Gangs or cliques or mobs form in families, at schools and in the workplace. They go after designated scapegoats. At home, toxic parents, siblings or close or distant relatives often single out innocent targets and try to get everyone else to turn against them.
For example: Jane was appalled that suddenly her aunt was angry at her. Her aunt’s attacks started with seemingly small, negative comments about clothes, hair and make up. In Jane’s close, extended family no one objected. They didn’t want to offend her aunt or start fights. The family gathered almost every week and their closeness was very important.
Jane apologized to her aunt for whatever she might have done but her aunt never acknowledged that she was angry or that her remarks were nasty or wrong. Even worse, when no one defended Jane, her aunt’s verbal harassment increased. She criticized or mocked Jane at every opportunity about everything.
Soon, Jane’s aunt’s husband joined in and then another aunt piled on. Then two cousins joined. They colluded with and enabled the aunt. Some even told all the secrets Jane had confided in them. It was as if her life had been exposed and picked apart by hyenas.
Jane was crushed but no matter how she cried or pleaded, they never acknowledged that they were bullying or abusing her. Sometimes one would say that they were just telling the truth or that they were trying to help Jane or that Jane deserved it.
Jane began to dread the family gatherings but she was stuck. She was required to attend. Also, she was desperate for her family’s approval and respect. She couldn’t imagine life without them.
Finally, during one particularly vicious afternoon, Jane had had it. She rushed out of the house and vowed that she wouldn’t put up with the abuse any more. When Jane’s mother criticized her for leaving her wonderful family and for causing a potential rift, Jane couldn’t hold her tongue anymore.
She told her mother she couldn’t stand being the target of these attacks. She didn’t want to be around people who thought those horrible things about her. She hated all the people who supposedly loved her but weren’t standing up for her. They should know her character better that that. Getting away was more important that staying with people who treated her that way.
Jane changed her perspective and priorities. Jane decided she’d been looking for solutions in all the wrong places. She’d been asking the wrong questions and having hopes that wouldn’t be fulfilled. For example:
- She’d been thinking that if she explained herself and how much she was being hurt, they’d understand and love her like they used to and stop being so critical. She also thought that by trying to talk with them calmly and nicely, they’d respect her and be nice to her in return.
- She had focused on why they said those horrible things. Their attacks didn’t make any sense; why did they do it; didn’t they have a conscience?
- She had thought that if she could understand why they did it, she could apologize for whatever they were angry about and then they’d love her again.
Now she saw things differently and it all made sense to her.
- She had done nothing in particular to deserve how her aunt treated her. Her aunt was simply a nasty person; had always been, but the family had tolerated her aunt’s behavior in the name of “family.”
- Her aunt’s rule was that if you don’t do what she wanted right now, you’re bad or evil and deserve to be destroyed whenever she felt like it or got around to it. And if she changed her mind in five minutes, you must do the new thing, not the old thing, even if it’s opposite. Jane’s aunt was a narcissist; in her mind she was always justified in doing what she wanted.
- Her aunt took no responsibility for doing anything wrong or for making things better. In fact, the more Jane tried to heal the breach, the more her aunt thought Jane was weak and vulnerable. That encouraged her to attack Jane even more. That seemed weird to Jane but it was accurate.
- Jane realized that a cousin who used to be the prime target of her aunt’s vicious tongue and gang of followers had moved away. Her aunt simply needed another target and had selected Jane as the weakest and sweetest person and, therefore, the one most likely to tolerate it.
- Jane could see the answer to her question; “Why do people pile on?” Typical reasons are that it feels good to some people when they put down someone else or they’re afraid to resist the nastiest person in the room or they’re jealous or they’re cowards with “good” excuses. Behaving like that made no sense to Jane, but she saw that it was accurate.
Now, she could stop thinking about those subjects. Jane realized that it didn’t matter why. Nothing reasonable on her part would make her aunt stop. What mattered was that they did abuse her and she wouldn’t stand for it any more.
She’d protect herself and see who’d stand with her. She might be a target but she wouldn’t be a victim. She felt powerful; she didn’t need them to empower her. She’d stand up, no matter what the consequences. She’d make herself worth protecting.
Jane’s anti-bullying program:
- She stopped asking useless questions and stopped accepting the role they wanted her to play. She stood up and shined a light on what was happening. Protecting herself was more important than sacrificing her heart and spirit on the altar of some “family value.”
- In her own mind and then in public, Jane labeled her aunt’s behavior as “nasty” or “bullying” or “abusive” or “evil.” She never argued with the content or accusation her aunt was making. She attacked the act of making such vicious comments. She ignored her aunt’s hurt feelings and anger at what Jane said.
- On occasions when her statements didn’t stop her aunt, Jane turned to the rest of the family and challenged them. “Are you going to stand by and let her be so mean? Don’t you care about me? I thought you loved me? We’re not talking about whether what she says is true; we’re talking about how we treat each other. This is a bad example to set for the kids. I thought we were supposed to be kind in this family? Who would want to be part of such a family?”
- If the gang didn’t stop, she spoke more straight-forwardly: “You cowards, ganging up on me to enable that nasty old woman. You should be ashamed of yourselves. I hope your kids treat you the same way when they grow up.”
- If people didn’t defend her, she held her head up high and left. And she made sure that she did something that was a fun treat, just in case they asked later. When she did leave one family gathering, she made sure not to attend the next one.
- At first, her relatives were surprised and shocked by the new Jane. They phoned her in confidence to try to force her, using blame, shame and guilt, to be quiet and not upset the family. They had many reasons why she should put up with her aunt’s behavior. Later, they told her that they were secretly impressed by her courage and strength.
- The people in her aunt’s gang called and were very vicious and nasty. She hung up on them.
- Of course, people wanted her to change because they all thought that the aunt was the most difficult and resistant person in the room. Typically, people try to change the easiest person, not the most difficult. But when they saw that Jane would not back down and that they must make a choice, they turned on Jane’s aunt and demanded that she stop. They also attacked the members of her aunt’s gang. Deep down, they all knew that criticism and harassment were not the way they wanted members of their family treating each other.
- Jane never let on that their treatment hurt her feelings. Over time, she was surprised that her feelings got hurt less and less.
- The moment of truth came when her aunt threatened not to come to family gatherings. It was her or Jane, she demanded. She was stunned when most of the relatives said they’d choose Jane. That’s when Jane’s aunt started to back down.
Jane’s situation was, unfortunately, very typical. Bullies don’t stop bullying because they’re asked to or begged or appeased. They don’t stop if their behavior is minimized or ignored. They only stop if they are stopped. Some people won’t stop even then; they insist on being in control and being right. They’d rather leave than give in.
In Jane’s case, her aunt and her gang gave in. They weren’t gracious and Jane never again shared her inner life with her aunt or the gang, but at least they could be polite and civil on family occasions.
Actually, in other areas of her life, Jane was pleasantly surprised. The act of standing up for herself against her aunt had changed Jane. Jane was now able to ask for what she wanted and to pursue the goals she set for herself. Instead of being a shy, retiring wallflower, she felt full of self-confidence. She became a successful person whom others noticed and respected.
Since all tactics depend on the situation, expert coaching by phone or Skype helps. Call me to design a plan that fits you and your situation. And build your will and skill to carry it out effectively.