Sunday, June 17, 2018

My dad taught me how to deal with bullies, because he was one

Read Time: 8 minutes

Lifelong lessons no kid should ever have to learn.

“Teddy, what’s three times five?” It’s asked in a voice I can’t ignore.

“Fifteen.”

“And what’s four times five?” More demanding now.

“Twenty,” I say, dreading the next question, knowing exactly where he’s going with this. Knowing, too, that tears are about to spill.

They do.

“Okay crybaby, what’s four times six?”

I think the right answer is just four higher than the last one–or is it six higher?–but I can’t think, and instead I feel a yawn coming. The body’s same self-sabotaging illogic that’s got me crying as the worst imaginable moment. Yawning will really piss him off.

I lose out to the yawn.

“Bored stupid, are you? Or just plain dumb? You’ll never get through the fourth grade!” Dad’s voice is rising now. And here it is: “You stupid little shit.”

Bullying is a form of violence. It’s intended to dominate a victim into submission. When we’re under attack our rational minds shut down, moving into their self-protective “fight-or-flight” modes. (We typically learn about this process in high-school biology class, as I’d wind up discovering five years after passing the fourth grade, no thanks to my father.) When we can’t fight or run away, we freeze or surrender. These are normal human responses to being in danger.

My dad was a bully. And experiences like learning my multiplication tables taught me a lot about bullying. His attacks drove away any possibility of remembering what four times anything was. It gave him absolute power over me. It still pains me to write this, to recall the deep well of absolute despair he’d plunge me into. The whole exercise wasn’t about learning; it was about him being “smarter” than I was, and proving it by emotional blunt force, shattering any hope of returning back into the world as a normal kid.

Bullies bully to be in control because they feel powerless themselves. They bully not to inform, not to help. Theirs is never constructive criticism; it’s destructive criticism. (Even so, I never missed my father’s point: I needed to learn my multiplication tables and hadn’t put the time in.) I came to realize, as well, that bullying is situational; bullies usually only bully under certain circumstances. Somewhere deep down (and among other motivations having nothing to do with me), my father was afraid I wouldn’t be successful. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to help without demeaning and shaming me. If I resisted or didn’t respond, he could only escalate; for him, there was no gentler approach.

I wasn’t stupid, and I knew it even as he berated me. I was pretty sure I was smarter than most kids in my class. I also knew I was smarter than he was.

I wasn’t a crybaby, either. I knew I was just overwhelmed by my father’s ruthlessness. I’d seen my mother in tears from his cruelty, too.

Bullies follow patterns of their own design, inevitably turning their victims into skilled observers of human behavior. I compiled a mental encyclopedia of all the situations that might trigger my dad and did everything I could to avoid them. Looking back, it’s easy to see that I developed anti-bullying techniques unconsciously, purely out of survival. I couldn’t change my father and I couldn’t leave him. But I learned through trial and error how to reduce my vulnerability. These are a few of the rules I’d cobbled together by age 11 or 12:

Keep your distance. I stayed away from my dad as much as possible, and I made plans to leave home as soon as possible.

Flatter. When I had to spend time with my father, I praised his strengths to keep him from finding fault with me. The flattery, combined with sidestepping sensitive subjects, actually created a workable dynamic between us much of the time.

Tell someone when you can. Once after getting caught running away from home, I asked the priest of our church for help. I knew that using an authority my father would respect could help keep him in check for a while.

My father’s bullying was out in the open, overt and aggressive. There was nothing subtle about it, and my resistance strategies were just as makeshift as you’d expect from a kid weathering that type of crossfire. But they kept me going. In the business world, I later found, bullying is usually (but not always) more masked, and more sophisticated.

Bullying to curry favor

At first I think it’s my fault, but after six months in my first professional position I realize my new boss is sneaky, deceptive, and mean. He takes credit for others’ work and demeans his staff in public.

He invents infractions to accuse his team members of when his superiors are around. He seems motivated to build his reputation as a hard-driving manager focused intently on continuous improvement–the favored leadership style of the moment. Any attempt to protest earns swift humiliation and blame. We staffers resort to total passivity to survive.

“People leave bosses, not jobs,” they say, and it’s true. I quit after nine months.

Bullying to seem smart

It’s years later. I’m running a design firm. No one on my staff is as poised or confident as Gretchen when interacting with clients. But her coworkers are starting to resist joining her on projects. I suspect something is wrong, but Gretchen is responsible for substantial billings. People who can manage clients are hard to find and harder to replace. So I bury my concerns.

Then two designers approach me to speak about her confidentially.

“Ted, she gets us to contribute designs on her projects,” Terry starts. “She adds our best ideas to her solutions. Then she presents using our work to get the client to see the benefits of hers.”

