Bullying doesn’t hurt you just when you’re a kid. In fact, the impact of childhood bullying can haunt you long past school years and well into adulthood. Recent research shows that bullying can cause social anxiety, shame, anger, and low self-esteem in adults, and as a result, individuals who were once bullied may continue making "safe" or "defensive" choices instead of choosing bolder, more beneficial options.
If you were bullied as a child, chances are you still bear those scars as an adult. I recall feeling unwanted, unloved, and even inhuman due to the bullying I experienced in my early years in an orphanage in Tanzania. Those feelings sink in, but you absolutely cannot let them control your adult life! The good news is you can reinvent yourself and overcome even extreme bullying when you let go of past abuse.
My new book, Africa’s Child describes how I was routinely and savagely beaten by my peers as a young child. For years, the older girls forced me to be their servant, and I was kicked and smacked when I didn’t oblige their orders. These same "big girls" forced the younger orphans and me to fight each other for their entertainment; and at night I was regularly dragged out of bed for more beatings. Eventually, I spoke up to the nuns about the abuse, but was brutally retaliated against by the same vicious girls.
Through determination and hard work, today I am thriving, successful, and strong in spite of my difficult upbringing. I insist that you cannot let a victimhood mentality control your life. Instead, you must do the (sometimes tough) internal work to foster your confidence and happiness. Here are nine tips on releasing the pain caused by the bullies in your past once and for all.
1. Share your painful experiences with others to heal. As you recover from any past trauma, it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone. Whenever I speak about being bullied, I’m always amazed to learn that many others have been affected by bullying as well. Sharing my story has helped me more than anything. Be sure to talk through the painful parts of your past with someone you trust.
“These same "big girls" forced the younger orphans and me to fight each other for their entertainment; and at night I was regularly dragged out of bed for more beatings.”
2. Release worn-out emotions that still control you. Pent up emotions from old traumas can control your life if you let them. When you survive something awful, you could justify being a miserable person, but it is courageous to release old pain and stop it from ruining your life. If you’ve been bullied, work hard to consciously let go of anger and depression that still lingers, and you will be a happier person. Having said that, remember that you cannot fully "forget" the pain of bullying because it is part of your life’s experience.
3. Live wholeheartedly in the present. Keep reminding yourself that you were bullied in the past, and that today you are safe and in control of your life. As an adult, every time you talk about the bullying, you will relive it, because it is the nature of the beast. But don’t let it define you.
4. Love and believe in yourself unconditionally. As a child, "Fat Mary" (the nickname given to me by the nuns) created another "Fat Mary"—part friend, part consoler, part counselor—to hold my sorrows, traumas, and joys until I was able to understand them. Fat Mary was a steadfast source of love that carried me through the highs and lows of my life.
“Pent up emotions from old traumas can control your life if you let them.”
Your survival in life depends on finding a way to believe that you are worthy of love and goodness. At the end of the day, you create the life you are living, because no one else is responsible for how you feel. Choose to love yourself as much as you possibly can today, and you will discover the surprising depths of your strength.
5. Force yourself to make "uncomfortable" choices. People who were bullied as children may be afraid to make beneficial, bold decisions as adults; instead they make small, safe choices, which squelches their potential. To combat this tendency, force yourself to step outside your comfort zone and make choices that scare you. Ask for that raise, join the soccer league, start your dream business. These moves will further help you develop confidence and trust yourself.
6. Find confidence through movement, like dance. Throughout childhood, I relied on the joy of dance to sustain me, often sneaking away to observe the tribal dances of Africans living nearby.
Dancing released my pain, brought me joy, and restored my energy and enthusiasm for life. I will always be grateful to this form of expression for bringing balance and perspective to my life.
Dancing is my lifelong passion, as well as a way to work through my painful upbringing. I suggest daily walking, dancing, or another form of exercise as a confidence builder for anyone affected by childhood bullies.
7. Treat others with compassion. Being bullied in the past has likely expanded your capacity for empathy and compassion, as you have personally been on the receiving end of unnecessary cruelty. For this reason, be kind and gentle with everyone you meet, and spread love instead of blame.
8. Talk to the kids in your life about bullying. Even though you can’t undo your own past, be sure to have frequent meaningful conversations to teach your children empathy (the antithesis of bullying). If you feel comfortable doing so, share your own experiences from bullying, and explain that even kids can take accountability for their actions and should choose to be kind and caring.
“It was as if I were looking out at my persecutors with eyes of stone.”
9. Be proud of the resilience you’ve earned from your difficult past. Realize your experiences were and continue to be an opportunity for growth. Getting bullied eventually made me a strikingly resilient person. In fact, these early challenges are what gave me the courage and determination to live boldly.
Bullying by peers is tough, but eventually I found a space of no fear within myself. It was as if I were looking out at my persecutors with eyes of stone. No matter how badly I was beaten, no one could ever again reach my center and hurt my core. I became free.
If you let bullying from long ago impact how you live and feel today, you are selling yourself short. And how do you let go of past bullying? By believing once and for all that the bullied child does not define you! Separate what you hold true about yourself, based on the life you have lived, from what the bully says you are. Love yourself unconditionally! When you release the past and create the life you want today, you reclaim your power. In honor of National Bullying Prevention Month, let us all choose to escape the bullies of our past for good.
Maria Nhambu is the author of "Africa’s Child," the first book of the Dancing Soul Trilogy, as well as a speaker, dancer, and educator. Born in Tanzania, East Africa, and raised in an orphanage run by German nuns for mixed-race children, she sustained her spirit through dance and kept alive her dream of further education in the United States. There she created the popular workout based on African dance (Aerobics With Soul). To learn more about Nhambu, please visit www.marianhambu.com.