How Bullying Leads to Perfectionism

I had an illuminating session with a 9 year old boy recently. He taught me a lot. Let’s call him Peter (not his real name). His mother was concerned that he is afraid to guess at something, just in case he might be wrong. He could sit for an hour or more and not put pen to paper. The last time this happened, the entire class had moved on and was engaged in a fun activity. All he had to do was complete 10 items and he could’ve joined them, but he refused. He didn’t want to be wrong.

His mother and I tried being reasonable—“Mistakes are good. If you don’t make mistakes you can’t learn.” But he wasn’t budging. Then I asked him how he felt about missing out on all the fun activities. He said, rather convincingly, that he didn’t care. This seemed perplexing to me. I challenged him, and asked, “How come you don’t care?” He stared at me blankly, but not changing his position. Then I asked him, “What have you done, that you deserve to be treated this way? Why are you punishing yourself with such harsh treatment?” With tears in his eyes, he said, “I don’t know. I just do.”

Then I remembered another boy I had treated a few years ago. He wasn’t allowing himself to eat in restaurants, for fear of germs and strange toilets. I had said to him, “It’s like you have a bully in your mind that’s not letting you go out and have fun. What do you do when someone tries to bully you on the school yard. He said, “I fight back. I don’t let anyone bully me.” I said, “Well, what are you going to do about that bully in your mind.” The next session he arrived to inform me that he was now eating in restaurants. No one was going to bully him anymore!” So, I said to Peter, “It’s like there’s this bully in your mind telling you that you can’t make any mistakes ever!” And then Peter opened up, and through tears told his mother and I that it was true—“I am just not good enough. I have to do better and be better so that they will like me.” Where did he get the idea that he was not as good as others and needed to work extra hard to find inclusion and acceptance?

Peter had had a lot of experience being bullied by others. He’s a bit different. He doesn’t like sports, being more interested in science and visiting places on Google Earth than in rough housing. He has a well developed vocabulary and is probably a lot smarter than your average 9 year old boy. He was taunted and teased mercilessly a few years ago, and it looks as if he’s internalized, taken in what others have said about him. When you are young, even true for most grown-ups, words have a power and we tend to believe them, especially when they are repeated a few times. The children’s refrain of “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is a child’s way of fighting back against words—using the power of words to deny the power of words! But words do hurt and do enter into our self-image unless we fight back and reject them. In Peter’s case he had believed what was said about him, decided he was worthless and that he should torture himself for his worthlessness. He needed to be rescued from this.

Peter needed to learn about bullying talk, why kids bully other kids and what benefit they gain from it. Generally children bully for three reasons:

1) Because they were bullied and they are giving to another what they got from someone;

2) Because they think by putting someone else down, they will put themselves up;

3) Because someone is different from them and they are threatened when someone is different. Children want to fit in and want others to be like them, so that they feel normal and OK.

Once a child learns how and why children engage in bullying behaviour, it is easier to start fighting back and defending oneself, either by using mental tools, such as an imaginary shield that doesn’t let the hurtful words penetrate to one’s heart, or by using a quick comeback, such as “Whatever!” Or “You don’t say!” I have also found that it’s the oldest child in the family or the only child who is most hurt by the taunts of others in the schoolyard. Children with older siblings have lots of practice dealing with being teased, while only children or the oldest child often deals with adults who are generally nice to them. When others are mean, some children take it more personally than the child whose daily life is filled with childish teasing.

Peter absorbed some of this new knowledge like a sponge and went home to think about it all. I went home thinking about “Perfectionism” in a different way. Peter needed to realize that he was doing to himself what the other children had been doing to him and that he needed to stop that and be kind to himself—treat himself the way he treated others and wanted to be treated.