No one likes feeling bullied.
Somewhere, deep in our memory, we all have an experience of feeling threatened, attacked, humiliated and hurt by someone who called us names, who took our lunch, someone who made us feel small and broken.
As we get older, that old feeling comes up when the old patterns of bullying are played out again. We feel the impotence, the rage, the hurt and we want to get even, want to put that damn bully in their place.
It is in this moment we have to make a decision.
Are we so overwhelmed by emotion that we get sucked into the bullies game, feeling the need to get bellicose and bully them back? Does the old fight flight or freeze reflex kick in, letting our gut make choices for us?
Or do we come to the modern bully from a more considered place, taking a stance that lets us play our own game, execute our own solutions, being the person we want to be rather than the scared, angry child that we were?
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
— Eleanor Roosevelt
Going down into that reservoir of emotion would be the easy way, but it wouldn’t be the cowboy way.
I saw an Anglican churchman from Africa explaining why his church was so much more restrictive on issues of gender than the wider Anglican communion, especially the US, where the Episcopal church not only ordains women and gay people, but even has a woman as presiding bishop.
He wanted people to know that the culture was different in Africa because, as he said, the church there was in a battle with Islam and native religion, who use the moral openness of the wider Anglican church to say that the church is weak, corrupt, broken.
The argument, in other words, was that the churchmen feel like they are getting bullied, so they have to let the bully set the agenda, have to play the bullies game by showing they are tougher and more bellicose than any other church. They surrender their own values to show they have a bigger stick.
This bellicose response to bullies is a very guy thing. Women have never been easily able to play the same game because they just don’t have the stick or the culture for it. Sadly, this is one reason women politicians often feel the need to be even more bellicose than men, to establish their “big stick” bona fides.
The African churches response to bullying is to man up, to be tougher, often keeping women out of the ministry altogether and always keeping them out of leadership. This creates a self-perpetuating model, where there are no voices to challenge the bellicose stand, leaving the most bellicose to define the actions of the church.
Women are bullied, of course, fighting power games, feeling hurt and belittled, but their response is different. Rather than pulling out a stick, they pull out their wit and charm to build networks, build consensus, build teams to gather and share power. Weak women are the ones who cannot charm others to stand with them.
For transwomen, who not only grew up being bullied as boys, but also, even more than women politicians felt the pressure to prove their “big stick” bona fides, moving beyond a bellicose approach to the world is often very difficult. We don’t have the training, don’t believe that flowing will work for us, and we have an enormous reservoir of pain, anger and shame, placed in us to try and get us to “man up.” We have a big, big, big chip on our shoulder.
Bellicose perpetuates bellicose, just as bullying usually perpetuates bullying. It takes a lot to break the cycle of pain and attack, of raising the stakes, getting more and more nasty. Even for men, though, being bellicose becomes less and less effective over time, as more young, angry bucks come up to challenge you, so they need to learn to come from a more mature and measured place, finding new ways to have power in the world.
No one likes to feel like they are being bullied, likes to feel powerless and hurt in the world. Those emotions, like so many others, can be overwhelming.
The fight, flight or freeze reaction doesn’t serve us well, though. It doesn’t let us play our own considered game, doesn’t play to our strengths, doesn’t leave us feeling empowered and content. Responding to bellicose with bellicose just lets the bullies win my making us feel small and reactionary.
We have the wit, charm, smarts and kindness to find new ways to take power in the world, power that bullies can attack but that they cannot smash unless we give them our consent. That takes a new attitude, though, one that isn’t jerked to the sensations of our emotions, one that doesn’t just leave us pulling out our “big stick.”
It takes draining that reservoir of shame and hurt so it doesn’t flood our choices, becoming open minded and open hearted.
Bellicose sometimes wins a battle or two, but it never wins the peace that creates blossoming lives. If that peace is what we really want, then we have to become new and become kind, not reactionary.