I was bullied a lot as a kid, and I want to tell you a story about power.
Seventh grade had just ended. Even more than the summer sun, freedom and excitement filled the air, but not for me.
I quietly sat on the bus home, harassed yet again by who we’ll call Z. Z was the scariest bully I ever had. He rarely actually hit me, but the fear that he would was worse, and I always felt the smoldering rage in him, even when he appeared happy.
I sat a few seats behind the apathetic driver. Z stood above me in the aisle pushing my head toward the window, as if to throw it against the glass. The muscles in my neck burned with pain, each push harder than the last. I was trapped. The driver did nothing. Tears started to burn my eyes.
Then something in me snapped, and what happened then was beyond my control.
I wheeled around and lurched toward Z, who stumbled backward, barely maintaining his balance. His shirt collar was bunched in my right fist and ten bus seats blurred by as I propelled him toward the back of the bus. I remember the shock and fear in his eyes as my left fist struck his face. I didn’t feel my fist hit him. I didn’t feel anything but blind rage and terror, somehow strong and weak at the same time.
I don’t remember going back to my seat. I just remember uncontrollably sobbing all the way home.
“Why are you crying?” the bus driver asked, “He’s the one who got hit.”
I wept because I was terrified: of the retribution I’d surely earned, so I thought, but years later realized it was also because I feared my own power, which had erupted in a way beyond my control, causing me to do what was necessary but seemed impossible.
I dared just once to look back at Z in the driver’s oversized rear view mirror. He was red-faced and deflated, vaguely consoled by a friend who sat next to him in the last seat.
I spent the entire summer anxious about returning to school and seeing Z again. The first day of 8th grade I was cold with dread, but nothing happened. I looked over my shoulder for a week, but Z never bothered me again.
This incident from my childhood was what I thought about when I watched the Trump and Biden debate last week. I saw a bully and a man unable to stand up to him. I see this a lot in our world.
It was entirely predictable that Trump would try to bully his way through another debate, and Biden was not equal to the task. He did, remarkably, at one point say, “Will you shut up, man?” but that was not enough.
What was called for was something like this:
Mr. President, is your impulse control so weak that you can’t be quiet for two minutes, as you agreed to? Or do you actually think that the American people are duped by your teenage attempt at bullying? I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that you don’t keep your word, but it’s high time for some accountability. You always seem to think the rules don’t apply to you and clearly you need someone to tell you, “No.”
At this point, the only topic I’m willing to talk about is how we’re going to have an orderly and civilized debate, because there’s no way I’m going to allow you to keep interrupting.
Furthermore, Mr. Moderator, this is just as much your failure, because you’re not doing your job: moderating. Are you confused about what that means? Do you want to resign right now and give the job to someone who has enough spine to do it? Either we sort this out right now, or the debate ends.
The American people deserve a thoughtful, coherent debate on the issues, and I won’t participate in what so far is a farce. We’re supposed to be leaders, Mr. President, and that right now that means conducting a debate in a way most ninth-graders can. Can you do that, or do we need to cut your mic when it’s not your turn?
Bullies in our world have a bad reputation, but I don’t see them as the bad guys. They’re weak, insecure, and filled with shame. They’re emotionally crippled on such a deep level that they have to control other people to feel safe. Bullies like this are years of deep therapy away from changing, so it’s foolish to expect them to be any different unless they encounter a boundary.
I see the function of bullies as testing the strength of the rest of us, because I know from experience how terrifying it is to confront them. My issues with self-authority drew dozens of bullies to me over the years, until my early forties, and it wasn’t until I stood in that power that they stopped coming.
Bullies are a powerful way that Life forces us to find our power.
Stop blaming them and face the fear you have of your own power. That’s the fear that bullies prey upon. Take it back from them. I’m not talking about the president, because it’s unlikely that he’s a part of your life. I’m talking about the bullies you know, even if it’s subtle. I’m talking about the people you don’t bring your complete truth to.
These are the people you allow to dominate and say to yourself, “Well, I have to pick my battles,” or “It’s not that bad, I can take this.” When you put false harmony above truth, you give your power away to those who feed off of it, and then play victim to the situation you create, and tell yourself bullshit about how difficult people are, how complex life is, or whatever other fantasy you make up to justify your own cowardice.
No one can take your power. No one. That’s not how it works. You can only give it away. Look and see where you do that.
Do you know someone in your community that most people think is toxic, but no one will confront them? Do you realize that the withholding of truth by the so-called “victims” is hurting that person and keeping them stuck?
Does a voice in your head say, “Well, I don’t know if it would do any good. Confronting that person would just make it worse”?
It might. You don’t get to know in advance, that’s what courage is for. Because what you really mean is, “I’m afraid of my own power and I care more about being liked and accepted than truth.” That’s your own form of bullying. It’s a form of control.
This, by the way, is the same thing politicians do that you may scathingly criticize, which I addressed in another article about lack of accountability, where I quoted former senator Al Franken, who said about working in the senate, “You have to be collegial, you can’t be a toxic coworker…to get things done… your word has to be good…It is like a small town…there’s no percentage of making enemies.”
Let’s pause and evaluate the productivity of our 100 senators attempting to be externally collegial while each half internally thinks the other half is insane. How well is that level of authenticity working?
Politely tiptoeing around bullies in the name of harmonious productivity doesn’t work; in fact, it’s a prerequisite for every dictator who’s ever ruled.
But it works beautifully for getting what you want while minimizing accountability and exposure to risk, which is exactly what the ego does.
Your ego controls other people’s perceptions of you by only revealing what will be accepted. It allows people in your life to play out their toxicity when you could function as a powerful mirror for them and help them grow, if you had the guts and didn’t need them to like or help you.
I don’t know if I changed Z’s life when I punched him in the face, but I did my part to represent truth at the risk of my own peril and it changed my life forever.
Truth isn’t about what you know will work ahead of time. That’s ego-based, manipulative strategy. Truth is risky, vulnerable, and raw, and it’s rare in our world. And while my example was violent (though appropriate for my age and the moment), I’m not advocating for that. Truth can and should be delivered with kindness and grace as much as is possible and appropriate to the situation.
How would you respond if tomorrow every single person in your life told you the same difficult truth about their experience of you? Would you ignore all of them? Or would it light a fire under you to change? Would you want that kind of feedback?
In the end, it could be that the cowardly desire for comfort kills us all. That’s what hangs in the balance. Notice how Life has no problem doling out consequences for our behavior. Doesn’t it make sense to emulate That?
If you’re interested in discovering the next level of your own power, I invite you to consider becoming a Clear and Open member. It’s education and training unlike you’ve probably ever experienced.