How Childhood Bullying Influenced How I Treat Others as an Adult


“For me, that strong back is grounded confidence and boundaries. The soft front is staying vulnerable and curious. The mark of a wild heart is living out these paradoxes in our lives and not giving into the either/or BS that reduces us. It’s showing up in our vulnerability and our courage, and, above all else, being both fierce and kind.” ~Brené Brown

Many people have experienced bullying in their lives and have possibly been a bully by association without realizing it at the time.

While the type of bullying may differ, the emotions are often the same. Bullying is never okay, and the layered pain that bullies usually possess drives how they treat others.

For me anxiety, shame, and a lack of understanding has always been present. On a regular basis, I experience pings of past bullying in my head reminiscent of the notifications that pop up on my phone.

When I reflect on my teen years, it’s the cringe-worthy moments that are the headliners. These negative experiences can stick to you like glue throughout your life.

Like every teenager, I wanted to fit in, and I wanted to feel like I belonged. Unfortunately, I never belonged where I wanted to the most.

Much of the time I felt or knew I didn’t belong, or the belonging was fake, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it. To make it just a little more complicated, I am a highly sensitive person (HSP), and at that age I didn’t understand how that impacted how I made friends and how I was treated by others.

Most of the bullying I experienced as a teen was emotional, and for a period it was physical. Standing up for myself wasn’t really in the cards as far as solutions went. I was an athlete and I lived for the sports I played. But you don’t get to choose your team, and that proved to be a dangerous reality for me.

My teammates did and said hurtful things. I’m not sure if they knew it or not, but I could hear them sometimes at practices. To this day I’m not sure if they knew that I knew; I waited on many days until I got home to fall apart. While the emotional toll has been tough, my worst memories pertain to physical bullying.

Without going into too much detail, I was targeted by teammates I thought were my friends. They picked a part of my body and thought it was funny to hit, slap, and punch me. I didn’t know what to do or how to stop it, but I didn’t stand up for myself or tell anyone that could help me either.

While the physical contact hurt, gave me headaches, and caused me to throw up, the most harmful part was that their game taught me that something was wrong with my body.

By eleventh grade, I’d developed body dysmorphia disorder, and I hid my body as much as possible. To this day sometimes my skin still burns if I feel like I’m showing too much of my body. The shame screams at me inside my head, so I cover as much skin as I can.

Earlier I wrote that it is possible to be a bully by association. Growing up, I hated when my mom said “guilt by association.” I loathe the feeling of those words ringing in my ears to this day. I didn’t stand up for myself, and I certainly didn’t have the strength or understanding that I could walk away instead of worrying about fitting in.

I can think of countless times when people who bullied me then targeted others. There were times that I didn’t say a word, times I agreed, and times I maybe laughed. I knew it was wrong. I was stuck between wanting to be accepted, not wanting to be targeted, and trying not to draw attention to myself.

I was like that in my youth, and I would get sick to my stomach about it all the time. I knew it was wrong but lacked the ability to do the right thing because of the emotional weakness that controlled me.

Knowing that I can’t go back to change those actions has made me passionate about standing up for what I believe is right as an adult. Because when you stand by, injustice just continues in a loop and things don’t change. 

I don’t know if I could have changed things back then. I don’t know if simply walking away could have helped. But I know the pain from bullying may last well into adulthood and can potentially affect someone for life.

As someone who was bullied for a lot of my youth, it took me a long time to forgive myself for bullying by association. I was guilty of harming others even if I didn’t mean to.

Now, as an adult, I am more mindful of how I want to treat others. I have developed skills, become stronger, and worked extremely hard to hold my head high (which will always be a work in progress).

At the core, I believe that people are trying their best and do not set out to harm others. While I make mistakes and sometimes need to analyze my own behavior, I live my life with a high level of intention. I use kindness to help others, but also to heal from the harmful experiences in my past.

After developing a list of practices that reflect how I want to treat people, I now intentionally use my past experiences to do the following…

1. I pause to cultivate meaningful interactions and relationships. An inner mantra is “people first.” I want to make others feel like they matter and are seen.

2. I learn about the people around me, and I show my gratitude with acts of kindness.

3. I’m honest about my past experiences and struggles to help others feel validated.

4. I openly reflect with others about behaviors, actions, and mistakes that I’ve made that have harmed others. I also share how I work to do better when I make mistakes.

5. I encourage others to give me feedback and let me know if something I’m doing is hurtful or not helpful.

6. I practice patience and kindness in the moments when I feel annoyed, angry, or sad.

7. I speak up if I don’t agree with how someone or a group is being treated.

8. I exit toxic relationships faster than I used to, realizing that toxic relationships do not just harm me but those around me too.

9. I take stock of my actions and words on a regular basis to reflect on areas I can improve or how I can be kinder.

10. I no longer allow being an HSP to shame me into not being my authentic self. I work to use sensitivity as a tool to help myself and others to truly show empathy.

I know my actions may have harmed others in the past, and I will never arrive at a point where I am magically healed from the ways others hurt me. But I believe in the power of kindness and vulnerability. An important moment in my life was when I decided that I would no longer let my past dictate how I live my life. I decided not to hide who I was anymore. And when I leaned into the discomfort of the painful experiences, I started to grow.

About Lena Lee

Lena Lee is a higher education professional who is passionate about learning and making connections with others. As Brené Brown would say, “Stay awkward, brave, and kind.”

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