When I was a young adult, I got a letter from an old schoolmate apologizing for some of her behavior during our school days. The letter surprised me, mainly because I had no memory of the incidents that she described. I realized that I probably had been the victim of her bullying, but it didn’t affect me. I didn’t care enough about her opinion to even notice the incidents, much less get upset. Of course, I didn’t tell her that fact, and I responded graciously to her letter, but the incident taught me a strong lesson. The best way to protect ourselves, and for our children to protect themselves, from bullying is to not give many people much power over our feelings.
Of course, that’s easier said that done. But there are ways we can develop a thicker skin, and show our children how to become more resistant to bullying. The skill is one that we have to demonstrate; there is nothing we can say to our children that they will understand unless they see the skill in action.
• Believe in Your Self Worth
The foundation of resisting other people’s opinion is valuing our own worth. Our self-esteem has to be robust enough to withstand criticism and setbacks. Telling ourselves that we are valuable may help temporarily, but it is not enough for strong self-esteem. For that, we need to recognize our tangible accomplishments. For example, I was a socially awkward child and teenager, and didn’t really develop any sense of self-esteem until I discovered in college that I was a very good debater. The intercollegiate team gave me a solid group of friends, and the awards I won convinced me that I had skills after all. Of course, I went overboard for a while and was insufferably arrogant, but eventually I grew into a more modest, but still strong, sense of my own value. Having those tangible accomplishments and friendships helped me worry less about the opinions of other people that I met later in life.
Each of us has skills and positive traits that our society may or may not recognize as valuable. Full time homemakers sometimes feel undervalued, but they have an incredibly valuable impact on their children and the larger society. I am in awe of people with the patience and skill set to care for medically fragile children, as well as friends who have stepped back from challenging jobs to care for ill family members. We rarely need to accomplish great things; we just need to properly value the small but important things that we have accomplished.
• Define Our Core Values
It is impossible to ignore other people’s opinions if we follow those opinions to set our values. Yes, social norms are important, but even more important are our core values. We need to define for ourselves, apart from social fads, the core principles that define our lives. I find those values in my religious beliefs, but other people may find them in philosophy or another source. We have to find values that guide us when things seem to be falling apart and that can provide a center to build the rest of our lives around. Once we know those values, they also will help us evaluate other people’s opinions and decide whether we want to pay attention to them or not.
• Control What You Can Control
We can’t control other people’s opinions, and trying to do that will simply make us crazy. We can control our reactions to those opinions. We tell our children this principle all the time. They need to see us doing what we tell them to do. There may be concrete steps that we can take, such as dropping off social media or finding a new group of friends. If those actions can’t or don’t work, then we have to work on regulating our emotions and talking ourselves through the process.
• Be Honest About How Hard It Is
Finally, we have to be honest with ourselves and our kids that this process is not an easy one. It takes a lot of practice, which in turn takes a lot of time. There is no quick fix.
We also need to be honest with our kids about how the opinions can hurt. If we discount our own pain, then our kids likely will see us as somehow different from them, and not someone who has been through the same process they are going through.
Another difficult aspect is finding the right balance. We are not self-sufficient, and we do sometimes need the guidance of other opinions. I’ve gotten myself in trouble in some jobs because I wasn’t sufficiently concerned about my supervisors’ opinions. We have to learn how to care about opinions that can show us where we need to improve, while ignoring opinions that only sap our energy. For example, I need to care about my client’s opinion of my legal ability, but not what they think about my fashion sense or reading choices.
Arming ourselves and our children against bullying is not easy, but it is an important life skill. If we can model behavior for them that shows what we are saying, they will learn far more from lectures alone. We can change our attitudes, and in the process show them how to change theirs.