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Bullying: Responsibility

The Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang recently had an article about a psychologist, practicing cognitive therapy, making a statement about the victims of bullying needing to take responsibility to change their thought pattern so that they don't feel like victims.

He also went further, saying that verbal bullying has great resemblance to freedom of expression. Because often, WHAT is being said is not actually illegal.

This caused a bit of a stir. The office of the Children's Ombudsman responded with a letter stating that bullying is NOT freedom of expression, and that it is never the victim's responsibility that bullying occurs. In an anti-bullying forum on Facebook, several people obviously sided with the Ombudsman, some even making statements about the doctor that resemble, well, verbal bullying. How dare he blame the victims? The victim is never at fault. (The moderator, I'm happy to say, understood exactly what the doc was sayin')

I believe, however, that the doctor is right, and that the Ombudsman and the others who respond negatively are simply blinded by the attitude that the bully has the entire blame for the bullying. Because what they make so much noise about is not really about anything the good doctor has said.

Freedom of expression

Yes, verbal bullying can be compared to freedom of expression. Let me explain how.

In a very simple explanation of psychology, something happens, this thing means something to you, the meaning generates an emotion, and you act on the emotion. Your action then causes something else to happen, which means something - and so on.

First scenario: "Something happening" might be that a bully tells you you're worthless. In your mind, this statement might be a confirmation about your idea that you are worthless. This gives you pain, and you start crying. Bully scored!

Second scenario: "Something happening" might be that someone drew a made a movie depicting Muhammad as a child molestor, and you learn that the US government is showing this movie in all TV channels in the USA. In your mind, this seems to indicate that the US government is building up a consensus to attack your country, and you and your family will be killed. So you become outraged and go put the American Embassy in flames.

The power of verbal bullying lies in the second stage: what this means to you, and the emotion attached to this meaning. And you have the power to change that meaning. So let us try the first scenario again with a different meaning:

Bully tells you that you're worthless. In your mind, you realize that the bully is trying to tear you down, so that he can feel good about himself, and so you get a feeling of petty and decide to give him a hug, telling him he doesn't have to tear other people down to get hugs, all he has to do is ask.


The thing is, the only person who can change what something means to you is yourself. Noone can do it for you, and therefore you are responsible for the change to happen. This also means that the victim is responsible for the change to happen within themselves. This is what the good doctor is trying to convey, and it is absolutely true.

But it is not the full story.

Newborn children does not understand these concepts. They learn from the people around them. And the people around them are usually not cognitive therapists. So if we want to instill the non-bully behaviour in our children and thereby create a better, bully free society, we all have to take responsibility to increase our own knowledge and skills, so that we can become better role models for our children.

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