Sally agrees. “She has an imperialistic style with us. She’s superior and disdainful, and she ignores our comments. She even rolls her eyes when we try to speak up. Once she made me work all night after I’d critiqued her solution.”

I realize that I’ve avoided giving my star player the corrective feedback she needs. I’ve been too afraid of losing her. I make an appointment to speak with Gretchen the next day. When I offer some gentle pointers about working more collaboratively, she seems receptive, and I feel relieved. Duty done.

Months pass, and I turn my attention elsewhere. Then Kay, one of my creative directors, appears at my door.

“Ted, Gretchen has to go, or I’m out of here.”

“What happened?” I ask, knowing the answer.

“I know you spent a bunch of time with Gretchen last fall, but nothing actually changed. She just got sneakier. She’ll never change.”

Gretchen doesn’t use profanity, name-call, or raise her voice like my father did. But she uses her position of authority to demean, dismiss, and dominate exactly like he did. Sadly, she’s equally incapable of seeing that she could get better results by working with her team than by bullying them.

I let Gretchen go the next day.

Bullying to hide insecurity

Paul is an account director with a bad habit: He makes creative commitments to clients without consulting his team, earning him the nickname “PowerPoint Paul,” because he once went into a slide deck overnight to change a design to something he thought the client would like better.

I call him on it. He launches into a series of justifications that in his mind made it okay to circumvent his team. Is he bullying them? Not exactly, but Paul’s knack for deceitfully taking control and undermining his colleagues isn’t far off the mark–and I suspect that his own lack of confidence is the culprit. Meanwhile, his coworkers feel powerless, forced to submit to his way of doing things.

When I describe to him a series of similar incidents I’d been made aware of, Paul starts crying. Once he recovers we map out a better way for him to approach the creative team with client concerns. With a bit of coaching and help from his colleagues, he’s eventually able to change tack and gradually rebuilds trust with his team. And I’m able to retain a talented account manager.

In the years since learning my multiplication tables and moving on to tackle Gretchen- and Paul-size problems, I’ve revised my playbook for handling bullies:

Remember it’s not about you. Bullies aren’t bullies out of nowhere. My dad was a war vet. We never talked about it, but he could very well have been suffering from post-traumatic stress. I later came to realize that his bullying, while painful for me, was really far more about him.

Observe, and plan an escape. Whenever my father was bullying me, I was unable to do anything but shut down and take it. But I always knew what was going on. Recognize the behavior you’re experiencing for what it is–and know that the trauma will pass. Then strategically plan your escape from the tyranny, like Kay managed to do. Commit to not weathering abuse indefinitely.

Find support. Bullies can leave you feeling ashamed or unworthy of others’ respect, and the tendency is to isolate yourself so others don’t see that. But seeking help and advice from trusted friends, peers, or a professional can help you find a path forward. Isolation will only drive you deeper into submission. If you decide to report the bully, choose an authority carefully–one who has the resources to assist you, confidentially if need be, and won’t make the situation worse (even unintentionally).

Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic that we’ll ever live in a bully-free world. But understanding bullies’ motivations, tactics, and patterns can help you contain and escape them.

For me, total escape from dad’s bullying didn’t come until I took my first professional position. I’d been slowly distancing myself from home, and him, for years–first with part-time jobs that paid for clothes and cars, and later with full-time summer employment that included room and board. But it was my first job as a design illustrator that allowed me to step away from him completely.

Best of all, my starting salary was more than he’d ever made. I calculated that one in my head without even trying.

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4 Comments

  • Here are some good examples of different ways of bullying at home and at work with insight into ‘understanding bullies’ motivations, tactics, and patterns (so) can help you contain and escape them.’ Nice article.

  • Trevor says:

    Interesting post. Your dad sounds exactly like my father. He use to tell me I would never amount to anything and that is pretty much what happened. I have a younger sister who was an overachiever and got straight As all through school and was the valedictorian of her class. She is now a corporate executive and is earning six figures. I barely managed to graduate in the top half of mine, and have been unemployed for years.

    As a kid he would constantly taunt me because I couldn’t spell (thank God for spell check), struggled with math and sucked at all sports. He would say stuff like “Your baby sister already knows her multiplication tables already why don’t you?” or “What the Hell is your problem, your baby sister can catch a football and hit a baseball why can’t you do it?” Well the reason I couldn’t catch a football or hit a baseball is because I was nearly blind in one eye!

    If I ever did anything wrong he would go into a raving tirade of cursing and telling me how stupid I was. He would be working on his truck, mom’s car, or the law mower or something and send me to go get a tool and if I couldn’t find it he would start ranting about how stupid I was even if it wasn’t where he told me it was. On more than one occasion he got so mad at me he roared “GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!!!”

