I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into on my first day of high school, but I knew that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. We can blame the media, our environment, our culture, or community values as the reason(s) why so many of us struggled during our time at school.
But I’ve learned the hard way that dwelling on what caused your pain isn’t as empowering as learning from it.
Here’s some context: I grew up in a rural area of Ontario, Canada, that is split up into small towns that all come together for four or more years of high school. It took graduating and starting Conflict Studies classes in university for me to better understand some of the relationships that I struggled with in high school. They were so harsh and disintegrating that I don’t think I fully processed them until I was forced to understand their background.
One of the first things that I learned from this class is that conflict is normal and natural. Both parties can benefit and grow from conflict if they choose to look at it in that way.
Forgiveness, a key aspect of conflict resolution, relies on the understanding that the other party no longer owes you something, whether you have received an apology or not.
I learned a lot in that class, but most importantly, I realized that conflict is inevitable. However, this class seemed to leave me with more questions than when I started. The most significant one being: Why do we define conflict so differently than we define bullying? If I told you that bullying is normal and natural, you would be taken aback. So, I asked myself why conflict is different. How does a conflict between two individuals cross the line and become bullying?
I believe that the difference between conflict and bullying is the struggle for power.
During a conflict, there are oftentimes circumstances that cause power to shift between the two parties. For example, offering an apology means giving away your power to someone who may not forgive you. Offering forgiveness means taking away the power that comes from feelings of resentment and revenge. However, during cases of bullying, the power is completely one-sided.
For me, that loss of power made me realize that the conflicts that I was a part of were structured in such a way that I was actually a victim of bullying.
I have a habit of believing in the best in people. So much so that I didn’t even realize the depth of how I was treated until much later. From rumors and slander to confrontation and humiliation, I slowly realized during the process of this conflict class that I have felt powerless for so long.
Bullies make you believe that you have no power over your own situation. They make you believe that you have no power over who you are. For such a long time, I believed everything that I was told about who I was from people who did not have my best interests in mind. Giving up your power in conflict means that you have to be vulnerable, which is difficult for so many of us. I think that’s why so many conflicts reach the point of bullying. It takes courage to meet someone at the same power level when feelings are so heavily involved.
Conflict may make you feel vulnerable, but isn’t that better than the cowardice that lies underneath bullying?
Bullying in this generation has the capacity to be extremely subtle. Social media and our generally poor communication skills (just to name a few things that specifically affected me) create further difficulties for treating one another with respect. I encourage you to be cautious in watching for ways that you may be treated unfairly.
I encourage you to reflect on relationships that are making you feel so powerless that they have gone beyond conflict and reached the point of bullying.
If you’re being bullied, the most important thing to know is that there are several different ways that you can take back your power. Oftentimes, for me, it just meant walking away and ignoring deep grudges. Perhaps, for you, it will be confessing to someone that the conflict has reached the point of constant hurtful interactions.
Do not give up. There is strength in vulnerability. Dedicating yourself to this way of thinking will change the person you are for the better, even if you're still figuring out who that is.