Bullying in all its forms is cruel. There are times, though, when the bully is so subtle, so devious, that we wonder, 'Am I wrong? Am I making this up?'

The bullying I encountered in my first job as a psychologist, from not just one, but two,  people, was like that. It took over a year for me to figure out that the reason my self-esteem was crumbling was that my bosses took every opportunity to find fault with me in the form of "constructive criticism". Direct harassment I could recognize and do something about. This was worse. I was just beginning to develop my identity as a full-fledged professional. That made me vulnerably dependent on the feedback of my supervisors, those people who had the responsibility to train me and and help me gain confidence as a professional. They abused that power.

Then there's middle school. My high school age kids say that all those TV shows about high school drama really have it wrong. If you are looking for drama go to a middle school. My daughter, S, had a similar experience to mine. My daughter wrote:

"A few years ago, three girls, one of whom I had known for three years, turned on me for absolutely no reason. And that wasn’t even the worst part. I mean obviously it hurt a lot that they suddenly pretended I didn't exist, but what hurt even more was how they would whisper and make fun of me at school.

Obviously it wasn’t like the kind of teasing that is shown on television; the clichéd tough bully praying on a small defenseless geek. No, it was three girls going around being sly and evil, which in my opinion is worse.

During all of this I felt miserable. I cried myself to sleep many nights. I most definitely let these girls get to me and I began to question myself in a million ways. One day, as I was listening to my iPod in my room, as I do almost everyday. I came across this song, and suddenly the meaning behind the words sunk in, You're Exceptional by Jojo. I realized that these girls could do anything they wanted, but they would not destroy my self-esteem. That's when I finally told my Mom what was going on."

In middle school, like in your first job out of grad school, you are vulnerable to the feedback of others. You aren't fully formed yet and every hurt sticks, hard. Mean people smell weakness and go for it because doing so makes them feel powerful. See Queen Bees and Wanabees

S was not herself, but she needed to tell me in her own time. I would ask her how she was, take her out one-on-one, make sure she knew I was around ready to listen. When she started to open up about her friends turning on her I had to rein back the impulse to say they were all garbage and good riddance! That wouldn't be helpful to S.

She had to live with these people. S couldn't quit middle school the way I ultimately quit my job when the bosses became toxic. We needed help. I was grateful that our public school district has excellent behavioral health staff. S and I talked with her school counselor, Ms. C, who was perfect. Ms. C took S's concern seriously, helped her confront her tormenters directly and as a result they backed off. When the same thing happened a year later with another set of girls, S was able to handle it. It still hurt, but she had the confidence to deal with it herself. 

Similarly, years after I quit the earlier job with the horrible bosses, I found myself with another bully/supervisor. He appeared to enjoy giving me mediocre performance reviews. He actually said he couldn't give me higher scores because then I wouldn't have anything to work toward! No opportunity to make me feel small was left unturned. Like my daughter, the second time around it still hurt but I was quicker to see the bully in the bad boss. Wiser, older and with a stronger self-esteem I was able to leave quicker, too.

My daughter and I both felt confused, depressed and helpless until we shared our story with someone else. She talked to me, I am proud to say, and when I was having trouble with my boss I spoke to my husband. That was the turning point. If you think you might be bullied, harassed or in any way taken advantage of, talk to a friend, your parents, your spouse, anyone who you know for sure will have your back. Talk to them today.