    He was a workaholic and if I ever wanted to do something on weekends other than help him work, (like going to the river fishing with my friend and his “normal dad”) he would go into a rant about how lazy and trifling I was. The he would tell me how much work needed to be done around the house, and tried to make me feel guilty if I went anyway. If I ever talked back to him when he went into one of his tirades he would make me drop my pants and he beat me with a leather belt. One time the belt bruised my back and legs so bad I told the instructor of my swimming class at the YMCA I felt sick and thought i might puke in the pool so I wouldn’t have to change into my swim trunks because I figured people would notice the bruises. This happened until I was about 12, after that he would just threaten to send me to military school.

    When I had my first job out of college my first manager was exactly like my dad. One day at the close of business a hundred dollars was missing from the cash register and he went into a tirade and accused me of stealing the money in front of several other co-workers at the store. Then I found the hundred dollars that was missing, (a hundred dollar bill in the safe), and he admitted that he forgot he had taken it out of he cash register drawer and put it there. He didn’t apologize and I was so furious I didn’t care if he fired be because I had been accepted to graduate school and was planning to leave anyway. I would have taken the abuse from my dad but not this guy. I took that hundred dollar bill and waved it in front of his face and screamed at him DON’T YOU EVER F–KING ACCUSE ME OF STEALING EVER AGAIN!!! Most of my coworkers saw this exchange and couldn’t believe I stood up to him because none of them had the balls to or needed their paychecks too bad to risk getting fired.

    He didn’t fire me because he couldn’t, he also never bullied me again! I was in the management training program and had been sent to work there by his bosses in the head office and the last thing he wanted to do was rock the boat by trying to get them to fire a management trainee that they had hired.

    I eventually figured out why the guy had made my life a living Hell. He was older, had no college degree, and thought he was being forced by his bosses in the corporate headquarters to train his replacement, ME! He should have realized that they must have thought he was a good manager or they never would have sent me there to learn from him! I am pretty sure it was a happy day for him when I tendered my resignation after almost year working there to return to go graduate school.

    Despite having a graduate degree from a top university and nearly a decade of professional experience I have been out of work ever since I was laid off a decade ago at age 35 during the recession because I have no idea how to find a job in the 21st century because I have no idea how to connect with people or network. I have never been married and have never had a relationship with a woman because I just can’t connect with people on that level. At one point I thought maybe I was gay so I tried dating guys but quickly found I couldn’t connect with men either. I think because of my father’s constant bullying I learned at a very young age to isolate myself and keep everyone at arms length. As a result at age 46 I have few friends or social contacts and spend most of my time alone.

    Fortunately I made some sound investments in the stock market back during the decade I was working and earning a decent income and inherited a house and enough money from my maternal grandparents that I really don’t really need to work for a living. My parents are in their 70s and 80s and worth millions so I probably will never have to work again if I can avoid making my dad mad enough to disinherit me.

    I do not know what turned my father into the tyrant that he was and still is. He is a Vietnam era veteran but was stationed in Europe for the duration of his military service. Based on the number of photos he took it appears that his tour of duty was basically a two year all expense paid European vacation courtesy of Uncle Sam, so service related PTSD is pretty much out of the question.

    My paternal grandfather died when I was very young and I barely remember him so I have no idea what kind of temperament he had. I do know that my grandfather was probably smarter than my dad based on his major in college and his choice of career. I also know that my father ran away from home more than once as a kid so perhaps my grandpa was a tyrant who bullied him too. After my dad flunked out of college my grandpa called up one of his friends on the local draft board and had them revoke his academic deferment.

    When I was a teen, my father used to say “I wish there were still a draft in this country because the Army would straighten you out.” Once when he made that comment I said “If they try to draft me I will just go up to Canada” That set him off, and he went into a tirade about what a sissy, cowardly, unpatriotic piece of excrement I was and said “If you do that I will drive up there and bring you back and deliver you to the drill Sergeants at Fort Benning myself!” I think he really wished he could do the exact same thing to me that his father had done to him and perhaps that is exactly what he did, with the exception of arranging my conscription into the military.

    I am what he made me, and that is a complete and total failure in life. He told me I would never amount to anything and well, I haven’t! At least since I have no wife and no kids the vicious cycle of bullying and abuse ends with me!

    • Ted says:

      Thank you for sharing these painful details, Trevor. What helped me deal with the damage left from my childhood and build the self esteem necessary to cope with the world was therapy. I can still feel the pain but now I understand why I am the way I am vastly better.

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