School bullying causes long-lasting mental-health problems and lifelong psychological damage

Joe Donan

Kids photo created by Rawpixel on Freepik

Bullying: The practice of mortifying and humiliating the weak and defenseless for the sake of the perpetrator’s entertainment. It’s a ruthless exercise of power and a statement of dominance, based on an evident unbalance of power between abusers and victims. Worst of all, this type of cruel behavior can scar people for life.

I know this well, for I was bullied during the entirety of my formative years, and it deeply affected my self-esteem and my self-image. It also distorted my perception of others and the world, making me overly unsocial and misanthropic.

The bullying got the best of me and changed me into a person I never wanted to be. However, I managed to overcome my resentment and frustration thanks to my love for reading. This is the story of how it happened.

Growing up as a puny nerd

As a kid, I was a short, socially awkward, and stern-looking, nerd with little to no interest in team sports. Over the years, that combination earned me a series of hurtful nicknames, each new one more humiliating than the last.

I was also at the receiving end of continuous physical abuse. I remember being punched, kicked, spat on, pushed around, put in a choke-hold, throat-grabbed, tripped, and turned upside down, for no other reason than being physically unimposing, and therefore, an easy target. I even had my head smashed hard against the floor once. Man, did that hurt.

Being bullied is no joke. According to the Centers For Disease Control, bullying is now a major public health concern, as victims experience stress-related physical health issues as well as long-lasting mental health problems.

I can attest to that. When I was about 14, I started to feel depressed. I never felt suicidal, but I often wanted to disappear, never to be seen again. To make matters worse, I couldn’t even approach the girls I liked out of fear of rejection and ridicule. In my mind, I was nothing but an unlikable freak.

During high school, verbal and physical abuse got more frequent and intense. Back then, I was literally surrounded by bullies: they sat next to me, behind me, in front of me, and even diagonally. Even my PE instructor belittled me in front of my classmates, to my face, and behind my back. Talk about unprofessional.

The adverse effects of bullying in my adult life

Over the years, resentment had built up inside me. I deeply despised most of my classmates and by the time I finished high school, I was convinced most people were mean and out to harm me. Worst of all, I started believing myself to be morally and intellectually superior to everyone else. If they were all bad, then I had to be the good guy, right?

I had become misanthropic and delusional. During my college years, I used to look down on others and avoided their company. Deep inside, I was convinced my classmates were potentially dangerous and would be cruel to me if I ever gave them a chance to get near.

Due to my paranoia, I became overly selective with those I allowed myself to talk to, instead of letting friendship occur naturally, as it should. As a result, I was never really a member of any social circles, but the acquaintance of a few, scattered individuals.

By that time, I had also turned into a huge drama queen, tending to interpret anything as a personal attack. Not only that, but I overreacted to every single bad thing that ever happened to me, big or small. This led me to suffer long fits of depression.

I had become extremely unlikeable. No one talked to me, and most people found me insufferable. I longed for love and acceptance, but at the same time, I despised everybody. I was more lonely and confused than ever before.

As if inspired by Pink Floyd, I had built a proverbial wall to keep others away from me, failing to realize I’d trapped myself behind it in the process. The bullying I endured all those years had turned me into an embittered, bigoted, antisocial, and shallow excuse of a man in his twenties.

Little did I know things were about to take a turn, as a series of written revelations would point me in the right direction to tear down that wall and take control of my life again.

The literature that helped me out

Bullying sucked out the love for reading I had as a kid. But for some reason, I picked it up again about ten years ago, not realizing it would help me cope with the stress of my bullying-influenced adulthood.

I wasn’t looking for self-help. I just happened to have access to these books and, coincidentally, they gave me the necessary food for thought that I needed to start working on the harmful effects bullying had on me.

Getting a new perspective on individuality

The first ray of light came to me after reading the novel Veronika Decides To Die, by Paulo Coelho. The novel taught me two lessons:

  1. The world has labels for social misfits, but that’s not a reason to be ashamed; and
  2. It’s never too late to reinvent yourself and find meaning in your life.

Up to that point, I’d always hated myself for being a nerd and for prioritizing my studies over sports and social relationships. The novel inspired me to embrace and celebrate my identity as a geek, rather than being ashamed of myself for being one.

My newly-found self-acceptance was a nice first step, but I would need more than some Paulo Coelho to get me out of the hole I was in.

Building my inner strength and resilience

Sometime later, I heard about Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl and his book Man’s Search For Meaning. The book covers a large number of philosophical takeaways, but there were two that truly resonated with me:

  1. You have the power to choose how to react to whatever happens to you, no matter how badly you’ve been treated; making your choice of attitude the ultimate form of human freedom; and
  2. You can find meaning in your life even in the most painful and adverse circumstances.

If Coelho had taught me to stop feeling ashamed of being a nerd, Frankl was teaching me to be resilient and to chose how to react to life’s ups and downs, rather than letting circumstances dictate how I feel.

As a result, I started to accept life as it came, embracing the pain from the past and choosing not to hold grudges against my former bullies or prejudice against others anymore. If a man who went through the horrors of the Holocaust could keep himself composed, then I could too.

Two problems addressed, one more to go.

Putting an end to my entitlement

Some time ago, I stumbled upon The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***, a book by blogger Mark Manson. This book taught me three lessons:

  1. The more you care about trivial situations and past traumas, the more you’re bound to suffer unnecessarily and be distracted in the present.
  2. Although you can not choose what happens to you, you’re always responsible for how you react to these events (Basically, it was Frankl’s teaching applied to modern-day settings); and,
  3. You are no more than an average person. Your problems and experiences are not exclusive to you. Therefore, you are not extraordinary, you deserve no special treatment, and you’re not automatically better or worse than anyone else.

These principles helped me realize that just because I had been hurt in the past didn’t mean I was right in judging everyone and believing myself above the rest of the world.

I can’t possibly express how liberating it was to learn these lessons. It was like suddenly taking a burden off my shoulders: Even though I could still feel the pain across my back, I could no longer feel its weight dragging me down.

The takeaway

If you have been a victim of bullying, and you’re still coping with the pain and frustration that comes with it, applying these three concepts will make things easier for you:

  • Don’t hate yourself for being who you are. Celebrate your individuality, and work on becoming the best version of yourself you can, no matter what others say or think of you, or how badly you’ve been treated in the past.
  • Learn to let go. The longer you hold on to grudges, the longer you live in defeat by your bullies. When you say goodbye to resentment, you’ll know a higher level of happiness and peace. Just forgive, forget, and move on.
  • Finally, be strong. You may not have control over what happens to you, but you can always decide how you react to it. It’s not about ignoring your problems and looking at the bright side, but about accepting adverse situations and deciding to be happy in spite of them.

Of course, I won’t pretend I’m successfully over all the bullying I experienced in my childhood. There are still traces of resentment and bitterness lurking in the far recesses of my mind, memories of frustration and humiliation that will never go away, and scars of a painful past that will probably never fade.

However, now that I look back, I can proudly say even those horrible experiences were key in shaping me into the man I am today: A husband, a father, an educator, and a writer.

To my bullies — if you’re reading this — you don’t need to apologize to me Billy Madison-style. Know that I’ve already forgiven you all and that I wish nothing but the best in life for you.


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Salvadoran writer, father, husband, educator, and artisan. I write about love and relationships, family, life lessons, and personal growth.


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