The following is an excerpt from the new bookBullying Scarsby Ellen deLara (Oxford University Press, 2016)
In interviewing the people in my research study, I began to notice something unusual. While many of the participants spoke of the bullying episodes they experienced as traumatic and described the impact they felt at the time and what they are left with now in terms of traumatic memories, no one explicitly said they felt like they had PTSD. However, collectively, they listed many symptoms that did fit the PTSD diagnosis. Still others clearly experience what I call adult post-bullying syndrome, or APBS. I have named it this to distinguish it from PTSD.
While APBS can share some symptoms with PTSD, there are distinct differences. One is that there can be both negative and positive aspects to APBS, whereas there are no positive aspects in the research literature associated with PTSD. The negative symptoms of APBS can mimic those of PTSD or the effects seen from child abuse. These effects, similar for child abuse, APBS, and PTSD, and lasting into adulthood, can include shame, anxiety, and relational difficulties. Further, negative cognitions about the self often occur after a trauma. This trauma-related thinking is often inaccurate and serves to support and maintain PTSD. The changes in emotional reactions that characterize PTSD can lead to unexpected and often unpredictable outbursts of anger and aggression. Something can happen to which the person with PTSD just reacts. There does not appear to be an intermediary step of thinking. There is the event, then the reaction. This is a critical difference between PTSD and APBS, where adults do not tend to show this kind of event/reaction immediacy but rather seem more inclined to take no action and instead ruminate on past and present events.
While there are negative aspects of adult post-bullying syndrome, there are some unexpected positives that seem to accompany it also. In interviewing people who appear to experience APBS, I noticed that they have a tendency to exhibit some, if not all, of the following issues:
Self-Esteem Issues and Shame
“I have low self-esteem, a poor self-image, and virtually no confidence in myself.”
“Unfortunately, I took right to heart, literally, the hurtful things that were said to me. Now that I am grown up I try to see things differently, but in my core I still believe they are true.”
Self-doubt and harsh self-judgment are byproducts of childhood bullying. They leave an indelible mark on self-esteem for those who suffer with APBS. Children take to heart relentless torment through name calling and castigation of their character and looks. Years later, as adults, people can still easily recall what they were bullied about: their weight, their height, their clothes, having acne, the people to whom they were attracted. People with APBS typically report having low self-esteem. They feel a sense of shame connected to the core of their being. People who feel a great deal of shame or who are shame-based can manifest this in arrogant behavior. This can be seen in vacillations in thinking between: “I’m a loser” and “I’m better than all of you.”
Problems Trusting Others
“I find it hard to trust other men at work.”
“My worry that people are judging me is constant.”
Problems trusting others can take a generalized state form (as in “I don’t trust anybody”) or can be very specific to certain groups. People suffering with APBS tend not to trust others. They are particularly cautious in intimate relationships such as friendship and marriage, always expecting that they will be betrayed. Further, they do not trust people who look, act, or even dress like those who bullied them. This lack of trust is problematic for establishing relationships in the first place and for managing them.
Problems in Relationships
“You begin to think you don’t deserve anything. You don’t deserve a good relationship.”
“At the first sign someone is not nice, I distance myself.”
The problem of mistrusting others significantly impairs a person’s ability to connect with other people and then to stay connected. People who trust easily establish relationships readily and maintain them. They do not have attachment problems. Children who have been bullied and then end up with adult post-bullying syndrome often appear to either run from relationships or manage to get into abusive ones. After all, they have learned as children that their peers or siblings will treat them badly. For the most part, they never learned how to stop bullying as children. Consequently, they do not know how to and often do not even want to extricate themselves from physically or emotionally abusive relationships as adults. This is all they know. At the other end of the continuum are adults so scarred from their bullying experiences that they are willing to end even their marriages based on what, to others, might seem reparable. But to some adults suffering with APBS any hint of disrespect or bullying is intolerable,
“My strategy in relationships is to be a people-pleaser.”
A majority of those with adult post-bullying syndrome declared that they were “people-pleasers.” Never feeling quite good about themselves, never being good enough, based on the maltreatment they endured through bullying, they have determined that pleasing others is their best defense. It makes a kind of emotional sense. Having experienced numerous forms of bullying from verbal to emotional to sexual to physical, becoming someone that no one could object to seems like a good strategy. However, in the process authenticity of self can be lost. This is a high price to pay.
Food and Other Substance Misuse
“I drink a lot and I have used drugs to help me with the anxiety I feel about the bullying in my past.”
Numerous studies detail an association between bullying as victim, bully, or bully/victim and substance use in childhood. In my study, some adult participants reported using alcohol, other drugs, and food management to quell the feelings of anxiety or depression they experience related to bullying episodes from their childhood. Other research substantiates these findings. At this point, research on the consequences to adult mental health demonstrates long-term correlations between childhood bullying and outcomes such as anxiety, substance abuse, depression, and adult conduct disorders. One inquiry investigated bullying during 5th grade and its relationship to later heavy drinking and marijuana use. The sample was from the Raising Healthy Children project and included over 900 children. The study determined that “childhood bullying was significantly associated with violence, heavy drinking, and marijuana use” in adulthood even after controlling for other risk factors.