If there is one thing that virtually all of the LGBTQ folks that I’ve ever known have in common, it is the experience of having been bullied in childhood. All of the research shows that LGBTQ youth are bullied at much higher rates than their straight counterparts (who already deal with too much of it themselves). The effects on young people are well-documented: increased risk for suicide, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and social isolation, among other painful consequences.
But only in recent years has research confirmed what psychotherapists have long known; that the negative effects of childhood bullying are long-lasting and can still be felt up to 40 years later. In one study, adults who were childhood victims of bullying were found to be more likely to be unemployed, earn less and have lower educational levels than people who had not been bullied. They were also less likely to be in a relationship or have good social support; and to report lower quality of life and life satisfaction than their peers who had not been bullied. When you’re taught in your formative years that there are people in this world who will go out of their way to torment you, none of this should be surprising.
Bullying is always a shaming experience. The terrorizing, ridicule, taunting and ostracism are meant to make the victims feel small, worthless, helpless, and ridiculous. The tragedy is that it works. When children are bullied (or subjected to any kind of abuse), they almost can’t help but interpret the experiences as accurate reflections of their worth as human beings. They internalize the judgments, and come to see themselves as “less than” – defective, unlovable, worthy only of contempt, and so on. Later, even if they come to accept the sexual orientation or gender non-conformity that was the original excuse for the bullying, a kind of free-floating shame can still lurk in the background, and continue to cause damage.
One form of shame that can linger on in adults is a blanket shame about their human vulnerabilities. As physical beings, every one of us can be overpowered, wounded, and made to hurt. As social animals, since we all need to belong, to be loved and respected, we can all be deeply hurt by scorn and rejection. If you’ve been bullied it means that someone else has used your human vulnerabilities to make you suffer physical or emotional pain. Too often the result is that we come to despise our own humanity – to see it as weak and inherently degraded – to hate ourselves for our sensitivities and susceptibilities; and to long for a humanly impossible sense of invulnerability and fearlessness. It is by this route that the bullied sometimes become bullies themselves.
And against the long-term damage that bullying can cause, psychotherapy has essentially one weapon – to provide a safe and supportive environment where survivors of this abuse can tell their stories in detail. It is amazing how many survivors have never talked about what happened to them even decades after it happened. Many have learned to minimize it – to treat it as no big deal, as just a rite of passage that young people move through and get over. That is why so many survivors, when they finally begin to talk about it, are shocked to discover how intense their buried pain still is.
If there are painful events in your past which you keep secret, and which, to this day, cause you to cringe whenever you remember them, then these are the very stories which you need to share with at least one trusted friend or therapist. We are social animals to the core. Just as we only learn shame and self-hatred from others, so we also can’t learn self-compassion and self-respect until we first see them in the gaze of at least one other human being. Sharing our secrets is never easy to do. It takes great courage to speak our truths when our oldest experiences have taught us that to do so can be suicidal; and yet this apparently reckless act of faith is the first step on the road to victory over our pasts.