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I, like many, was a child who was bullied. Constantly and for years. I had it harder than some, not as hard as others. I was never physically attacked (besides the occasional shove here and there), my experience was mostly bullying through insult and exclusion. And while having to deal with that was hard, what made it harder was the fact that no one was capable of supporting me effectively.

From one of my absolute favorite webcomics, xkcd

In my experience society tends to take a triage approach to bullying. Is someone acting physically violently toward you? We know how to handle that! There are lots of systems in place for dealing with it – not all ultimately positive – but we understand it on a fundamental level (hitting = bad) so we prioritize it. And rightfully so, physical violence is incredibly traumatic (sometimes fatally so) and, particularly for LGBTQ children and adults, an unconscionably common experience. Emotional violence, on the other hand, affects people in intensely personal ways, ways we can’t fully internalize because the experience is theirs. Combine that with a victim-blaming my-word-against-theirs culture and the social stigma of therapy and we get a system which dismisses and minimizes (and contributes to) the long-term emotional damage of non-physical bullying.

“Just ignore them and they’ll stop.”

Don’t take it personally.”

“They just don’t understand you.”

“It’s ok, we love you.”

Words can’t hurt you.

All of these aphorisms and more are so common and incredibly well-intentioned but not the least bit effective in actually providing support to someone in need of it. They don’t encourage the victim to identify and process the feelings of sadness and isolation and anger and confusion they feel. While said out of love and a desperate desire to help without the tools to do so, they don’t actually acknowledge our experiences or guide us in creating an identity that simultaneously incorporates and transcends those experiences.

Earlier this year a spoken word poem called “To This Day”, written and performed by Shane Koyczan and overlaid with contributions from over 80 visual artists, went viral and I was hesitant. So many Facebook comments about its power and truth. Subconsciously I didn’t know if I was ready to turn around and face that part of myself, the part that I’d suppressed so well for two decades. I’d moved on hadn’t I? I’ve created an identity and a life that I love. I’m at peace with my past and have moved on!

I found a private place and watched it.

I wept for 20 minutes.

I wept again when I re-watched it while writing this post.

(If you have a little extra time I recommend Shane’s TEDTalk which includes the poem above and more thoughts[1])

I cried because someone had finally acknowledged all of my experiences and feelings. I cried because I finally felt inclusion. I felt respect. I felt grief. I felt relief. I felt joy. I felt overwhelming pain and overwhelming love.

For the first time in my life, really, I FELT.

I cried because just that simple act of acknowledgement, after such a long time, revealed to me just how profoundly and deeply I was affected by my experiences. How that fundamentally informed how I related to myself and the people around me, how I approached relationships, and even how I perceived my own personal value.

At that moment I found opened a flood gate of self-awareness that I didn’t even know was closed. I almost immediately began relating to everything and everyone in new and more engaged and complete ways that are beautiful and satisfying. At the same time I felt sad that it took me until I was almost 30 to have these realizations. That, if it weren’t for a viral YouTube video I may never have processed those feelings.

We spend a lot of time deconstructing and postulating about the “why” of bullies themselves. What is their home life like? What is the source of their anger? … And those are incredibly important questions to address, but at the same time let’s also ask their victims how they are affected. How they feel and how they’d like to be supported. How they perceive themselves and their relationships as a result of their experiences. Let’s acknowledge and respect their struggle and provide guidance for creating an intentional identity.

Sticks and stones never broke my bones but words…

they hurt me for decades to come.

Please respect their power.

[1] The “To This Day Project” also has a website here with links to bullying and support resources along with the video, a transcription of the poem, animator contributions, and even an app.