless face in a big crowd would have made me less of a target, but the kids who were picking on me in 1st grade were still unbelievably cruel to me in 12th. To this day, I still have anxiety about social situations and doubt the sincerity of people who are kind to me. I have so much fear about putting my foot in my mouth and saying something awkward that I avoid social situations and really have to work up my courage for the rare event I agree to attend. It’s why, even though there seems to be a pretty good skeptic event every year in Oregon, I never go because, that, combined with all the reports of harassment at skeptic events, makes me think it will be money poorly spent.

  17. dmcclean says

    I’m with Marnie @19. I think from my experience that a small school environment isn’t necessarily protective. Maybe if it’s so small that the ~1 in 15 (wild-assed guess) odds of drawing a bully mean you luck out? I’m not sure. It would be interesting to read up on at some point.

  18. hm says

    @19 & @20, I experienced the same at a small elementary school as well. One good thing was that the high school was consolidated from 4 elementary schools so I could avoid those people who bullied me.

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